Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Guardians, encouragers, examples to the flock

Click here to listen to my sermon from 13 April 2008.

Jesus Christ is now alive. He has risen from the dead. And he appearing numerous times to many people over a period of forty days, when, in the sight of many, he ascended into heaven. The Bible tells us he has taken a position of honor and authority there—that he is “seated at the right hand of the Father” until he returns in glory. But let’s not let the metaphorical language about “being seated” be misleading in leading us to think that there is anything passive about Jesus’ life and ministry to this very day. Indeed, if you think back with me, you will notice that the scripture lessons since Easter Sunday have been talking about ways in which Jesus is now living and active in his church.

First, we heard the story of doubting Thomas in which Jesus appeared to the apostles, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Jesus is still absolving people from their sins through his ministers. And secondly, last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus appearing to two disciples along the road to Emmaus. He led them in a very enlightening Bible study and then at supper, he was made known to them in the breaking of bread. Jesus is still among us in his proclamation of the Scriptures and through the blessed sacrament of his Body and Blood.

Today, which has often been called, Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is still ministering to us through his appointed shepherds. Now there are several ways that Jesus shepherds his people in his church, but chief among them is through his ordained shepherds, the bishops. As the church spread in those early days, Apostles would ordain elders in the local churches and leave one of them in charge. That is, the apostle would appoint one of the elders in the local church to be his apostolic successor as overseer (or “bishop”) of the flock. We see this intimate identification of bishops and shepherds in Peter’s letter, “you have now returned to the mena kai episcopon—the shepherd and bishop of your souls.”

You might have recognized in the verse there the word episcopon or episcopos as the Greek source of the name of our church, the “Episcopal Church.” Now it is kind of strange to say THE Episcopal Church as if we were the only one for there are seven other Episcopal Churches in the Anglican communion. Incidentally, 15 use the name “Anglican”, 3 use the name “Catholic” and 19 use no description in their official name at all (e.g. Church of England, Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean).

What is an episcopal church? It is any church with an Episcopal structure or polity, a church gathered around an episcopos—an “overseer” or “bishop”. Of course, that means there are all kinds of non-Anglican episcopal churches. The Russian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church of Sweden are all episcopal churches. They are congregational families gathered around a bishop—like the patriarch of a clan. This has been the pattern in the church from the earliest days.

From St Ignatius, who followed St Peter as bishop of Antioch, we read, “Wherever the bishop appears, let the congregation gather. Just as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Northern Africa wrote about 150 years later, “You should know that the bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church.” And in the next century, an early church manual, the Apostolic Constitutions, noted: “As to a good shepherd, let the layman honor him, love him, and reverence him as his leader, his high priest of God, and as a teacher of piety. For he that hears him, hears Christ, and he that rejects him, rejects Christ.”

The Bishop is a representative or vicar of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. In today’s readings, I see three tasks of a shepherd in the church of God. As we read in today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that the first responsibility of any shepherd is to guard and protect the flock. A shepherd is a provider, a protector, a source of strength and encouragement. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The bishop carries a shepherds staff as a reminder that he is to gently guide the flock and also chase away the wolves.

Jesus said that a shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The shepherd has to ensure that there are safe, green pastures for the flock to graze. If the pasture becomes barren or dangerous, he leads them to a new pasture. The shepherd watches out for the wolves in sheep’s clothing who bark out half-truths and false doctrine to scatter the flock.

It is no wonder that in Paul’s letter to Titus (1:9), we read, “Since a bishop is entrusted with God’s work . . . He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” The historic Anglican ordinal picked up on that language, with the new bishop vowing to banish all error in doctrine.

“The thief comes only to steal, to kill, and destroy,” Jesus said. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The role of guardian stands out as a chief responsibility for successors to the apostles. In the 1979 Prayer Book, we read, “A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings. You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.” At the creed, the theme continues, “We call upon you, chosen to be a guardian of the Church’s faith, to lead us in confessing that faith.” Notice how the NRSV translates episcopon in today’s epistle as “guardian.”

In addition to being a guardian, a bishop is to be an encourager and provider, so that not only will the flock be safe, but they will be able to grow together. And one way that a shepherd provides for the flock is to encourage each member of the flock to take an active role in their common life.

This is what we see going on in our first reading, from the book of Acts. In this passage, the apostles sense a need for someone to care for the widows. They make a strategic decision; rather than stretch themselves thin, they decide to ordain deacons. “Select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the Word.” From the very beginning, we see that the role of the overseer is to be an involver and encourager of the brethren, not unlike the way Jesus went about doing things.

The ordination rite for a bishop in the Prayer Book expressed it well. The bishop-elect is asked, “As a chief priest and pastor, will you encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them from the riches of God’s grace, pray for them without ceasing, and celebrate with them the sacraments of our redemption?” Notice how the response is worded. The bishop-elect replies, “I will, in the name of Christ, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.”

Guardian, encourager, and let us not forget, example. A shepherd is an example to the flock. This is how he is to exercise leadership. What the bishop should exemplify above all is the selfless love of Christ. St Peter wrote in his first letter, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

It was cold and dark that day in 1012 in Greenwich. Danish invaders wandered around the camp where the archbishop of Canterbury was held in chains. Things were not going their way. They had captured the poor monk at Canterbury, when the city was seized. But their prize had not paid off. And they were tired of waiting.

They needed funds—for food, supplies, for mercenaries. They had sent word to his flock—their bishop Alphege was being held for ransom, but this bishop was not paying off. The hours wandered on. A cold drizzle began as Easter week in England drew to a close. The Vikings started drinking and complaining. But then word came from Canterbury—the Christians there, burdened by poverty and war were not willing to pay the ransom.

They were not willing, only because Alphege himself had ordered them not to. The Vikings broke out in a riot. This English monk had foiled their plan. Cries went out in the camp for to get rid of the bishop. But another warrior in the camp raised his voice on behalf of their captured cleric.

One of the Viking commanders, Thorkell the Tall, tried to save this Christian. The commander offered most of his own possessions to pay the ransom. Evidently Alphege had made his impression on this Viking, for not only was Thorkell moved to save him, but like Alphege, he was unwilling to deprive his own people in the process.

The offer was declined. The drunken Danes were no longer interested in money. The warriors wanted revenge for this great insult. The mob began to pelt him with bones, until one of them smote Alphege on the head with an axe, and he fell dead to the ground. The Church celebrates the feast of Alphege on next Saturday, April 19th. And when I heard the story, I said to myself, Now that is a bishop; that is a shepherd. For like the Good Shepherd, Alphege laid down his life for the sheep. A Good Shepherd knows that the sheep come first.

Guardians, encouragers, examples to the flock. Today we give thanks that the risen Lord is living and active among us in so many ways, but most especially in the shepherds he has provided to guard, encourage, and be examples to the flock. God entrusted us to them as his own people, to lead us through Jesus Christ, the gate of the sheep, to eternal heavenly pastures. Thank you, Lord, for faithful shepherds.


Anonymous said...

What's with the little red negligee thingy on the processional cross?

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

It's a veil for Holy Week.

sanctus.liberalis said...

In the picture, it almost looks like the crucifix is surrounded in flames or a red aura.