A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
January 9, 2013
John 21:15-17; 1 Peter 5:1-4
“Undershepherds” is not a word we use that much in church. But it’s a word we ought to use more often because it describes an important reality in church.
The Bible is clear that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the church, and the Chief Shepherd of his flock. He founded the church, and empowers the church. He sets the direction of the church, and is Lord of the church. When it comes to church, Jesus has no rival.
That said, Jesus is not the only shepherd of the church. In fact he counts on undershepherds to lead his church to be the church God wants it to be. Always has, always will until he comes again.
We may wonder how sound this strategy is. Jesus conducts his ministry for three years, and along the way recruits 12 individuals to be his disciples (one of whom is a traitor). After his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus essentially hands over the reins of the church to the likes of Peter and Paul. In some cases the church flourishes, in others it struggles to survive. As their tenures of leadership come to an end Peter and Paul turn to other undershepherds for church leadership before they pass off the scene, and so it has continued until this day.
In case you are wondering how any of this pertains to deacons, you should know that scholars generally assume that New Testament words like “pastor”,” elder”, and “overseer” are basically interchangeable. Are there differences between the roles of pastors, elders, and deacons? Yes, of course. But all are considered undershepherds of the church. And when you consider that pastors in the United States on average move every four to five years, the role of elders and deacons becomes even more pivotal.
Back to Jesus’ strategy for church leadership. Jesus’ first choice for the first leader of his church is Peter. At first glance, Peter is an odd choice. To recap quickly, Peter is that impulsive fisherman from Galilee who’s always making a fool of himself. Over time Peter misunderstands Jesus repeatedly, and yet he has the gall to tell Jesus what he ought do and not do. In critical moments Peter fails to trust Jesus’ power, and he openly doubts his resurrection. Most famously, Peter denies Jesus three times in those fateful hours prior to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Peter fails Jesus miserably many times. Yet, he is Jesus’ first choice to be the first undershepherd of the church. That’s important for all six of you being ordained tonight because the Evil One and your own conscience would have you believe that your own record of following Jesus is too sketchy to be a deacon. Don’t believe it! Our church has seen something in you that has prompted us set you apart for this office. And more importantly, God has a pretty good track record of finding treasure in failed earthen vessels and using those vessels mightily for his kingdom.
Despite his many liabilities, John 21 makes it clear that Peter also gets some things right. After a frustrating night of fishing with no results to show for it, Peter obeys without question Jesus’ suggestion to cast his nets on the other side of the boat. Peter is obviously willing to follow the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6 that says, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths. And Peter is rewarded with nets full to overflowing with fish.
In recent months we’ve been talking a lot about discernment at FBC, to the point that people may be weary of that word. But the truth is, our deacons ought to be at the head of the line of folks who are eager to discern God’s will and way for our church rather than leaning on their own understanding…just like Peter.
After Peter and friends haul in their big catch of fish, they eat a breakfast provided by Jesus. Please notice…before Peter is asked to feed the sheep of Jesus’ church, he is nourished by the Good Shepherd.
This is a timely reminder that deacons are called to be disciples of Jesus before they are leaders for Jesus. These days we are making a big deal about following Jesus as his fully-formed, spiritually-transformed disciples. Imagine with me what FBC would be like if all of us were on this journey! We’d have a fully-formed church beating on all eight cylinders for Christ, and it would be a sight to behold.
Now, in my humble opinion the only way this will ever happen is if our deacons not only support such an initiative, but participate themselves. Frankly, we don’t need you to be an arms-length corporate board of directors. We need you to be a fellowship of deacons who are disciples first, being consistently fed by Jesus through corporate worship and bible study, prayer and meditation and the other disciplines of the faith.
Let me just ask you this question—if you don’t sign on to be a fully-formed disciple of Jesus, why should we think other members of our church will?
The other thing Peter gets right is he loves Jesus more than anything or anyone else in this world…more than his own family, profession, even more than his ministry with the sheep Jesus would give him. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. That’s not only to match the number of times Peter denied Jesus. That’s to underscore the importance of loving Jesus before all else.
Tonight, I hope all of our staff and deacons hear this question loud and clear. Jesus is still asking us, “Do you love me, above anyone or anything else?” That’s a conversation each of us need to have in the privacy of our own hearts with him.
When all these factors are in place…and only then…Jesus asks Peter to tend his sheep. Years later Peter urges those who follow him to do the same—tend the flock.
You know, Jesus could have used another animal analogy as he called Peter to lead. He could have said, “Rule the roost,” but he didn’t. “Tend the sheep,” he says. Tend them willingly and lovingly, not out of obligation or a sense of haughtiness. Tend their wounds, listen to their stories, hold their hands and hug them in times of need. Pray for them. Pray for your church. Lead by example before you ask anyone else to do anything. Put aside your pride, and lead out of humility.
Notice I haven’t said anything yet about attending meetings or taking up offering. Those are givens. Feeding the flock and tending the sheep will honestly require a lot more than that. But then you have a lot to give.
Doing church has never been easy. But I’m not sure it’s ever been harder in the modern world than it is right now. And we’ve never needed good undershepherds more than we need them now.
Thanks for saying yes to this invitation to serve. May you feel God’s grace and power every step of the way.