May 21, 2023 ~ 7th Sunday of Easter
Rev. Beckie Sweet
What are the most familiar words in the Bible? The New Testament? The Old Testament? I mentioned yesterday at the Celebration of Gene Bartell’s life that the 23rd Psalm is one of the most familiar and most comforting passages of scripture for most of us. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.” It brings to mind a serene pasture with all of the necessary provisions of life: food, water, and protection ~ all provided with the guidance of the Good Shepherd. We refer to this Psalm during times of hardship, illness, and when facing death or the loss of a loved one ~ in order to remind ourselves that we are never alone ~ we are never outside of God’s realm of care.
Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd several times. The Risen Christ appointed the disciples to become shepherds. Pastors covenant to be shepherds to congregational flocks. And all leaders in the church are called and commissioned to serve God by leading and supporting one another as though they were shepherds offering provision and protection and support leading one another to green pastures and still waters.
Now, in Jesus’ day, shepherds were pretty low on the societal ladder. They smelled, slept with the sheep in the field, often they didn’t have a home base. BUT, the shepherds were life-long care providers. Therefore, if in social gatherings, most shepherds would have stayed humbly in the background. In this particular epistle or letter, Peter is writing to those who were facing severe persecution for their faith. They were in need of provision and protection, so Peter was calling those with leadership potential to serve as shepherds for the others.
After all, that is what the Risen Christ had asked of Peter. The imagery of the shepherd and the flock was also used by Jesus when instructing Peter in John 21. As the Risen Christ met the disciples by the sea with breakfast he had prepared on the shore, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” After Peters affirmation, Jesus responded with “Tend my lambs,” “Feed my sheep,” “Tend my sheep.” Love for Jesus is essential motivation for fulfilling this calling.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, he has composed an introduction to each book of the Bible, including the letter from which we read this morning. Peterson writes of I & II Peter:
Peter’s concise confession – “You are the Messiah, the Christ” – focused the faith of the disciples on Jesus as God among us, in person, carrying out the eternal work of salvation. Peter seems to have been a natural leader, commanding the respect of his peers by sheer force of personality. In every listing of Jesus’ disciples, Peter’s name is invariably first.
In the early church, his influence was enormous and acknowledged by all. By virtue of his position, he was easily the most powerful figure in the Christian community. And his energetic preaching, ardent prayer, bold healing, and wise direction confirmed the trust placed in him.
The way Peter handled himself in that position of power is even more impressive than the power itself. He stayed out of the center, didn’t “wield” power, maintained a scrupulous subordination to Jesus. Given his charismatic personality and well-deserved position at the head, he could easily have taken over, using the prominence of his association with Jesus to promote himself. That he didn’t do it, given the frequency with which spiritual leaders do exactly that, is impressive. Peter is a breath of fresh air.
That is the type of humility Peter modeled for, and asked of others. Peter did not introduce himself in this letter as an apostle or a great spiritual leader, but simply as an elder, just like those to whom he wrote.
Sheep tend to flock together. God’s people also need to stick together. Sheep are sometimes known to wander away, get stuck in the briars, or walk too close to the edge of the cliff when not following the shepherd. Sheep are quite defenseless, and need their shepherd to protect them. The shepherd has many tasks to perform in caring for the flock, even when that leadership is not eagerly received. But the faithful shepherd perseveres.
You know, we pastors in the UM tradition, tend to move from one congregation to another, from one flock to another, so-to-speak. Needing to introduce oneself as a spiritual LEADER on a frequent basis, is itself humbling. It’s like starting all over again every single time.
One particular pastor needed to resign his pastorate to go lead another church. This pastor was approached by an endearing older member of the congregation he was leaving. She wept over the pastor’s decision to leave and said, “Things will never be the same.”
The pastor tried to console her saying, “Don’t worry. I’m confident you will get a new pastor who is better than me.”
She continued to sob and replied, “That’s what the last three pastors have said, but they just keep getting worse.” ~ Sheep have a way of insuring the humility of the Shepherd!
So, let your faith soar . . . with humility ~ and God will promote you at the right time! Thanks be to God!