Monday, June 27, 2016

Sheep or Saints; Herd Animals or a Royal Priesthood?

The references are more than numerous in both testaments. God's people, be they Hebrew or Christian, regularly get compared to a flock of sheep. Their leadership are regularly called shepherds. There are many reasons for this. People and sheep have much in common.

Sheep are stupid.
Sheep have herd instincts that can bring disaster if not managed by the shepherd.
Sheep stink.
Sheep are dependent.
Sheep get sick and die easily.
Sheep are a great source of wealth.
Sheep can get themselves in trouble easily.
And some say that sheep, and particularly lambs, were created by God for sacrifice as needed.

Shepherds were charged with the care and feeding of the sheep. The rod or staff were for gentle correction and leading of the flock. The shepherd's work was peaceful and pastoral, but it also involved protection of the flock from predators and thieves. A good shepherd would know his sheep. They may look all the same to us, but to the shepherd they are as individual as you and me. To be a shepherd, you have to know and love your sheep.

Christ is the Good Shepherd of His people, the church. You may recall, at the close of the gospel of John, Jesus reinstates Peter after his night of denial and fear. He tells Peter three times, "if you love me, feed my sheep." It was a not so veiled reference to the coming Church. Big changes were coming for Peter and the boys and they had to get their acts together. God was about to take for Himself a new flock that would one day encompass the whole earth. Why one would entrust a group of fisherman, tax collectors and nere-do-wells for this task is beyond me, but it worked out.

The analogy of the sheep and shepherd(s) is a good one for the the church, but it falls short if Christ's vision for the Church is ever going to be realized to any degree. You see, in the Church, the shepherds have a much more complex job. Being a shepherd in God's Church is more than watching over a group of dumb animals unless that's what you turn it into. What's more, the shepherds in God's Church were not born shepherds - they used to be sheep. Which begs the question, "How the heck did that happen?"

Paul says this in Ephesians 4:11-16,

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

There is much more than proper animal husbandry going on here. Our jobs as pastors and teachers in the church is much more complex than making sure the herd stays in the pasture and the predators are at bay. We have to teach and train our sheep. We have to teach and train them so they can become us and much more, so they can become like Christ. This is a duty passing sacred and holy and for which, if we do not do it correctly, we will have to answer to the Chief Shepherd. It's a big deal!

Peter gives us more evidence about who we are in Christ and what we are to become and it is much more than a herd of woolly, stinky, stupid mammals. I Peter 2:9,10:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Again, this is a big deal. How do you turn herd animals into a royal priesthood - a kingdom of priests? Presumably, our task is to facilitate Christ, taking them from being sheep to being priests - quite a transformation. We serve to turn lambs into a holy nation - God's special possession. 

Did you get that last bit, you pastors and teachers? They are not our lambs! They belong to Yahweh and they are a rare and special possession that He cherishes. A Holy Nation!

Do you understand the gravity of the work we are charged with? What did John say in Revelation 1?

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

To this I say, let us not take our work lightly. It is a gravely serious responsibility. Get to know your sheep. Learn who they are and love them. Train them. Teach them. Someday they will have to be priests (and pastors and teachers). 

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