by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 5.1-4 (click to see Scripture text)
Craig Parton is an attorney who serves as the United States Director of the International Academy of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France. In his book, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel, Parton describes his often frustrating and exhausting journey from unexamined atheism to a faith in which he could finally find rest.
It was through an evangelical church that God got a hold of Parton and made him a Christian. Soon after converting, however, Parton says he was dismayed to discover that much of modern American Christianity is really an exhausting treadmill of personal self-improvement, striving to fulfill laws and rules, and a roller-coaster ride chasing one spiritual high to the next, always seeking but never fully satisfied.
He’d found God, but he had not yet found the Gospel.
“I experienced what happens when the Law and the Gospel are not understood and thus not distinguished. My Christian life, which truly had begun by grace, was now being “perfected” on the treadmill of the Law. My pastors did not end their sermons by demanding that I recite the rosary or make a pilgrimage to Lourdes this week in order to unleash God’s power; instead, I was told to yield more, to pray more, to care about unbelievers more, to read the Bible more, to get involved with the church more, to love my wife more, to love my kids more.
Not until some 20 years later, did I understand that my Christian life had come to center around my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, and my sermon application.
Allegedly, I had advanced beyond the need to hear the Gospel preached to me anymore. Of course, we all knew that Jesus had died for our sins, and none of us would ever argue that we were trying to “merit” salvation. But something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one.
I was supposed to show that I had cleaned up my life and was at least grateful for all the gifts that had been bestowed. The Gospel was critical to me at the beginning, critical now to share with others, and still critical to get me into heaven, but it was of little other value. The “evangel” in Evangelicalism had gone missing”
Evangel means “good news.”
The preachers at the back end of the New Testament can sound like the kind of preaching that left Craig Parton feeling exhausted and accused.
For example, the Apostle Timothy preaches about the kinds of husbands and wives and teachers and parents and children we ought to be.
The Apostle Jude has some stern words for Jerry Falwell the Lesser.
The Apostle James scolds us to tame our tongues. I mean— if we could successfully apply to our lives all these preachers’ exhortations, then what would we be doing in a church listening to a preacher in the first place?
If we were the kinds of people who could actually pull all this together, then we would not be the kinds of people who require a crucified savior.
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just from the last six months of trying to prevent my family from becoming a corona-themed version of the Donner Party.
Preachers like the Apostles Jude and Timothy, with their Do Better, Be Better messages, can take a hike, because just getting by is about the best I can do right now.
And the dirty little secret— That’s true in normal times, too.
Just getting by, it’s about the best any of us can do.
And that’s the problem with preaching the Law.
It assumes those who hear it can do it, but even scripture tells us that the Law is powerless to produce what the Law commands.
But— admittedly— when you listen to the Apostle Peter, it can feel like you’ve stepped onto a treadmill. Sometimes, it can sound like the evangel has gone missing in his evangelism.
Peter’s already wagged his finger at us about our marriages and our parenting and our politics, and here near the end of his epistle it sounds like more of the same. Peter gets down to brass tacks and gives marching orders for church leaders, the elders.
Addressing the presbyterous, Peter calls them to shepherd the flock in a manner that reflects the character and example of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Church leaders, Peter admonishes today, should be servant leaders, exercising their oversight by stooping down in humility.
That language of tending the flock and shepherding— obviously, it’s owed to Jesus, but Jesus takes it from the prophet Isaiah where it refers specifically to Israel’s vocation to feed and care for the poor and the vulnerable among them.
Within the organization of the Church, then, it’s the responsibility of the elders to shepherd the flock and they should do so in a manner consistent with the Good Shepherd.
On its face, by definition, today’s text is not Gospel because it’s not a message for everyone. It’s for the members of the church council, the “elders,” but it’s not Gospel because it’s not a promise for you and the whole world with you.
In order to hear this passage as Gospel rather than Law, in order to hear this passage as pointing to a promise for you rather than a command for some, you need to go back to its original context in the Book of Acts.
In the Book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit quickly dispatches preachers.
The Gospel cut many to the heart, the Apostle Luke reports, and in short order thousands were added to the Church’s number.
It’s been only a few months since Good Friday but, according to Luke, what had been a community of one hundred and twenty on Pentecost now numbers over eight thousand.
And that’s just the men. Soon, the Church grew beyond the administrative capacity of the apostles. So, in Acts 6, Peter calls a meeting.
This is the first official meeting called by the First Church.
And, like many church meetings, it’s prompted by complaints— gripes that the church’s relentless reaching out with the Gospel is harming how well the church cares for its members, particularly the poor and vulnerable in the congregation.
That most familiar of complaints in the church, it turns out, is also the oldest of complaints in the church.
Caring for the needy had always been the apostles’ job.
But as the church grew, the job grew beyond what a handful of apostles could do. It wasn’t long before Gentile and Jewish-Christian church members started to complain that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
Which was no small complaint because widows, in the ancient world, were synonymous with “the poor.” If widows didn’t have a son to depend on, they didn’t have anyone, except the Church.
So, it’s no idle complaint.
Once the grumbling makes its way through the grapevine, the First Church does what any church would do. They call a meeting.
And apparently, according to St. Luke, the apostles were not much for group process because right off the bat the apostles begin the meeting by saying, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word in order to wait on tables.”
“It would not be right for us to neglect the preaching of the Gospel in order to wait on tables.”
That’s pretty strong.
In other words, “We would be doing the wrong thing to continue caring for the widows.”
In other words, “We cannot afford to spend our time serving the needy.”
In other words, “There’s another mission that’s more urgent.”
In other words: the apostles would never get ordained in the United Methodist Church.
The apostles have the stones to take a complaint about how they’re not taking care of their own, and they boldly turn it into a reminder that their first and overriding calling as a Church isn’t to take care of their own— or, even, to provide for the poor. It’s to proclaim the Gospel.
That’s pretty strong.
It’s even stronger when you remember that Mary, the mother of Jesus, the God-bearer, was a member of that First Church.
Mary is one of the widows they’re talking about.
So, in other words, the apostles are saying, “It would not be right for us to continue caring for the mother of Jesus at the expense of sharing the Gospel about Jesus.”
Before Peter and the other apostles leave that First Church meeting, they create a new leadership office, and they commission seven believers, chosen by the congregation from among the congregation, to serve as presbyterous, who will feed and tend the flock.
You see, the leadership law that Peter lays down in our text today is actually in service to the Gospel. The apostles authorize the elders to serve the flock; so that, the Church is free to serve the Word.
My first church was a small congregation in New Jersey, off a highway outside Princeton, tucked away in farmland that developers were rapidly gobbling up.
I was still a student without a shred of experience.
The bishop was desperate for someone, anyone, to take this church.
And I was the only cash-poor rube who’d said yes.
The bishop foisted me on this congregation having known me for all of ten minutes.
After I’d said yes, as a sort of pep talk, I’ve never forgotten, the bishop said: “Don’t worry. It’s the kind of church you can make all your first mistakes in and it won’t matter.”
Wouldn’t you be thrilled to hear your bishop say that about you?!
Of course, what the bishop told the congregation, I later learned, was something to the contrary.
When I first met the church’s lay leader, who was also the church’s organist, who was also the church’s Sunday School Superintendent, who was also the wife of the church’s special guest accordion player (special guest though he played every Sunday service), she told me that the bishop had told them that it was their job to teach me how to be a preacher.
An unhelpful lie that would eventually be my undoing.
Those summer Sundays were something like a honeymoon period where they discovered that a pastor with an earring wasn’t the end of the world, and I discovered that accordion-based worship music was as close to Hell as I’d ever like to get.
It wasn’t until the Fall that the honeymoon ended, and I heard the first complaints.
They came up at a church council meeting.
We met in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee.
After Irma, the lay leader, read an excruciatingly long devotional from Chicken Soup for the Christian Grandmother’s Soul, we moved on to the “agenda.”
We talked about the sanctuary curtains and whether they needed to be replaced.
After it was finally decided— by a narrow vote— that yes, they needed to be replaced, we moved on to what color the new curtains should be, a conversation that lasted…oh, I don’t know…an ETERNITY.
We talked about the organ needing to be tuned.
We talked about replacing the church windows so they could be historically accurate thereby enabling the church to get on the historic registry.
We talked about doing a fundraiser in the community to pay for the windows.
We talked about the two kids, count them two kids, in worship that were deemed to be “disruptive” by the older folks.
And after they complained about the kids, they complained about me.
It started when Irma not-so-innocently passed around a list of the church’s shut-ins.
“We figured the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list,” she said pointedly. “Our last pastor made sure they were all visited every week.”
“Oh,” I said, “Who visits them?”
“The preacher, of course!” said Andy, who was the Chair of the Trustees.
The shut-in list was numbered and alphabetized.
“But there’s 66 names on here,” I said.
“Our last pastor found the time to visit them all,” Andy said. “Every week.”
And I replied, in love, “Well, then, I don’t think your last pastor knew what he was doing.”
Which, apparently, was interpreted as a hostile comment because Andy asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’ve got 12 more shut-ins than you had people in worship on Sunday and 66 more shut-ins than you’ve had visitors since I’ve been here, but this is your priority? Why don’t you just put up velvet rope in the sanctuary and charge admission so people can come and see how church was done once upon a time?”
Which, apparently, was also interpreted as a hostile comment.
Because, then Andy threw the bishop’s words back at me. “Well, you’re new to this, and the bishop said it was our job to teach you how to be a pastor….,” he said.
But I interrupted:
“If you all knew what you were doing, the bishop wouldn’t have sent you me— I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. If you all knew what you were doing, the bishop would’ve sent you someone much better than me. But, I do know we’ve got to organize ourselves in a way that makes the Gospel the most important thing we do as a church.”
“We all already know the Gospel,” Andy retorted. “We’ve been coming here our whole lives. It can’t be the most important thing we do,” he said.
I was about to reply with another comment that would’ve been interpreted as a hostile comment when Bob spoke up. Bob was an African American in his fifties with a shock of white hair and old-fashioned glasses.
When I arrived at the church my first Sunday, Bob introduced himself to me by telling me how many days he’d been sober.
“Just because we already know it doesn’t mean we ever stop needing to hear it,” Bob said, turning his sobriety coin in his fingers as he spoke. “It’s just like AA.
As soon as you think you don’t need to hear anymore is right when you most need to hear it. If we don’t think the forgiveness of sins is the most important thing we do here, then it’s like we don’t think we’re really sinners in need of grace, and if we don’t think we’re sinners in need of grace, then— well— we are every bit as self-righteous as the most cynical unbeliever might suspect.
And,, if that’s true, then it’s no wonder they don’t want to be here on Sunday morning.”
Today’s text— It’s not the treadmill of the Law; it’s the engine of Grace.
These fine print instructions today about the character of elders and the ordering of congregations are designed to make it possible for the rest of the baptized community to bear witness to the world, to proclaim what God has elected and authorized the Church alone to proclaim— the promise that in the name of Jesus Christ, for the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
He has taken your sins in His body on the tree, once for all, and up from the grave God has raised Him for your justification. All your trespasses are His now and His righteousness— His permanent, perfect record— is irremovably yours now.
There is nothing you can do to improve upon it and there is nothing you can do to invalidate it.
It’s not cheap.
It’s not even expensive.
That’s the evangel, the Good News.
And today, the Apostle Peter tells the church to get its act together in order to insure it doesn’t go missing.
Bob was still turning his sobriety coin in his fingers.
Irma had steered us past our impasse and moved us on to discuss the leaky faucet in the church kitchen.
But then, Andy interrupted and said to Bob, “Saying that we don’t ever stop needing to hear the Gospel and saying it’s the most important thing we do are not the same thing, Bob. Neither you nor this student pastor explained why it’s supposedly the most important thing.”
At which point, I started to pray silently that Bob would provide Andy with an answer because, at that point in my ministry, I couldn’t have mustered one.
“The Good Book gives two reasons,” Bob said smiling.
“Let’s hear them,” Andy said like he was calling out a bluff.
“Scripture says that in the Gospel message the right-making power of God is revealed in the world. The Gospel isn’t just a message about what God did. The Gospel is the Word through which God does.”
“What’s the other reason?” Andy asked.
He asked it skeptically like he was trying to save face.
“Well, scripture says that it pleases God to draw near to us through the foolishness of what we proclaim. That is, the Gospel is the promise through which Christ gives Himself to us.”
“Like a sacrament,” Irma said.
“Exactly,” said Bob, “that’s why it says salvation comes by hearing the Gospel— because Christ gives Himself to us in it. If the Gospel goes missing…”
“So does Jesus,” said Les, Irma’s husband.
“Isn’t that right, pastor?” Bob asked me.
“Oh, uh, sure…I couldn’t have said it any better myself.”
Turns out, the bishop had been right.
Bob did teach me how to be a pastor.
He taught me that the greatest form of care we as Christ’s Church can offer one another is not to care for another more than we care for the gift God has given us in Jesus Christ.
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you 2to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight,* not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it*—not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.