Seven Words for Pastors – #7 “Sheep”`

 sheep   How do we show truly our love for Jesus.  Is it in eloquent words of a sermon or poem or in prayer or worship?  Jesus defined it here as taking care of the needs of his sheep.  Sheep are exotic to us in the city, but to Peter there could have been nothing more ordinary.  Feed them, guide them, heal their wounds, defend them, know them by name, be with them constantly.  That is how you take care of sheep.

In the first part of chapter 21 Peter was frustrated with waiting, and so he and 6 others went fishing.  We see that they were just killing time, because when Jesus appeared, they forgot all about fishing.

After Jesus had cooked bread and fish for their breakfast, he turned to Peter and addressed him three times formally.

First he said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

Peter had once pledged to give his life up to death to serve Jesus.  So Jesus was asking if Peter truly loved him.  Did Peter love him more than the other disciples, because that is what Peter had implied.  Did Peter love Jesus more than his fishing boat, and nets, and the Sea of Galilee?

Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.”

Ministry is not about raising the sword in battle for the glory of Jesus, it is being a shepherd.  Peter would need to overcome his hero-complex.  He would need to quit thinking of himself in heroic terms, but to think in terms of a shepherd.

Second Jesus said, “Simon Son of John, do you truly love me?”

Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

Third Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt this time wondering why Jesus keep asking him this question.  So he said, “Lord you know all things; You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, ”Feed my sheep.”

Three times Peter denied Jesus (ch 18).  Despite his vow of courage and loyalty, Peter denied Jesus before an unarmed servant girl and the other bystanders outside the house of the High Priest.  The rooster crowed and Peter went out weeping and defeated into the night.

Three times Jesus questioned Peter.  Peter’s denial was public.  It was the scandal of his life.  When he put his foot in his mouth by being too eager, that was not so bad.  But to deny and then run in the face of trouble.  Who could forgive Peter, and accept him as a leader? Could Peter even accept himself?  Maybe that is why he tried returning to fishing.

Three times Jesus said “Feed my sheep.”

Pastors are Shepherds.  Pastors are supposed to feed and care for the sheep.  The people of God are sheep.  We are in need of guidance.  We need to be led to the green pastures and to the clear waters.  We need to be protected from wild beasts.  When we stray, someone needs to leave the 99 and come and find us.  Moses was a shepherd of sheep before he shepherded Israel through the desert and to the Green Pastures of Israel.  David was a shepherd, before he was anointed as the future King and Shepherd of the Nation.

Jesus went on to tell Peter that he would die a death to glorify God. V. 18, 19.  This wasn’t to be the death of the sword wielding defender of Jesus, but the death of a shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.

After telling Peter the good news, that after a life of service to the sheep, he would be able to fulfill his boast and die for Christ, then Jesus re-issued the challenge that Peter had heard before, “Follow me.”

In chapter 1 of John, some of John the Baptist’s disciples left to follow Jesus.  One of these was Andrew, who went to get Peter, who also followed Jesus.  We see in this that the first quality of a disciple of Jesus, of a Christian, is to be a follower of Jesus.

In Luke 5, Peter and the others were out fishing and had caught nothing.  Jesus came and taught the crowd from Peter’s boat.  He then asked Peter to cast the net over the side.  Peter at first objected, but then complied.  They caught such a large catch that the nets burst with the weight.

Peter felt at Jesus feet and said, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.”  Peter knew he was in the presence of a Holy Man.

Jesus said….”Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”  So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”

As Moses the shepherd was called to shepherd Israel, so Peter the fisherman was called to fish for men.

In I Peter 5:1-4 we see the mature reflection of Peter upon his calling.  This book is written long after this account in John, when Peter was a leader of the Church.  The call to Peter to feed the sheep is gathered up here and passed on as instruction to other leaders.  Elders are to be good shepherds

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be Shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

The Seventh and final word to pastors is John 21:17:

 “Take care of my Sheep.”

 Feed my sheep…and die.

Follow me…not the other guy.

  John was following after Jesus and Peter during this conversation.  And Peter, having received his commission, was curious about John.  So he said to Jesus,

“Lord, what about him?”

Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

Maybe Peter wanted to have some comfort.  He wanted to know what Jesus call was to another servant.  Would John also have to die?  Would John also have to be a Shepherd.

Jesus answer really is this: ”Peter, this is none of your business.”

This word is the cure for three sins that besiege the church today.

The first is comparison.  It was not for Peter to compare his calling to John’s.  How we love to compare!

Pastors make comparisons.  We compare the size of our flock with the size of others.  And either we get proud or we are ashamed. We compare other things too.  We say, If only I had a style like Billy Graham or a mind like Walter Kaiser or a warm personality like Jill Briscoe or organizational ability like Bill Bright, ad infinitum.  This is a sin.

Churches make the same comparisons.  If only we were big like Church X or had a staff like Church Y or had powerful worship like Church Z, then we would really have something.  This is a sin.  If we don’t repent there we will fall into two other worse sins

Envy is next.  It has absolutely nothing to do with faith, hope or love.  If we envy what another servant of Christ has, then we have no faith in God’s provision for us.  If we envy, we show that our hope is not in the Lord, but in what we possess.  If we envy, we are not loving.  For the envious would love to take from the other whatever they have.

Judgment is third.  When we compare, we might rather decide that we are superior to Church X or Y or Z.  If I compare, I might decide that I am superior to Pastor A or B or C.  This also is sin.

Who am I to Judge the Lord’s servant?

If there is a fault, I should go to my brother in Christ, aware of my own tendency to sin, and point out the error.  I should pray, and seek the best of God’s blessing for him and his ministry

Seven Words to Pastors – #6 “Models”

washing feetJohn did not tell us the birth story of Jesus, but in two locations he affirmed the theology of the Incarnation.  The most well known is in John 1.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  1:14

We find it again as John mixes narrative and image in his account of the Upper Room.

“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world, and to go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”  13:1-5

Was it John mixing image and narrative, or was Jesus acting out a parable of his own ministry?

Jesus is close to his death, as we are reminded by the Passover reference and the reference to Judas’ impending betrayal.  Having loved these disciples, he now was to demonstrate to them his love.

Was foot washing the full extent of his love?  I think it was a sign.  Jesus left his exalted position as teacher to wash their feet, just as the Eternal Son of God had left eternity.  Jesus took off and laid aside his outer garment, just as Jesus had not grasped onto his equality with God.  He put on the garment of a servant.  The towel of the slave that washes feet is representative of Jesus servant-status.  He was not born as a King of the earthly type to rule by force.  He was born as a Servant.  He then went from disciple to disciple washing their feet.  Their feet were soiled from their walking on this earth.  Jesus washed away the soil and dried their feet with his own garment.  Just as he would about 24 hours later have washed their sins by his blood, and taken their sin onto himself.

 Should we have ritual foot washing in church as some say?  Is it another sacrament or ordinance?

It is a model of ministry.

For our sixth word for pastors is found after Jesus resumed his position of authority.  That resumption was also a sign of his exaltation that followed his humiliation on the Cross.  He took up his place of authority and spoke again to the disciples.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”    v. 14,15.

Models for ministry are big.  I explained to another pastor that Bethany was called to be a city church reflecting in it’s fellowship over time the same variety of people as are in our community.  His immediate reply was, “Do you have a model?”

In his way of thinking, it was a foolish thing to set out on a ministry that differed from the standard methods, unless we had a model of someone who had done it successfully.

The borough of Queens taught me at least one thing.  The models that I could find in books of what other churches have done did not fit.  The lesson has been reinforced by the experience in central Madison.

We have models for inner-city churches, but the neighbors are affluent here.  We have models for social action churches, but this city already has three social service agencies for every one social problem.  We have a few models for racially diverse churches, but I can’t find one that speaks of the interaction of Norwegian-American, Lao-American and Mexican-American cultures.

Queens and Madison have taught me of necessity the art of eclectic imitation.  We borrow from a variety of sources because no one source ever has ever fit what we wanted to be.

There is a source of Models that is much more fitting.  The Bible has models.  The art form needed for scripture models is not eclectic selection.  We are not free to pick and choose from scripture, for all of it is profitable that we might be fully trained.  Instead, the art form is patient, prayerful reflection.

The lure of book store models is that it provides quick answers.  We can avoid having to think deeply about the purpose of things.  We can avoid having to think theologically as well if we just take the pattern of another ministry and put it over ours.  Where our ministry does not fit the pattern, we take a pair of scissors and cut off the parts that stick out.  The places where our ministries do not fill out the pattern are hidden from view and we don’t have to think about them.

So we borrow a model that Evangelizes on Sunday and builds by teaching on Thursday.  So we cut away teaching on Sunday because it sticks out from the pattern.  However, we neglect the teaching on Thursday and are left with neither what we were doing, not with what the model was doing, but a half measure.

The sixth word is this:

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

There are several parts to this model.

Service.  The descent from Lord to Slave as Jesus set out to wash their feet was a descent from authority to service.  It was a descent from honor to almost indecent servitude.  Peter was so offended by this descent that he almost refused to be part of it.

Whom do we serve?

The answer is found in the old Sunday School acronym JOY.  “Serve Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last.   Jesus, Others and Yourself —  JOY.

Real Needs.  We hear that we should serve felt needs.  That is the motive for polling the audience.  But Jesus did not poll the apostles about their need.  He knew their need and how to serve it.  When Peter objected, voicing as usual the unstated thoughts of the others, he showed that Jesus would never had come to this ministry by polling the disciples.

Sheep might desire to wander in new paths or walk on the mountain trails.  But that is where sheep get into trouble.  Their felt need is freedom, but their real need is guidance and protection.

The felt need of the disciples was to be attached to Jesus greatness.  They debated about greatness from time to time.  Their real need was to be served by Jesus humility.

The felt need of our sheep might be entertainment or feel-good words or the appearance of success.  We know the real need.  We have to speak from the authority of the Word without compromise and at the same time serve them gently.

Purification.  The curious metaphor results from Peter’s objection.  He did not want to have his feet washed.  Jesus insisted that he have it done or Peter could not be part of him.  Peter offered his head and hands as well.  But Jesus said, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet..”

They had been bathed.  By Faith in Jesus, we must conclude, they had been justified of their sin.  The first need is to bring the soiled in body to the washing and regeneration of the Spirit through the Cross by Faith.  There can be no ministry if the people have not come to Christ.  The work of the Evangelist must precede the work of the Pastor.

They needed a foot wash.  As they walked on dirt paths with sandaled feet, they collected dust and dirt.  This is what Jesus washed off.

We are always needing to have the ministry of the word where the things we collect as we travel this world of sin can be removed from us.  This is not the once for all time salvation event.  It is the every day washing of confession and redirection.

This model of the Authoritative Servant is one all pastors can follow, in Queens or in Madison or wherever the Lord has placed us.


7 Words – #5 Shepherds – John 10:11

sheepJesus healed a blind man in John 9.  The Pharisees put on an inquiry to find out if some law had been broken.  These wise leaders were too simple to understand what the simple blind man could see instantly.

“You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners…..If this man were not from god, he could do nothing.”    9:30,33

They blindly threw out the blind man who could see.

In the next chapter Jesus spoke of himself as a Shepherd.  First that those who come in over the wall are not the true shepherds.  Here he was referring to those blind leaders who did not enter by God’s word, but by their own word.

Then he said, that he himself was the Gate to the sheep.  He was the only way in for the sheep and the shepherds.

Then he said that he was himself the Good Shepherd.  The Pharisees of Chapter 9 were bad shepherds.

Here then is the fifth word to Pastors.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”  v. 11-13


The very name Pastor means Shepherd.  We Pastors  have to ask ourselves, “Are we really shepherds or just hired hands?”

The hired hand has two defining qualities according to Jesus’ words.  He runs away from danger and he cares nothing for the sheep.

Jesus picked up an important theme from the Old Testament.

 The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he restores my soul,

He guides me in the paths of righteousness

for his names sake.

Even 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.

Psalm 23:1-4

 “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!  Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.  You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.  My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”

Ezekiel 34:2-6


 Here is a rich vein of instruction for all who Pastor the flock of God.  Who of us could possibly stand the scrutiny of the words of Ezekiel?  How searching they are!  Have I ever thought of myself first?  Have I ever spoke of the sheep as belonging to me?  Have I ever wept over the broken down Church of God where sheep are scattered because the leaders thought first of their own needs?  Do I leave the 99 who are happy with me to go listen to the disgruntled 1 who is so angry with me that he left?


Her eyes sparkled and her wrinkled face was radiant as she said, “He was like God to us.” The elderly saint was referring to a very loved Pastor.  He had been there when the children were baptized and later confirmed and still later married.  He was the first face seen when waking up from the surgical anesthesia.  His home was open for Sunday dinner, especially for the single students far from home.  He taught the word.  And so this sheep was yet in awe of his memory.

Yet the phrase “He was like God” is disturbing.  If it meant that he was often the one who’s voice spoke out loud  the Word of God and who’s presence showed in the flesh the love of God who has no body, then it is ok.  However I wonder if he did not become a bit confused with his Over-shepherd.

The Good Shepherd owns the sheep.  Pastors don’t own anyone.  Does that make us hired hands?  No.  We don’t run away, and we do care a great deal for the sheep.

We are under-shepherds.  We serve the Good Shepherd.  He owns the sheep.  He gave his life’s blood to buy them and us as well.  We serve in his flock as under-shepherds because he has asked us.  They are never really ours because they are his.

I have seen it increasingly in the eyes of the sheep.  It is not the glow of the older saint, but is the question mark in the eyes of the younger sheep.

“What does he want?”

“Wouldn’t he really like it better if I just left?”

“Is he doing something with the other shepherds that I should know about?”

“If he really knew me, he wouldn’t love me.”

“Why does he keep looking at his watch?”

The older saint had seen faults in her under-shepherd, and could even tell a good story at his expense.  But those flaws only made the bond stronger.

The younger saints see faults and wonder if they don’t reveal a much bigger fault.  They could forgive a mis-stated historical fact in the sermon, and even the way we mix up names and family connections.  But they sense that what they see is not so innocent as that.  What they see is a heart that is empty of love and full of something else.  It could be ambition or vision or a love for process.  It could be annoyance at being disturbed from his study to deal with a human need.

We think because they need direction that sheep are stupid.  They may choose stupid paths and they may choose the wrong grass to eat.  But they do not make mistakes in judging the heart of their shepherds.  Their lives depend on the shepherd, and they know it. 

If we make mistakes along the way, they are forgotten.  We become the butt of loving humor.  If we forget that we should love, feed and defend the sheep one of two things will happen:  They leave or they turn on us.

Their bodies may remain in the pew long after their hearts and minds have gone elsewhere.  It sometimes takes a long time for the body to actually follow the heart in leaving.

Or they may turn into wolves.  It is a kind of anti-miracle that these fuzzy gentle creatures can sprout claws and fangs and turn on us.  When the sheep become wolves, it is because of the shepherds.

Later in this chapter Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  v. 15.  Later in the Gospel he said, “Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…”  15:13,14.  And still later he said to his apostles, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 21:21

“As” means many things.  One of those is that Jesus came as a shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. We also show our love by laying down our lives for the sheep.

Shepherding is a trade and it is a way of life.  We learn our trade by schooling and by experience.  We can not lay it aside after hours.  There are no “after hours” for shepherds.

A profession is hard to enter because the guardians of professions want to maintain the prestige and the market value of those called.  Shepherds are different.  The sheep are not a route for advancement.  They are not numbers leading to a resume.  They are people with names and families.  The more we know them and their places of living and working, the better we can be their pastors.

Many professions have a union or guild.  What would be the point of a shepherds union?  Wouldn’t the sheep die while the owner and the shepherds argued?

Shepherding is a calling.  It is a calling to avoided at all costs, unless you are called by the Good Shepherd.


Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;

Keep watch over the door of my lips.

Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil

to take part in wicked deeds

with men who are evil doers.

Let me not eat of their delicacies.

Psalm 141:3,4


An oracle is within my heart,

concerning the sinfulness of the wicked,

There is no fear of God before their eyes,

For in his own eyes he flatters himself

Too much to detect of hate his sin.

Psalm 36:1,2

David E. Carlson c 2000

Seven Words for Pastors – #4 “Words” – John 6:68


oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

“Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come buy and eat!

Come buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.”

Isaiah 55:1,2


     The fifth word comes after a long section on Jesus as the bread giver and Jesus as the bread of life.

     It begins with the great crowd who had followed Jesus out to the wilderness.  We worry if our people have to walk from the far end of the parking lot, but these people left home and traveled to the wilderness to see Jesus on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus gave a test to the disciples.  “How shall we feed this crowd?”  They had no money.  The best they could do was a boy’s lunch.  That was so small that to share it was insignificant.  That is, until Jesus changed the arithmetic.

He had the people sit down in groups and he blessed the lunch and began to divide it.  God multiplied the loaves and the fish so the people had more than enough.

This sign was clear.  If Caesar can offer bread and circuses, this man can make bread out of nothing?  So they rose up to make him King by force.

This is very impressive ministry.  Jesus drew the crowd by his teaching, and he fed the crowd, tending to their felt needs.  They saw his power and wanted to make him King over their lives.  Surely this is the point where John will write, “and they lived happily ever after.”

Instead, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness.

Later after the crowd found Jesus again, now on the other side of the lake, they came to him.  Here began a dialogue between Jesus and the people.

“What must we do?” they asked. Jesus said to believe him.

“What sign will you do to make us believe in you?”  As if the feeding was not enough sign.  Moses gave manna day after day in the wilderness, could Jesus give daily bread to them?

    Jesus answered that he was the true bread was that which gives them life.

They asked for the bread, and Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  But….you still do not believe.”

The crowd began to murmur about this man whom they knew from childhood.  He grew up right around this place.  How could he say he is the bread of heaven?

Jesus made it harder for them, he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…..This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.”

They were stunned at these words, and he made them harder to accept.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you….”

The disciples even began to waver.  “Who can accept this teaching?” they said to themselves.

Then many of this numbered crowd left.  He turned to the Twelve and said, “Do you want to leave too?”

Simon Peter answered, and this is our fourth word:

“Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”


    I can only imagine what Jesus would have heard from the consultants, the denominational officials, the financial officers and the workshop leaders if this were a contemporary story:

“All these “seekers” had overcome obstacles that should have kept them away.  We really will have to address the issues of accessibility  and publicity as well.  But they had come a great distance.  And it was a good idea to feed them.  People feel comfortable eating, and it shows concern for them.  You met them at their felt-need.

But why were you so negative?  Why did you say things that were so hard to understand?  Why did you offend their sensibilities?  Why did you drive them away?  We will have to work on your communication skills in the future.

You had them in the palm of your hand.  Do you know how rare it is to have the people united around anything?  But you threw away this opportunity.  I suppose it is not to late to repair the damage……”

The only thing I can imagine that Jesus would say to these men is what he said to the Twelve:

    “Do you want to leave too?”


    All this conversation had to do with bread.  America has led the way in ruining bread.  It really started with bleached white flour.  Before WWI white flour was gotten by screening out the part of the ground wheat that was not wanted – all that dark gritty stuff in whole wheat flour.  In order to be able to transport and store flour in large quantities for long periods of time, white flour was also bleached.  This bleached flower was fine and could be stored safely for months.

The trouble is that wheat, as God created it and man developed it by his cultivation, was a pretty complete food.  Within the grain was starch, oil fiber  vitamins and minerals.  The process of sifting out the white from the whole wheat leaves the fiber and the oils out.  The process of bleaching what is left removes all the remaining vitamins and minerals.  The result is a form of starch and little more.

This flour after the war was put on the commercial market and the result was Wonder Bread.  Now what is wonder bread?  It is made of bleached white flour.  We all learned in the school lunch room that a kid can squish a slice of wonder bread down to a very small ball of dough.  In order that this bread can be nutritious, the vitamins and minerals that were removed in the process of making the flour were added back in.  Thus we have a bread with vitamins and minerals that build bodies in twelve ways.

What God gave us we changed, stripped of it’s original value, made it more convenient and profitable and added back in some of what was lost.

We Americans have led the way in doing the very same thing to the Bread of Life.  We have taken Christ, and the Scriptures and found ways to make them more manageable.  We have found how to store them in larger quantities and to gather them in larger amounts.  To do this we have had to remove some things.  We have removed the offensive and the uncomfortable.  The stuff that is dark and gritty.  Then because what we have left is so lacking in God-given nutritional value, we add back in artificially produced vitamins.

We have produced large churches where people can not possibly know each other by name or face, and so we create artificial fellowship groups, care groups, community groups and discipleship groups to put back in what was taken out.

We have turned these large churches increasingly into audiences.  And so we have to develop measurement tools to find the gifts and personality profiles of those we try to recruit into leadership.

We have taken out the Old Testament for the most part, along with the hard sayings of Paul and Jesus on judgment and holiness.  We have extracted from the books God had written little booklets of 6 to 8 lessons, principles, or sermons which give us crumbs off the loaf.

    Jesus would say to us as well, “do you want to leave too?,” except that we have already mostly left.


       Jesus knew the crowd for what it was.  After his popularity began, it is written, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in man.”  2:24,25

That is why he departed when they wanted to make him king.  That is why his answers were difficult.  He did not want easy mis-believers.  He wanted those who would come to him because in him they could find the words of life.

The problem for pastors is this.  We do not want to offend people by our own style or words or methods.  Yet we can not avoid the offense that is caused by the Word of God itself.  How do we discern the difference between our offense and the offense of the Gospel?

Elsewhere Jesus had confrontations with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Pharisees were rigorous rule-makers.  They liked to make rules in addition to the rules of scripture.  If God said not to work on the Sabbath, they developed and defended hundreds of other rules to interpret God’s word.  But Jesus said, to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”  And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”  Mark 7:8,9.

In  another place he said, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Those who want to make the burden of receiving Christ light, and who want to make the taste of the Gospel sweet, have warned us against laws and commands.  However, Jesus did not say that there were no commands or laws to present to the people.  He said that the Laws of God should not be added to.  What God has given should not be made burdensome.  He said, “My burden is light.”  Even so, there is a burden.  His issued commands: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We should not be against the demands of discipleship, but only against those we have made ourselves.

The Sadducees had no time for Scripture.  They were upper class power brokers.  The High Priests came from their ranks.  The religious rules and squabbles of the common rabble were not for them.

Some of them came to Jesus with a sophomoric question, about marriage in Heaven.  He told them off: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the Power of God.”  Mt 22:29

We in the church who want to be power brokers, and who long to be seen as professionals who deal only in excellence, are constantly tempted to diminish the Scriptures.  Quoting the Bible has less punch with the powerful people and the beautiful people than quoting a song or a scholar.

The only tools we have are ourselves, yielded as instruments of righteousness, the Word of God and prayer.

If the word is sharp, we shouldn’t try to dull it down or it won’t be able to do it’s work.  If the word is tender, we should not be callous toward those who need to hear it.

7 Words for Pastors – #3 “Sinners”

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

III.  Sinners   John 4:16

 Here are two Chicago stories.

A group of us joined with others to make a bus load of men to go the  Chicago Promise Keepers.  There we would be challenged, as we well knew, to practice racial reconciliation.  As we were traveling through Chicago to our hotel on the lake front, the bus driver took a short cut through the South Side.  We traveled along 58th Street, in a pretty rough part of town.  All along the trip to this point the men in the bus had been talking and laughing.  But as we traveled along 58th Street the bus became silent as we looked out at the boarded up stores, the graffiti, the empty lots and the peculiar people standing about on the street corners.  I could feel the tension in the bus.  Many had never traveled though a place like 58th Street.  Many were silently praying, “Lord, please don’t let this bus break down.”  As soon as we got close to the lake and the neighborhood changed again, the talk and the joking resumed.

 Years before on the South Side of Chicago my urban seminary class took a tour of one of the high rise public housing buildings.  We were led in this by a powerful black woman preacher named Hattie. She took us into a few apartments of people she knew.  I remember one scene in particular.  Hattie saw a man she recognized on the street.  His looked told all that he was an alcoholic and his staggering gait told us that he had been drinking.  She hailed him by name, and when he came close, she said, “John, when are you going to quit ruining your life and come back to the Lord?” And she prayed for him right on the spot.


 The Third word is John 4:16

“Jesus told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’”

 We know the text well.  Jesus did not bypass the bad neighborhood of Samaria as most of the Judeans did if they had reason to travel to Galilee.  Just as we bypass 58th Street by taking the outer loop around Chicago, they could take the outer loop on the other side of the Jordan.

We know that we need to quit hiding from sinners in the church.  Samaritans were from the Judean standpoint polluted people.  Their race was polluted by intermarriage with gentiles.  Their faith was polluted by the addition of false beliefs and practices from their splintered-off religion.

We have heard that we should go where the sinners are.  But when a bus takes us unawares through 58th Street, we are nervous.  Those people are polluted by drugs, gambling, city politics, crime, and who knows what else.

That is why we take the bypass around the city.

There are those who defend the city and it’s people.  These are the liberals or those hard to categorize evangelicals who are called by God to S. 58th Street.  (“And thank God we are not”, we say to ourselves.)

But here is the word.  How did Jesus meet sinners?  We have seen that he confronted and made uncomfortable Nicodemus, the seeker.  Will he affirm and comfort the sinner?

It looks that way at first.  Jesus chose this route through Samaria on purpose.  He anticipated this appointment.  At the well, alone with the woman, He asked for water.  He told her about “living water” and she was interested in it.  She asked for it.

What did Jesus do?  He made her uncomfortable!  He said, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

Like his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus’ style was both complicated and confrontational.   It was complicated in that it was an allegory about water, and it got into the theology of worship.  It was also complicated because Jesus turned quickly from his simple truth to her complicated life.

Jesus confronted the woman with the question about her husband.  He knew the full story.  Why did he get into this?  Didn’t he know that we should offer the living water without conditions?  Why would he say something that might drive her away just when he had her interest?

Jesus is like Hattie, or Hattie is like Jesus.  Both go comfortably to the places where sinners walk about openly.  South Chicago was not fearful to Hattie.  Samaria was not fearful to Jesus.  Both engaged in personal evangelism.  Both showed a warm heart and personal concern.  Both confronted.

We follow trends.  Once preachers went to the city at the Soup Kitchens and preached the gospel to the hungry, the dirty and the down and out.  Listen first, they instructed, and eat second.

That is old style evangelism.

Now Christian workers go among the people and offer understanding and sympathetic outrage.  They offer a helping hand and a bag of groceries.  At the holiday season they bring toys for the children.

This is the new evangelism.

Jesus’ evangelism was to go to sinners, to love sinners, to speak to sinners by name, and to confront sinners with the truth.  He confronted the women with the truth of the living water, and with the truth of her own life.

It seems that for John, seekers like Nicodemus and sinners like the Woman at the well need the same approach.

It is seen again in John 8, where Jesus first rescued the woman caught in adultery from her accusers, and then he said to her, “…neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  There was grace to forgive and grace to confront the sin that bound her to a degrading life.

“7 Words for Pastors” – Second Word: Seekers

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

II. SEEKERS    John 3:3

 In reading John for the purpose of preaching it to others, it preached to me over and over.  John has many things to say about being a pastor.  It has become my favorite church growth book.

There is much said about “seekers”.  John 3 tells us about Nicodemus, a “seeker” if there ever was one.

The problem with “seekers” is that they are different from us.  They do not belong to the tribe we call “church goers”.  There is a cultural divide between the church-goer tribe and the seeker tribe.  Our language and our customs are far apart from theirs.  What they expect to see on a stage is not like what we want to see on a platform.  What they expect to hear from a motivational speaker is not what we hear from a pastor.  How they talk around the water cooler or at the soccer game is not how we talk in church.

Nicodemus was a prominent man, a member of the ruling council that had retained some jurisdiction even under Roman rule.  He was a Pharisee, which meant he was well-educated in the tradition of the scriptures and their detailed application to life.  He was just the kind of man who was not likely to be found in Jesus’ inner circle.

Jesus’ inner circle was mostly working class. With the exceptions of Judas and Matthew, they worked with their hands, and came from a very provincial backwater to the north.  How would Jesus speak to such a man as Nicodemus?

 First, Nicodemus must have been watching and listening from a distance.  He was very aware of Jesus’ work and his reputation.  He had concluded that Jesus was some kind of prophet.

It is interesting that Jesus went out to speak to the people, but he did not go out to find Nicodemus.  He could have found the right words and images from Nicodemus’ world and approached him in the kind of forum or debate that was common to such men.  Instead we see Jesus who usually spoke a much more common language.  He spoke about the things of the common man and woman.  He used sheep, seeds, yeast, birds, flowers, coins and families to illustrate his talks.  He used crooked judges and crooked servants as well.  It was all quite commonplace to a man like Nicodemus.

Even so Nicodemus saw and heard this strange talk and recognized it as being from God.  “Rabbi,” he said, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

I wonder if we should work, as we are told we should, to make ourselves sound familiar to the people in our target audience. I wonder if they might not ignore us because what we say is like what they hear all the time.

The thing that needs to be heard is what causes them to say, “Yes, this teaching must be from God.”

Second, Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus question was challenging, confusing and blunt.

Nicodemus really did not ask a question.  He stated that Jesus must be from God.  Jesus replied to what Nicodemus wanted to ask.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”  John 3:3 (This is the second word for pastors.)

The answer was a challenge.  No one, even a sophisticated man of the world, can see God’s Kingdom as he is.  If he can’t see it, he certainly can not enter it.  He must be born again.

Jesus gave the altar call before he preached the message.  He did evangelism before he did the “necessary” pre-evangelism and before he had studied his audience.

Maybe when we try to make people comfortable, and try to establish trust, and develop a relationship, and then deliver the truth we are being less direct and honest than Jesus.  The message is more important than the messenger.

The answer was confusing.  This breaks all the rules of seeker sensitivity.  Our answers to seekers are supposed to be readily understood.  We should use familiar terms.  We should use their words.  Jesus broke these rules.

Jesus took about 17 verses to explain to Nicodemus this one verse.  He had to explain how a man can be born again. He had to explain the difference between physical life and spiritual re-birth.  Even his explanations were confusing as he got into the theology of the Holy Spirit and the theology of the Cross.  He used images such as wind, serpents, and light. Each of which needed its own explanation.

Jesus’ answer was blunt.  He started by telling Nicodemus that he was in need of a life-change that he called being born again.  He continued by saying, “You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things?  I tell you the truth….but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

Nicodemus had to know that he was being accused of stupidity.  Jesus did not mean that Nicodemus was lacking in grey cells, but that he was not using them.  He was not using them because he lacked something.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

We say that if we use good methodology we can attract people to the Gospel.  This is the church-of-the-world view, and over the centuries only the methodology has changed.   The disciples wanted miracles and crowds, but Jesus chose preaching in Mark 1.  He refused a temple in Matthew 17.  The Pagans had ceremonies and temples with priests and fancy word-formulas – so the church developed all of those and out-paganized the pagans.  Gutenberg’s Press and the Mimeo machine as well as TV, Radio, Movies, Videos, the Telephone and the Internet have all been hailed as the tool to break through to the people.  Sociology tells us about group size and dynamics.  Psychology tells us how to make people feel better.  Business tells us how to get some money and then to organize to get more.  Management consultants tell us how to dismantle old institutions and rebuild the old raw material into new ones.

Jesus said that no one in the world can even see the Kingdom of God.   If you can’t even see it, how can you enter it?

Jesus spoke of the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit has to give life to the words and He has to move invisibly in human hearts.  Jesus spoke of the Cross, because we have to come to the Cross to enter the Kingdom.  He spoke of the truth, because our only tool is the telling of the truth.  The truth which is testified to by the Spirit and by the evidence of God’s blessing on our ministry.

That is Jesus’ formula for reaching “seekers.”

One of my favorite ironies is the name of our church.  Bethany Evangelical Free Church.  I like to say that we became seeker sensitive in 1926 when we changed it from the Norwegian (Betania Ev. Fri Kirke) to the English.  If any community would be resistant to a church with “evangelical” in the title, it would be central Madison.  This neighborhood voted for Ralph Nader for president, recycles religiously, rides bicycles to work, mocks Republican suburbanites, and detests “Evangelicals” as closed minded bumpkins.  To be an evangelical pastor is to walk around with a scarlet “E” around my neck.

My best conversations come when people ask me what Evangelical means.  I tell them that it means we are committed to the authority of Scripture.

I gave that answer recently at a school outing, later the questioner asked me a much deeper question about the scriptures.  This “agnostic” had been reading the scripture and had a question that no one could answer.  “How could God have laws supporting slavery in the chapters after the giving of the 10 Commandments?”

God was opening her eyes, and the term “evangelical” was the doorway to our conversation.

“7 Words for Pastors” – Intro and First Word

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

Over a decade ago I wrote a series of essays based on my study of John.  I observed that there were a number of passages that spoke to me as a pastor, which was a bit of a surprise in John.  I will be posting these, one at a time, as we work through John a second time, about 12 years later.

I.  Ministries. 

To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.’                                                       John 3:27

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.   Exodus 20:17


Be content with what you have, because God has said,

‘Never will I leave you;

   Never will I forsake you.’

Hebrews 13:5

What a great ministry!  John the Baptist had come out of the wilderness with a powerful message.  He was the last of the Prophets who came to the people of God with the repeated message to return.  Return to God.  Return to the Word of God.  Return to faith and obedience, and leave behind all your disobedience.

What was amazing was that the people did return.  They went away from their materially rich lives to declare their poverty before God out in the wilderness.  This man John thundered beside the Jordan, and the nation shook.  They came to him and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins.

Baptism would have been an insult in normal times.  It would have meant that they were no better than the gentiles, those unclean worshipers of man-made idols and myths.  These were not normal times.  John’s voice rang out and struck a chord in the hearts of the people.  They agreed with the prophet and repented by the hundreds.

No one had every seen a ministry like this.  Not since Jonah preached to Nineveh had such a response been seen.

After John baptized Jesus, things began to change.  Jesus, the long-awaited One, had come and had begun his own ministry.  His ministry was destined, as John well know, to be greater than his own.

One day some of John’s disciples came to him.  They spoke with a note of alarm in their voices.

Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan — the one you testified about— well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

 This is where we receive our first word for pastors.  It confronts the biggest challenge to pastors in our number-conscious and ego-driven age.  It confronts us on the question of covetousness.  It rebukes us with words that cut to the heart of our ministry envy.

To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom.  The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must become greater; I must become less.”

 John’s Disciples were very upset.  That other One, the One John had recognized, that One that came onto the scene after John had boldly prepared the people, that One and his disciples were now baptizing.  They were taking John’s ministry from him.  What, they thought, was John going to do about it.

John’s answer was contentment.  His contentment was in the knowledge that he had done with vigor and with integrity the work he had been given.  He even had a measure of glory.  He and his ministry would soon fade away, but the Promised One had come.


 I don’t know of any verse that we show our disagreement with more than John 3:27.

I receive in the mail almost every day cards, letters, tapes and catalogues that promise the secret of successful ministry.  There is a close race going on between the credit card offers that arrive at my home and the ministry consultant offers that arrive at the church.  Most recently the ministry consultants have been winning.

We have come to the conclusion that the key to success is out there somewhere.  We scan the business world for organizational and motivational models.  We keep our eyes on the Internet so that we don’t miss the rapid changes sweeping by on ever faster microprocessors. We watch the entertainment world to see what fashions and what songs will draw the people.  We listen to the psychologists and sociologists who tell us what is wrong with people.  We even believe when the almost always incorrect futurists project from the known to the unknown with confidence.

We believe, if we can be judged by our actions, that consultants and mailings are more important to the work of the kingdom than prayer and preaching.  We believe that if we do not keep up with the world, we will be swept away by the tidal wave of change.

 But John gives us this other word.  “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven.”

Certainly this means that we can only receive the gold and silver and stone that we build into the ministry from God’s resources and God’s methods.

Certainly this means that most of what comes in through the mail slot and on the computer screen will be burned with all the straw and stubble of past efforts at ministry-glorification.

Certainly we must shut up out ears and run for our lives from this Vanity Fair of Man-Made Ministry.

John’s prophetic message was to return.

We need to turn our eyes away from our own need for success in the world.  Maybe it would be good not to count the average attendance – or if it must be counted, let others less vulnerable than the pastor keep the numbers.

We need to turn our eyes away from the other shepherds.  If another servant is gathering more sheep or baptizing more sinners or building newer sheep pens, it is of no importance to my calling.

We need to return our eyes to where they belong.  We need to return our eyes to the Good Shepherd, and follow wherever he leads.

Wherever he leads….and be content.

 “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;

  You have made my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

  Surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

Psalm 16:5,6

*                      *          *

My boundary lines have fallen in unexpected places.    As we approached graduation from seminary, my wife and I received a call from a small church in the borough of Queens in New York City.  We held them off because we had not had a chance to talk to district superintendents of our association.  That proved to be like many of my fishing trips: There no bites, not even a nibble!

So we went. Our first placement was a church of about 50, if we exaggerate only slightly.  They were first and a few second generation German immigrants in a strongly ethnic German and Italian neighborhood populated by avidly nominal church adherents.  The preceding pastor had left the church “bleeding and on the floor,” as the elder we met quickly informed us.  The church building sat across three city lots and had no parking except a driveway.  I watched one day as the other elder placed my name on the church sign under the English, but above the German message.  I started as pastor of half of a small church.

We served, mainly in healing the bleeding church, and perhaps in cracking the door open to the community, for nine years.  We had no numbers to show, except that the median age went down after all the funerals that came in the first year or two.

We would have happily stayed for another nine, except that the church needed a new leader.  Having been healers, they were not ready of us to be leaders.

We set out our resume. Like infant spiders riding the winds to their new home, we ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.

I remember arguing the point with the Lord.  Madison is a small city in a small state. It was not the urban ministry we had in mind.  As if to answer me, on a flight out to finalize details of the call, the plane that left LaGuardia airport, for some reason, circled the whole of New York City. The plane flew over each of the five boroughs, and went right over our neighborhood.  I remember thinking, “good-by to adventure.”  The plane also circled Madison before landing; It was a very much smaller circle.

Was this a demotion?  Had we proved ourselves to be minor-leaguers?  It was our calling, we were certain, and we received it.  This ministry has proved to be a very adventurous place.  We live where post-modernism is not a lecture subject, but a firmly held assumption by our secular neighbors.  We live where about a third of our neighbors are gay or lesbian – the first neighbors to welcome us was such a couple and their children. We live by one of the notorious inner-city pockets of at-risk families and crime.  Madison is home to the state government and a world class university of decidedly liberal values.  The church is in the city, but not a typical urban church; It is what it is.

It fits us, though we often lose our sense of humor.  It is for us a “pleasant place”, to use the Psalmist’s phrase, though we still aren’t reconciled to retirement here.


“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.”

Churches struggle with their call.  In Queens the elder joked about our “dynamic stability”.  With each older member who died, or with each family that left for the suburbs, we received a new member.  It was one for one, no matter what we did.  We said, “Oh, if we could only grow to 100, then we could have a really vital ministry.”

In Madison, in a church of 100, the church wondered if it was viable because we were “only” 100.  My first task was to teach and repeat that we do not find our calling by comparison or by copying other churches, but to receive our calling from the Lord.  I still repeat that lesson often because it is counteracted almost weekly by some author, consultant, denominational official or when we notice who gets media coverage and who does not.

It is like wealth.  We are “wealthy” if we have more than most other people.  Each culture has it’s own measurement.  But the scriptures tell us to be content with just food and clothing.  In the same way, we have a “successful” church if we are bigger than most, or if we have more pastors or better music or a better preacher than others.

But if John can only receive what is given him from Heaven, can we as churches measure our “wealth” or “success” by any other measure than that we can only receive what is given us from Heaven.  If God grants numbers because we are sent to a ripened field will we take the credit?  If we have few numbers because we are sent to a place with unyielding soil, will we reject the gift of God?