Monday, July 31, 2017

Presbytery Sermon

This is a sermon that I preached at the meeting of our presbytery (all the pastors and elders of the PCA churches in this region) this past weekend.

Before I came to Erie, I served on the session of a church in New Jersey. There was a godly ruling elder there who had this interesting habit. Whenever someone was examined to become a member of the church this ruling elder would be sure to read and comment on this from Hebrews.
Obey your leaders and submit to them for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Hebrews 13.17
That verse has stayed with me, continually reminding me of the weightiness of being a leader of a church. I am accountable for the care of the souls of the people in the church I pastor. I have always found that quite sobering. One of these days, Jesus is going to take me aside to talk with me about how I did caring for the people in my church. He is going to do the same with you.



What I would like to do this morning is to remind you of what you have been called to as leaders of your churches and in this way to encourage you to do your best in that calling. To that end, I’m going to take a look at one of the ways that the Scriptures describe our calling.

Soon after having planted a church in Thessalonica, Paul wrote them what really is a very tender letter. In it he uses a particular image to describe himself in his relation to those saints.  Listen to what he wrote.
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 1 Thessalonians 2.8-9
Do you see what Paul is doing? He is describing what his attitude was when he was with those saints. He is describing a parent’s love. This is what good parents always do for their children. They have such affection for their children that they not only give food and shelter, but also their very selves. And they labor to make sure their children are well cared for. We are to imitate Paul. We are to act as parents of our congregations.

You might be wondering why I chose to label that as parental affection. I got that from Paul. That will become clear if I read just a little more. Listen as Paul continues to express his affection for these folk.
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. 1 Thessalonians 2.11-12
Paul was being a parent to those saints. But not just a generic parent. He acted like a father. And just as a father would, he exhorted, he encouraged and he charged them. There is a lot of overlap in the words that Paul used here. They all have something to do with communicating to the people that there were things that they needed to do. But there is still some nuance to each word. So, in his exhorting, Paul urged them on to action. In his encouragement, he helped them to overcome whatever obstacles that stood in the way of their pursuing that action.  And at times, there even was a little edge to what he was saying to them. He charged them to obey. He was a father to those people.

Brothers, we need to be fathers to the people in our congregations. We need to exhort and encourage and charge in the way that a father is to do those things with his children. Sadly, there is a temptation these days for church leaders to be a little timid when it comes to doing these sorts of things, when it comes to leading the congregation like a father. Don’t fall for that satanic lie. Act like a father to your people. Don’t be afraid to do that. Imitate the apostle. It’s what your people need. And they especially need that these days when fewer and fewer male parents are actually acting like true, manly fathers, exhorting, encouraging and charging their children. Your people need the affection of a father. Be fathers in your churches.

But that does not mean that you are to be harsh. No. This is not a call to be gruff, which too many misunderstand fatherhood to be. Paul anticipated that. Listen to what else he writes in his letter.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 1 Thessalonians 2.7
Paul cared about these people. And so, he cared for them. He cared for them with the gentleness of a mother. And it was obvious that he did. They would remember Paul’s gentle, motherly care as they read these words of his letter.

We, likewise, need to care for our people with a mother’s gentle care. Our affection for them needs to be obvious. It needs to be so obvious that we can say to our people what Paul wrote to these people, ‘Remember how gentle I was with you, how I cared?’

So, you see, brothers, we are to be parents to our congregations, caring for them as a father and mother care for their own children.

Now, in all of this we aren’t just imitating Paul. Actually, we are imitating Jesus. Consider how He led His little band of twelve. There were times when He expressed the firm exhortation of a father.
In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." Luke 12.1
But there were other times when His exhortations of the Twelve had more than a little edge to them. Do you remember how He asked them,
Do you not yet understand? Mark 8.21
But there was also the gentleness of a mother.
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ John 13.33
Gentle words of a sacrificial parent said in the upper room as Jesus prepared them for what would happen the next day, the Cross.

So, brothers, this is what we are called to be as we lead the people of God. We are called to act as firm and direct fathers who are also as gentle as mothers. This is a part of watching over the souls of the people in our churches and doing that as those who will give an account.

But I can’t stop here. I’ve just laid out the command, the Law of God for church leaders. But if left by itself, law always kills, either by being overwhelming and thus driving to despair, or by giving a false sense of achievement and thus making proud. There is always need to include a note of grace.

So, let me say that being the leaders that we are called to be, imitating Paul who was simply imitating Jesus - that it’s impossible. To think otherwise is to set yourself up for disaster and to condemn your people to the same. Caring and being affectionate so easily becomes effeminate sentimentalism. Exhorting and encouraging and charging the saints is something that many do after the fashion of a despot. No, brothers, left to our own resources we will fail. Making progress toward this goal, obeying this command, is a matter of grace. And so, as with everything else, we are shut up to prayer. In the various ways that we can, we are to be praying that we might be able to obey this command of our Lord in the care of His people. And if we pray to be able to obey Him, will He ignore us?

Last thought. Why are we to give ourselves to this work in this way? Something from one of John’s letters captures the point quite well.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. 3 John 1.4
John was also a parent to his people. And hearing that they were doing well as saints was his joy. That’s the payoff for us as well. Let’s work at this with great effort and persistent appeals for the grace of God so that we can echo John’s words. And thus, on the last great day, the day when accounts will be settled, we will hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

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