Monday, April 22, 2013

Sermon on Acts 20:17-35, for the 4th Sunday of Easter, "Pastor and Flock"

Sermon Outline:
·         Congregation doesn’t often get to hear what the responsibilities of the pastor are toward the congregation—usually just performed and assumed. Occasions when it’s made explicit, like an ordination or installation of a pastor, are rare, and not always attended by the entire congregation. Acts 20, Paul gives a “farewell address” to the elders of the church of Ephesus. Elders (“presbuterous”—the term was not used in the NT to describe lay people, but the pastors of the church, also called “episcopous”—bishops or overseers, and given the task of “shepherding”—no rankings in these terms). As a congregation of God, what have you the right to expect of us as pastors? Doesn’t lay out the complete task, but what does it tell?
·         First and foremost: to preach and teach the whole counsel of God, not adding or subtracting. The temptation of every preacher is to add their own ideas to the Bible, or to subtract those things (typically) that are hardest to teach or unpopular. The pastor is responsible to see that he does not do this, but teaches the whole counsel of God. But the congregation, the hearers, also share in that responsibility as well, to know God’s Word to make sure the pastor is accountable to the Bible.
·         I regularly urge you to this prayerful study and examination of both my teaching and God’s Word, and I hope that you take this as serious as I do—for I am a sinner too, and err, but in the teaching of God’s Word there is no room for error. Error in the teaching of God’s Word must be corrected. As Paul says later in his address, after he leaves, there’ll be fierce wolves that come from outside, and also false men that will spring up from inside—among them, speaking twisted things. He’s talking about false teachers, from inside and outside the church, twisting the word of God. Distorting it. And because this error and misuse of God’s Word leads disciples astray, it is spiritually deadly. He’s comparing it to letting wolves loose inside the sheepfold, to devour the lambs. That’s what false teaching does. It harms souls.
·         Paul recounts no easy road as he taught them faithfully in God’s Word, saying that many times his admonishments, or corrections, were filled with tears. Confident that he had now set them on the firm foundation of God’s Word by teaching them the whole counsel of God—even knowing that these false teachers will come, he says: “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.” These men, pastors in Ephesus, had been like apprentices or disciples to Paul, and he did not fear that they would fail when he left, as though he had ever been the reason for the church’s existence. Rather he entrusted them to God and the Word of His grace. God is always the One—not us—who preserves and prospers His church, and it is by the Word of His grace that pastors pass on the ministry from one to the next. God’s Word is the strongest weapon against the false teachers, and the same is true today. It is a weapon wielded for good and not for evil, and the weapon of God’s Word is the Truth.
·         When Paul confronted false teachers in Corinth, he said that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). The Word of God, as Truth, has this power to destroy the strongholds of human pride and lofty opinions, to assail the ivory towers of men’s learning and bring our own thoughts into obedience to Christ. The Truth has the power to expose the Lie, and that’s what the devil fears most, and why he attacks the Word from countless angles, to undermine the foundation of our faith.
·         Like Paul, a pastor teaches both in public, but also from house to house. Pastoral visits to individual members and families remains an important part of our ministry as pastors here at Emmanuel. Unfortunately, some people fear a visit from the pastor means that they are “in trouble”—but rather, home visits from the pastor help us to better know you and your spiritual needs. To pray for concerns you might not otherwise have the opportunity to share. To instruct from God’s Word on questions that you may have. To offer guidance from God’s Word on a challenge in life. To offer support in time of illness, grief, or loss. And, when necessary, provide admonishment or correction from God’s Word, speaking the truth in love. All these and a variety of other concerns a pastor is able to address in home visitation. Though we’ve both had opportunities to visit with many of you, there are still many more whom we’ve never visited with. Members should always feel open to ask the pastor to visit with them, whether or not they have a concern on their heart, or just simply want to pray and listen to God’s Word—which are central to every visit. We both want to encourage our members not to hesitate to call on your pastors, and we will be happy to visit you.
·         Paul warned the pastors of Ephesus about false teachers as he left. He also gave them commands of what to do, and God’s promises for them in the carrying out of those commands. The first command is that they “pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock.” Interesting that he says pay attention to themselves first. To be receiving God’s Word for ourselves also, not only giving it out to others. That the pastor is fed by God’s Word and has his own life of prayer and study, so that he is able to feed others. And further, to see that his life is consistent with his words.
·         A pastor is not to use his office for greed or gain, or be filled with pride or power. Rather, like Paul, to show humility in service, patience and determination to cling to God’s Word even through trials and opposition, compassion and love for the flock, and hard work with his hands to set an example that we must help and care for the weak. This is a solemn calling, and certainly makes me mindful of all my shortcomings and failures, and I believe that the Ephesian pastors would have felt the same inadequacy for the task, when he gave them their marching orders. But as God is always faithful, He gives us His great and blessed promises. Paul reminds them that they have their calling from God and that the Holy Spirit made them under-shepherds of God’s church, which He obtained with His own blood.
·         Did you catch the glory and the power of that promise? Whose blood is it? Whose blood purchased the church of God? God’s own blood! What a brilliant statement of Jesus’ own divinity—that He is true God, who shed God’s blood on the cross to redeem the church. God, in Christ Jesus, bled on the cross for our sins! So that He could gather us together as the sheep of His fold. And what else but the blood of God could be of such priceless worth as to pay the cost for all of our sins, to win a whole kingdom for Himself? Nothing but the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
·         And after his repeated command to be watchful and remember what he taught, he gives a second promise for the church. That we are commended “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.” We are reminded that the church prevails through time and history, not because of its own merits, or the merits of its pastors, or members, but rather the church prevails because of Christ’s own Word and promise. The church—the people of God gathered around Christ and His Word—is God’s own. As Jesus promised, the gates of hell will never prevail over it, because its built on this Rock: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. God’s Son who bled and died to obtain the church as His own. And God’s Word is a powerful Word—the Word that builds. The Word that builds up the saints into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood of believers who serve the Lord. And as the church is built and grows as the body of Christ, it is built up in love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians.
·         And this Word of God’s grace holds an inheritance in store for all believers. The inheritance of the kingdom of God. The inheritance that is sealed for us by the guarantee or down payment of the Holy Spirit, alive and at work in us. The Holy Spirit who makes us holy, leading us in lives of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, the commands and promises of Jesus give pastors their commission to serve His church, and on these promises of God’s continued grace and provision, the church itself depends. Jesus is the One True Shepherd of the church, and it is by His will that the flock grows, pastures safely, and lives. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What instructions does Acts 20:17-35 contain for pastors? What worthy example did St. Paul set in his own conduct of his ministry among the Ephesians? The New Testament uses a variety of descriptive terms for the one preaching office, without any sense of hierarchy or rank in power: Presbyters (elders); shepherds (pastor); bishop (overseer); evangelist; teacher; apostles; prophets; etc.
2.      Read Acts 20:26-27. What does it mean to declare the “whole counsel of God?” What is the danger of false teaching, and why is it vital that sound teaching be maintained? 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 6:3-10; 2 Timothy 3:12-17.
3.      What gave Paul the confidence that his work in the church didn’t ultimately depend on him, and that the church would “survive” without him, under the ministry of other pastors? What “weapon” did they have against false teaching? 2 Corinthians 10:4-5; Ephesians 6:10-20. 
4.      What are some of the reasons a pastor might teach or visit from house to house? Do you have a need, or would you be open to a visit from your pastor(s)?
5.      Whose blood was the purchase price of the church? Acts 20:28. What does that say about the identity of Jesus? How does that supply the forgiveness and salvation by which the church lives?

**Note: although the exact wording of the quotation of Jesus in Acts 20:35 is found nowhere in the Gospels, the theme is expressed in many places: Matthew 10:8; Luke 6:38; 11:9-13; John 13:34. Why is there greater blessing in giving than receiving?

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