This post was originally posted on ChristianStewardshipCoaching.com October 12, 2014.
As I reflected on the readings of Acts 4:7-11, Psalm 23, John 10:1-16 and 1 John 15:9-17 just heard and prayed long and hard about what message I should craft I realized that these passages spoke to me about being a Christian Leader. What’s more they spoke to me about being a Congregation that serves Christ. Now at first this may seem a bit of a stretch, or perhaps it doesn’t.
I hear in these four passages an echo of the mission statement of the Methodist Church:
To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But I mean we have Acts 4:7-11 where we hear Peter speak of being “questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick” and he speaks of Jesus being the “stone that was rejected by you…it has become the cornerstone.” Then in Psalm 23 and again in John 10:1-16 we hear references to being a shepherd and sheep. In 1st John 15:13 we hear how we can recognize love when we lay down our lives for one another.
Now me, I have the gift of cynicism, so at first I was thinking…well I was thinking…what were they thinking when these four readings were tied together? I mean I can see the connections between Acts and 1st John but I’m sort of at a loss what to do with the references to sheep and shepherding. I knew this meant that I wasn’t going deep enough in prayer and thought. So I did what I try to always do when faced with a conundrum, gather information, think, and pray. Now I’ll be honest sometimes I forget to do all three of these, and without fail, when I leave one out I get myself in trouble. Especially if the one I leave out is prayer. I knew that I had to learn more about…shepherds and sheep.
So I did a little thinking and some Googling.
Turns out that shepherding was a vital task in Biblical times. Often performed by the youngest sons, those that would not inherit land, but other times being done by wage earning hired hands. Sheep were vital to the success and survival of many of the early communities in the Middle East. Unfortunately sheep are, well, stupid. So in Psalms when God is defined as a shepherd I realized that it was a model of servant leadership.
It says he “maketh me lie down in green pastures (provides food), he leads me beside still waters (provides water)” a culture that takes care of sheep will realize what this means. See sheep, unlike cattle or horses or goats, won’t actually seek out food and water themselves. Even more a “lost sheep” won’t find its own way home. In some cases sheep will die if they go without water for a day. So the passage takes on a resonance if you realize that in the eyes of Christ Jesus we are all sheep.
We need the comfort of Christ as an example of what it means to be a Christian Leader.
It means providing care for others, loving others well. That does NOT mean always giving in; Christian is not Latin for Wimp. As an example of that, the sentence “your rod and your staff they comfort me” helps me understand this. A shepherd’s staff in historical times for a shepherd was a stick with a bend or crook in the end that was used to guide the sheep gently, by hooking them in when they began to wander away, most of us have seen this in the emblem of a shepherd’s crook. Why then does it also mention a rod? The rod was a short club that would be used to both correct the sheep (with a gentle, or at times not so gentle, rap) and to defend the sheep against wolves and other predators.
Now with this history ringing in my ears I looked further at John 10. It made me feel better. Better, because in case you didn’t notice, the shepherd above was the Lord and we were the sheep. Now spiritually I know beyond any intellectual knowledge that I am a sheep to the Lord, I won’t speak for anyone else, since earlier I pointed out that sheep were, well, stupid. So emotionally admitting that I’m a sheep, well it’s a bit hard, despite the fact that it is clearly, totally true.
The answer to one of the Christian questions I posed, we are all sheep.
Or maybe I’m the only person that has ever been a sheep. In John I found reference to being more than the sheep, to being the Shepherd. What’s more it makes it clear that we have to act as owners, as family (those youngest sons I spoke of) not as hired hands that run away at the first sign of trouble. Instead we have to act as a “good shepherd”. WE have to be willing to lay down our lives for sheep.
What’s more it includes two groups of sheep those that belong to THIS fold and those that do NOT belong to this fold. This is talking about personal Christian leadership to me, as well as Congregational Leadership in serving Christ. The idea of serving those that are within our mission field, both within the current congregation (those that belong to THIS fold) and the larger community (those that do NOT belong to this fold). How do we do this, by being willing to “lay down our life in order to take it up again” seeking to become one flock with one shepherd (Jesus Christ).
So what does laying down your life of your own accord mean?
As a Christian man, newly come back to Christ (and aren’t we all really just newly come back to Christ.) I constantly feel the pressure to be “Christ Like” to be willing to do what Peter speaks of in Acts to “seek salvation in Jesus” and to do good works, not for any glory, but for the glory of Christ. When I turn to my wife and family I see in their eyes the need that I have to be a good Shepherd to serve them well as someone who is willing to “lay down my life in order to take it up again” as is spoken of in John.
Now one example for why that is important I’ve got is here today, but was born 9 years ago today. My son and my wife look to me every day. When I falter from the path they falter. But when I stay standing on the cornerstone that is Christ, they stand strong. I find myself most proud when I look into my son’s room and see him there reading his devotional or helping his mother out with chores without being asked. I know deep in my heart that he is growing into a fine Christian man, and that pushes me further to be a little better than I believe I can be.
I believe deep in my heart that this feeling belongs to all Christians when we look both at our immediate family and when we look across to the wider family of the Body of Christ and probably even more importantly when we look out at the “sheep not yet of this fold” and realize that we are called to be willing to lay down our lives for them as well. So although I come to this as a Christian man I believe this applies to all Christians man or woman.
Beyond what we hear as Christian men and women I also hear echoes of the one thing that the Church universal has that is unique to the Church.
We are the only community that exists for others not for itself. We offer relationships, relationships with each other and more vitally relationships with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We can measure success by the number, strength, and growth in these relationships for those that do belong to this fold and those that do not belong to this fold. In some sense we are all shepherds called to care for the flock, how do we do this?
Well as Methodist we VOW that we will serve with our Prayers, our Presences, our Gifts, our Service, and our Witness. These are the ways we, as Christians and as Methodist, say we will build relationships. Why? The United Methodist Church is being called to Action to be a Church that will address the challenges of today by growing relationships and vitality in our congregations so that we can make disciples engaged in the transformation of the world.
The web site UMVitalCongregations.org says...
That Vital Congregations are ones that have Strong Small Group Ministries and a strong Children’s/youth ministry (I would say this is both Presence and Service as well as Witness). Vital congregations have Inviting and Inspiring Worship (I would say this is Presence, for without worshipers how can worship be inspiring or inviting?). Vital congregations have Engaged disciples in mission and outreach (most definitely a form of service). Vital congregations have Gifted, Empowered, and Equipped Lay Leadership as well as Effective Equipped and Inspired Clergy Leadership (These both serve to be Presence, Prayers, Service, and Witness).
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The book [easyazon_link asin=”0687645409″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”focusintenc0b-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations[/easyazon_link] by Robert Schnase puts it this way: Fruitful Congregations have Intentional Faith development (Prayers), Passionate Worship (Presence), Extravagant Generosity (Gifts), and Risk-taking mission and service (Service).
Regardless of how you put it, all of this comes back to serving as a Pastor (Shepherd) for the flock that belongs to this fold, and for the flock that does NOT belong to this fold. So that there will be ONE flock, ONE Shepherd. We have to do this as individuals, as families, as men, as women, as children, as sheep of the one Shepherd, and as shepherds ourselves. In this way we can continue to serve Christ. In this way we can continue to be Christian Leaders. In this way we can continue to be the Body of Christ.