The Shepherd of the Sheep
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mark 6
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Jeremiah 23
Dear Friends in Christ,
A young pastor wrote to a group of fellow pastors, many of us with some years of experience, and asked for our advice. You see he had unilaterally decided the remove the US flag from the sanctuary and put it away into a closet but it was noticed on July 4th and now the elders want to talk to him about it and he was looking for assistance in crafting an argument to support his action. A fellow pastor mentioned that likely no argument would suffice for those who make an idol of nationalism. And I must confess this troubled me but I am biased as a veteran who has served under that flag and passed that flag folded into the hands of loved ones whose family member have given their lives in defense of their nation. It troubled me that a fellow pastor could look at our flag and see an idol to nationalism. When I look at the flag I see service, a nation that put forth an idea of a people united in justice and freedom, a nation that stands for the freedom of religion that is worth defending for the sake of the Gospel.
But putting that aside for the moment let us shift our attention to a lakeside many years ago. Jesus is drawing near having heard the dreadful news of John’s death, having received the disciples back from their first mission trip, all needing rest. But a huge crowd has gathered. Five thousand men with women and children await. And Jesus looks upon them and we are told He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. How strange?
These are people who live in a culture deeply steeped in religion and spirituality. The Law of Moses is an integral part of their lives. Now of course some give it lip service, but the truth is their culture was far more traditionally religious than is ours in the 21st century. Their Synagogue was the heart of their community. In many ways their week rotated around the Sabbath and their calendar around the marked out religious festivals. And there were plenty of available and visible religious leaders. Rabbis in the synagogues, Pharisees publicly teaching on the fine points of the law, Saducees, priests, and scribes overseeing the religious rites of the temple of Jerusalem. It was a culture and a lifestyle steeped in religion.
How could they be sheep without a shepherd?
It is not long into the ministry of Jesus when we see the highly trained and very confident Pharisees start to show up. They know the law. They know the fine points of the law. They are great theologians. They can instruct people on the finest practice of Sabbot and how not to violate it. But in the strict and specific expectations honed over years of study and mutual conversation they can’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah when He stands in front of them.
This approach to religion confront Jesus, would help lead to His crucifixion, and would haunt the early church with division in the party called the Judaizers – those wo demanded adherence to their expectations for all Christians. Paul would call them what they were, legalistic zealots getting in the way of the Gospel.
Like minded men wear the collar of pastoral service even today, even inside the LCMS. I’ve struggled to come up with a term for them. They often call themselves confessionals, but for us old timers who were confessionals before they were even in seminary we see something new. Some of us have been using the term “strictitarians” to sum up what we are seeing. Something perhaps best illustrated by a couple of stories.
In his first week, the new associate pastor, approached His Senior Pastor with a demand. The Children’s message that would occur on non-communion Sundays needed to be removed from the service because it was not a liturgical element. It wasn’t in the hymnal and had not been part of the practice of the medieval church when the liturgy assumed its forms. He was concerned that his fellow conservative and strictly confessional pastors would look upon him critically if he was part of a church with a children’s message. The Senior Pastor was surprised and at first uncertain how to respond, but did not want to develop an adversarial relationship with his new associate so he came up with a compromise to move the children’s message to the beginning of the service before the first hymn which the associate accepted as not being part of the service since the service had technically yet to begin.
A new associate pastor approached the altar guild instructing them to make changes in communion set up to reflect a more purified practice of Holy Communion. Water would be provided to pour into the wine as in the middle ages representing the water that flowed from the side of Christ. A large host must be provided so that it could be elevated during the service. And more. When the altar guild asked the Senior Pastor why did their practice of decades need to be changed he was caught unawares. But when he talked to the associate, the associate explained that the communion setup was deficient, and did not properly honor the sacrament according to the best of liturgical tradition. Soon thereafter the associate would inform the Senior Pastor that he believe himself to be a better theologian than the Senior who had more education and experience. It would come to a head soon thereafter when the Associate would demand to move the processional cross to a particular place on the altar because there was a guideline in the hymnal saying so. It didn’t matter that the cross would be in the way of the camera used to live steam the service.
So what is up with this? We are not talking about positions and arguments about something clearly commanded or forbidden by Holy Scripture. We are talking about division, conflict, power moves and so forth about human created traditions and personal preferences.
The same as the Pharisees. The same as the Judaizers of Paul’s time. We can understand how Jesus could look upon a deeply religious people steeped in a religious culture and proclaim He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Now the Pharisees were responding to a time when the people of God ignored God’s law, sinned outright and publicly, and were punished with exile. They taught strict obedience to avoid a repeat of this. Most likely today’s strictitarians are responding to an increasing license in our culture for sin and ungodliness. I know they are suspicious of fellow pastors who in some cases are rightly observed as being too liberal. In previous decades the LCMS flirted with dismissing Scripture in regards to many things. An entire group of professors was pushed out of a seminary for teaching Scripture was not without its mistakes and errors. I myself have heard from a retired Pastor’s lips that the LCMS is wrong in its stance on homosexuality and should change, a position likely his position informed by the fact his own daughter identifies as a homosexual.
But the willingness of some to take away from Scripture is not a defense for adding requirements and burdens to God’s people that are not found in Scripture. Christ does not care if we have a children’s message in the service and He doesn’t care where the processional cross is located. But I think He does care when the leaders of the church make issues where Christ has no issue.
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. (Jer 23)
We are not just talking about pastors here, but church leaders, indeed even all members of a church. For the Christian church is a priesthood of believers. Its not just about the pastor, its not even about the elders and senior leaders, but it is about all of us. In some way we all influence one another. In some way we all lead one another. We all have a voice. We vote in our voters’ assemblies. We express our opinions and expectations to our leaders, our pastors, to one another. One thing I’ve learned in my years as a pastor is most of the time church members don’t appreciate someone making big decisions and big changes for them and forcing them down their throats. We are in this together.
Remember what Paul wrote in the Epistle for this day:
but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2)
But we can forget sometimes, pastors, leaders, any of us. We can forget when we get caught up about flags, and crosses, and whatever else that we are called to be a dwelling place for god, a Holy Temple, not strangers or adversaries but fellow saints, members of one household, a family of God.
And God is the Father. And Jesus is the Shepherd, for there can be only one.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. And this Christ did for us. He is the only one who could. The Divine Son of God bestows His righteousness upon us as a gift having sacrificed Himself upon a cross for our sin.
It isn’t so much about us as it is about Him. It isn’t so much about our preferences, opinions, values or desires but His. It isn’t so much about what we want for ourselves but what He wants for us. And what is that?
There was a time we were without God. But now we are with God.
We were strangers to Christ but now we are in Christ. He calls us His friends.
We were hostile to God and one another but now we have peace in Christ.
We were condemned sinners but now we are redeemed.
We were strangers and aliens but now we are fellow citizens with one another in the household of God.
We are no longer like sheep without a shepherd because Christ has had compassion on us. He is our Shepherd. He is the only one who can be for He is the Messiah, our Lord, the Divine Son of God, the crucified and risen Savior of the world.
in Christ’s name.
Now may the peace of God which transcends
all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.