April 17, 2016 Text: Acts 20:17-35
Dear Friends in Christ,
Back in April of 1977 the Broadway musical Annie debuted. It’s the story of an orphan girl living in New York City during the Depression, hoping she’ll one day be with her parents, whom she believes are still alive. She and her fellow orphans are under the care of a woman who doesn’t love them or care for them, and some people prey on Annie, trying to get money by pretending to be her parents. Those who should care for her don’t. In fact, instead of shepherds, they are like wolves.
Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders are about proper love and care for those entrusted to them. We are spiritual orphans in need of a loving heavenly Father. The image on Good Shepherd Sunday of Jesus as a shepherd caring for us is expanded in the role of those undershepherds who watch over the flock of God’s people. We are called to that relationship of caring for those wherever we are. But there are challenges and so let’s talk about . . .
“SHEPHERDING AMONG WOLVES”
We thank God that He has made us shepherds and sheep together, like Paul and the Ephesians. The call of the faithful Pastor is to preach the whole counsel of God for the good of His sheep. This had been Paul’s work for three years in Ephesus. This is my call here at Good Shepherd.
The call includes testing and tears. Paul faced theological questions, objectors, and a mob. In a sinful world, Pastors and congregations do have heartache and difficulty. Sometimes the heartache is within as people drift away from the Gospel or as we watch personal situations tear at our heartstrings and we find no easy answers to help. Sometimes the heartache is from the outside as people question our stance on marriage or communion or fellowship or creation or even the divinity of Christ.
Yet what a joyful relationship God has established for shepherd and sheep. Paul thanked God for his ministry. I thank God for the three churches I have been privileged to serve in almost 25 years as a shepherd. The joys and sorrows of ministry are strong when realizing what is at stake – the eternal salvation of souls.
We acknowledge that God sometimes leads shepherds and their sheep to different pastures. Paul acknowledged that the Spirit was leading him away from Ephesus to other things. What happened to him was not as significant as the Word being preached faithfully. The Spirit guides Pastors and people into new places of services. Sometimes it is a call for the Pastor, many times as we have see in our own congregation it is families moving away for work.
In any case, God continues to care for both his shepherds and sheep – even in difficult times. Difficult times lay ahead for both Paul and the Ephesian Church. Paul is off to Jerusalem not knowing what dangers he would be facing. Wolves would attack the Ephesians. There are wolves within and outside of congregations who prey upon the sheep and who demand the best efforts of the shepherd to fight off.
Every false doctrine rends and tears to the degree that it is false. It is most destructive when it parades as the true teaching of Christ or of his apostles. One fang or false doctrine may cause faith to bleed to death. The wolves are ready to attack and we must be careful.
What happens to us is we get caught wandering. Wandering toward the greener grass of worldly goods or a catchier sounding philosophy or religion. We wander from God’s house, losing confidence that his simple Word and Sacrament are the richest table anyone could ever spread before us. Oh, the wolves of deceit that dance in our own minds.
But we have a Shepherd who has given his best effort to fight off the wolves that attack us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep. Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated Satan and all his henchwolves. God gives us the grace of Christ’s cross – forgiveness and life everlasting – through the hard work of faithful ministry: preaching, baptizing, distributing Jesus’ body and blood. But the key is this: in that hard work of ministry we call attention to Jesus’ work, not ours.
In the midst of attacks working in God’s service is a blessing. “More blessed to give than to receive.” (v. 35) Ministry often calls us to times where we are blessed by serving. Conducting a funeral for a faithful child of God. Coming in contact with students from around the world through serving a meal or having them stay in our home. Giving our time or blood in the service of our fellow man. Sharing God’s Word with a sick friend or family member. Reaching out in love to the sheep that have wandered away.
The musical Annie ends up with the last predators, the last wolves pretending to be her parents, under arrest, while Annie and her fellow orphans go to live with Daddy Warbucks – an incredibly wealthy man who truly loves them. Life doesn’t always work out like a Broadway musical. But in the Church, we – Pastor and people, shepherd and sheep – stick together through very real spiritual danger, all the while knowing, though, that our Good Shepherd has already apprehended our enemies and that our Father has unending joys waiting for us.