(A sermon preached Sunday, Dec 30, 2012, at Tulare Evangelical Free Church, Tulare, California)
We could use the word pastor, of course, meaning shepherd. That is a very biblical image, drawing our attention first of all to the work of God (the Shepherd of Israel) and Christ (the Good Shepherd). But precisely by pointing so strongly to the ministry of Christ, the image of shepherd can be a little awkward to apply to Christian ministers. How can we express the way a minister’s work is subordinated to, and dependent on, the work of Christ? Are we under-shepherds beneath the Good Shepherd? Are we assistant shepherds? But Jesus speaks poorly of the “hirelings” who take up the shepherd’s task, so that image is spoiled. Sometimes I think that “sheepdogs” would be a good way of expressing the role of Christian ministers in joining the work of the Good Shepherd: sheepdogs can be marvelous at circling the perimeter of the flock, carrying out the shepherd’s will for the flock, but nobody would mistake them for the bosses. If “sheepdog” were a biblical term (I fear it’s actually better used by Plato!), I’d use it.
All authentic Christian ministry is Christ’s own ministry: Since Jesus is anointed to be our prophet, priest, and king, we can find terms for ministry in the language of each of those offices: Under him, the minister speaks prophetically to the people of God. Under the kingship of Christ, the elders do rule and keep order among the people, though without lording it over them. And under the one, absolute, atoning priesthood of Christ, the Christian minister even works, as Paul says in Romans 15, “in the priestly service of the gospel of God,” bringing forth believers from among the nations as “offerings sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
But one description of the Christian ministry stands out as especially appropriate for the kind of theological ministry that Jason is being ordained to here today. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
Stewards of the mysteries of God, or as the NIV has it, “those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” Paul’s primary meaning here in the letter to the Corinthians is that this is the way to think of apostles. But what he says, and especially the image of stewards, has application to all Christian ministry, especially to theological ministry. I want to look briefly at this notion of stewards, secondly at what Paul means by mysteries, and finally at the incongruity of combining the two ideas.