Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 29, 2007)
Do you remember those two Warner Bros. cartoon characters Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf? Sam was a big burly sheepdog and Ralph was a scrawny wolf who looked a lot like the Road Runner’s nemesis Wile E. Coyote. Each episode started at the beginning of the workday, in which Ralph and Sam go to a meadow where sheep graze. Like two friendly co-workers, they greet each other with “Mornin’ Sam”... “Mornin’ Ralph” and punch into the time clock hanging on the side of a tree. Work having officially begun, Ralph repeatedly tries to abduct the helpless sheep and invariably fails, either through his own ineptitude or the minimal efforts of Sam, who usually grabs Ralph by the throat and punches him square in the face...or gives him some other form of severe punishment. The day ends, the whistle blows, and Sam and Ralph punch out their time cards, chat amiably, and leave, presumably to come back the next day and do it all over again.
Well, as much of a comfort it would be to have Sam around the flock, you and I have a much greater protector. Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd who guards and guides his flock, the Church, through his Word and Sacraments. And our Good Shepherd provides undershepherds, or pastors, to bring his Word and administer the Sacraments to Christ’s flock. But there are wolves out there who seek to attack the flock...wolves much more fierce and able than the inept Ralph.
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts teaches us about all of this. It begins with St. Paul in the city of Miletus, about 36 miles south of the city of Ephesus on the western coast of Asia Minor, which today is the nation of Turkey. This was toward the end of his Third Missionary Journey as he was on his way to Jerusalem, where he figured he would have to endure more suffering for Christ’s name. Earlier in his journey, he had spent close to 3 years in Ephesus, teaching and proclaiming the message about Jesus. Now, in Miletus, he sends a message to the Christians in Ephesus. He wants them to send their elders, which in the New Testament is another word for pastor, to come visit him. When they arrived, this was Paul’s message to them:
"You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (Acts 20:18-35)
Paul warned the Ephesian elders of the danger of false teachers from without and within. He knew that after he left them, “fierce wolves” as he calls them would attempt to infiltrate their ranks and speak “twisted things.” What kind of twisted things would they be speaking? It’s hard to say exactly what Paul is referring to here. It could be the Judaizing heresy of the day that said you had to live like a Jew before you could become a Christian...get circumcised, obey the dietary and ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant, and so forth. Or it could be an early form of Gnosticism that afflicted that region, in which people taught that you had to gain some secret knowledge about the true nature of God that was only revealed to the disciples but not written down in their letters or Gospels. Whatever these “twisted things” were, they were such that the spiritual rug would be pulled out from underneath them. The very foundations of their faith would be shaken. These “fierce wolves” would attack the flock by undermining the doctrines in which the flock was taught and by stirring up controversy for their own benefit and power-hungry hearts.
What kind of “fierce wolves” and their “twisted” teachings endanger our faith today? Things are not much different today as in Paul’s day. There are all kinds of teachers and groups who “twist” Scripture to fit their own preconceived notions of what it ought to say. They take Scripture passages out of context. They don’t follow the standard interpretation principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture...in other words, letting the clearer passages of Scripture help us understand the less clear passages. Like the first-century Judaizers, we have our twenty-first century Judaizers within the Church who say that you have to behave a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way, only listen to a certain kind of music, and so on, before you can be considered a truly dedicated Christian. And like the first-century Gnostics, we have our twenty-first century Gnostics who say that the path to success is simply to visualize what you want in order to get it. In fact, that’s the basic premise of a new book called “The Secret” which also uses Bible verses to support its claims. This is just the same old positive thinking, name-it-and-claim it, prosperity gospel heresy of people like Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen and almost everybody else you see on the so-called Christian networks.
All of this false teaching leads us away from Jesus. It leads us away from the cross. It causes us to focus on what we must do for God rather than on what he has done for us. It causes us to focus on material wealth and prosperity rather than on the true riches of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.
Shepherding the Flock
This is all why God has given the Church pastors who are called to teach and to focus our attention upon the work of Jesus. Pastors are to follow Paul’s example, as he says in today’s text: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 20, 21) “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (v. 24) “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (v. 27) And elsewhere in his letters to two young pastors by the names of Timothy and Titus, he says similar things, such as, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6) and “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
Pastors are called by the Holy Spirit through the congregation to teach and preach and to administer the Sacraments, to feed the flock. That’s what Paul said to the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (v. 28) By the way, that’s an important phrase there which testifies to the deity of Christ and his saving work for you and for me... “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Jesus is God in the flesh, who has purchased and won you and me with his precious blood shed at the cross. Not only is he the perfect Lamb who shed his blood. He is also the Good Shepherd, as he tells us in John chapter 10.
We can call Jesus our Chief Pastor, because that word “pastor” simply means “shepherd.” Earthly pastors are called to be undershepherds of the Good Shepherd Jesus. They are to speak the words of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) Christ’s undershepherds must listen to no other voice than that of Jesus, so that they might also preach no other word than that of Jesus.
It’s also their job to point out false teaching when it arises. Paul told Titus that a pastor “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9)
You know, it’s kind of awkward for pastors to preach this stuff, because when we do, it sounds like we’re tooting our own horn. But that’s not the point. The point is that we have a Good Shepherd who loves us so much so that he has not left his flock without shepherds to personally care for it. And as your pastor serves you with God’s Word...as he uses his hands to pour water over you in the name of the Triune God... as he places into your mouth the body and blood of the Lamb of God...it’s really your Pastor Jesus who is serving you with his love and forgiveness.
Paul closes his speech to the elders of Ephesus by saying, “and now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (v. 31-32) Your job is to listen to that word of grace. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. Listen to that voice. Receive it in faith. It is God’s Word of grace that builds you up in your faith and gives you that heavenly inheritance that awaits all God’s baptized lambs. “My sheep hear my voice...I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” The Holy Spirit will make us strong in the face of opposition. He enlightens us to hear and understand God’s Word and to recognize false teaching when it comes our way. We respond with thanksgiving and praise and good works, without thought of material reward as the apostle said, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (v. 35)
Jesus certainly knew what he was talking about, because he loves to keep on giving, and he loves it when we receive what he has to give.