This Holy Fight: Skin in the Game
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
I’ve asked repeatedly how our church became such a mess. I've asked it so often you are probably getting tired of me posing this question. So I guess I should really give an answer already. It all boils down to human nature displayed in place of God's character.
We're very aware of how I haven't been a saint as the world defines it. While at times I may have been merciful, kind, and respectful, I haven't lived a life wholly given over to Jesus. There are times that, instead of merciful, kind, and respectful, I've been willful, stubborn, and if I'm being completely honest, a bit pigheaded. Having those characteristics cost me. Pride harmed me. Wounds broke me. Salving over my hurt with half measures was one of the worst decisions I could have ever made, regardless of the circumstances under which they were made. At some point in this process, you have to take a tally of all that has happened. What have I lost? More aptly, who has been lost? Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that doing the will of the Father stores treasures for us in heaven. All the treasure I may have stored up there in my own account, I would gladly give up if I could go back and say what I should have said, do what I should have done, all when I should have done it. One more soul experiencing the richness of God's love would be worth living for an eternity as a pauper in heaven. Unfortunately, that just ain't gonna happen because that's not how it works.
Maybe you've led a good life thinking that you're doing well right where you are, staying put, only to find that we're not just asked to go tell people about Jesus, but in actuality we're told to go. We can say to ourselves that we don't own the flock, and we'd be right. You can reason with yourselves that you're not pastors or bishops or deacons or certified lay speakers, and you'd be right. You're not shepherds in this church, your pastor is. Isn't that part of the name pastor? We pay our clergy to build our churches, so they should be the ones doing the building. That's what a lot of folks think. But I don't believe that you feel that way.
The long and the short of things is that we can ignore this question of who's responsible for the flock, or we can face it head-on.
Easy to ignore
You gotta admit, it would be easy to blow it off. We can justify ourselves in doing just that in so many ways. Maybe we can just get buried in the details of everyday life. Sorry, Jesus, the kids, and grandkids just have too much going on for me to spend any more time with you than Sunday.
That doesn't sound like you, though. Maybe some people, but I don't believe that accurately defines the people of this church.
Going beyond the details of everyday life means we go beyond the things that bind us to this earth and into the things that are about God. That's the shift of focus I keep talking about.
Granted, we have a little church, but I love to tell other pastors that in my church, almost half the congregation shows up for Midweek Meetup to discuss the Bible. We're a tiny church, alright, but per capita, this church shows boatloads of heart. This is why I know that once you learn why Paul was crying in this goodbye to the leaders of the Ephesian church, you'll do something about it.
You're not sitters. You're doers. Whether you know that or not doesn't matter.
As Paul explains later in this chapter, there will be wolves who come around, even from the inside of the church. If someone doesn't have the guts to stand up to them when they do, the flock will be decimated. Those are Paul's exact words.
Before we can sort out Paul's words and tears further, there are two big questions here that need some attention. One, who is the flock, and two, who are the overseers?
First, let's talk about sheep. Sheep are, to put it bluntly, kind of dumb. Compared to our definition of intelligence, sheep are downright blockheaded. Sheep don't drive cars or balance check books or gets stressed about mortgages or their retirement or their boss or ... Ok, so maybe they're not as dumb as we think. But sheep have a sense about them that keeps them alive, so they don't entirely lack knowledge. They just lack intelligence and the strength enough to survive in the face of a lion or a bear. When carried off in the teeth of a lion or a bear, a sheep's best friend is a gutsy little shepherd boy who said, "Not on my watch, dude," and proceeded to put a hurting on the two interlopers. That's King David, by the way. David loved his charges, and that's why he did what he did. Later on, his generational grandson Jesus f Nazareth would point out the difference between the love and devotion of a shepherd like David and a hired hand.
Real fast sidebar here.
Do you want to know why David was looked down upon by all his older brothers? It wasn't just because of his age. I think it was because he made them look bad. When you're a kid, and you drag home a slightly wounded lamb and a lion or bear pelt that needs tanning, it says something.
David was one bad dude, even as a boy. The sheep knew this.
People as sheep need someone like David. They need an army of Davids, in fact. When the enemy comes around, they need a David who will stomp a mudhole in the backside of the bad guy and then walk it dry. Right now, we have lambs being carried off in the teeth of much worse than lions and bears, and we're in dire need of a couple of hundred Davids that can oversee their return to the flock.
You see, that's why Paul was crying. Paul was on sort of a farewell tour and was leaving for Jerusalem from Miletus. He'd bypassed Ephesus but still called their leaders to him because he knew he would never see the Ephesians again. Paul's love for the Ephesian church was the result of three long years of ministry. He would have loved to stay with the Ephesians, but he knew that wasn't going to happen if he wanted to reach his goal of getting to Jerusalem before Pentecost.
Now, the Ephesians were a pretty good church, one that Jesus tells us in Revelation 2 was full of promise, so why was Paul crying? Why wasn't Paul happy and resting secure, knowing he'd done an excellent job and they were in good shape? Because Paul had a lot of skin in the game. If you don't know what that phrase means, it means you put yourself under some sort of risk through your involvement in a particular venture. In the second chapter of Revelation, the church at Ephesus was described as a busy church, doing what it should do. It was a church that was working hard and doing it's best to be obedient. But they were going through the motions of being a church. That isn't surprising to discover as they were worn down by the endless need for endurance in their persecution. They had forgotten why they were called to do the work they did. Love was that reason. So who suffers when that happens? The flock suffers. The same congregation they were sent to increase through the spread of that love.
Appointments in our district and conference of the United Methodist Church last anywhere between three to five years. That's three to five years to do the work of a pastor within a church, to build up a body of believers there. This can be challenging for a pastor because some churches will lay the burden entirely at the feet of a pastor. The catch to this is, pastors, don't spread the gospel nearly as effectively as the church does. A pastor is only one person, but the church is much more than a person in a pulpit. A church is also more than the people in the pews. There's a reason the UMC is a laity-led denomination. The church was intended to be the body of believers. They were called to do their work of lovingly spreading the gospel among the community in which they lived. When we talk about our liturgy in the United Methodist Church, it is laity-driven, people-driven, because it is the work of the people in worship. That mindset has to spill over into their community involvement, or we end up a lot like the church in Ephesus. They were so busy on the inside. But Ephesus had forgotten entirely about the love for those outside its walls it had when it was young.
A pastor may be in a church for a short time, and then be called to go elsewhere, just as Paul was. But the leaders of the church and the rest of the church body remain there.
Think for a second about all that happens in your life over the span of 3 to 5 years. You could watch your baby grow, you could pay off a car, you could get a better house, you could graduate college. Is any of that worth crying over? Agonizing over? Of course, and with good reason. Now think of that timespan for the church, putting your frame of reference there. What is it that could cause us to cry or agonize from that point of view?
Make absolutely no mistake. We are in a fight. And this fight? This fight is treacherous. I've often thought that the worst thing that can happen to a person in this lifetime is to become successful. Jesus believed that way as well, and its because your comfort here directly relates to how you view storing up treasures in heaven. If I have wealth here, why should I bother with the treasure in heaven? I can't see heaven. I can't smell, touch, or taste heaven. But I can see my big house, and I can smell my 50-acre front yard that was just mowed, touch the keys to my Lamborghini and taste that 5-star meal I eat every night. While some folks can indeed absorb success, success is more likely to absorb those who encounter it. Success tends to remove us from the real reason we're here, the real reason we need Jesus and his Holy Spirit. The real reason Paul was crying.
This commandment from the apostle to the leaders of the Ephesus church wasn't given lightly. When I read it, as a pastor, this is a challenge directly to me to put up or shut up.
Paul gives me, again, as a pastor, an example of just what kind of personal investment I need to have in my church if it is to be successful. There's no room for half-measures in this fight. There's no room for sorta, kinda, maybe. Paul made that clear in the hard work he did in Ephesus teaching in the synagogue and at the school. It was a point he made with much agony out of the example he'd set for the leaders of Ephesus.
Breaking out of our human nature exposes us to the seriousness of the work. In it, we're exposed to the greatness of God. For the fight Paul faced, he modeled the skin he had in the game after Christ. When we do the same, we get a completely different viewpoint of the purposes God has laid out for our lives. And it will change you.
Paul called the leaders of Ephesus overseers. The word he used is "episkopos" and its where we get the word "episcopal" in reference to a church or denomination headed by a bishop. Its made up of two Greek words, epi, which means "on" and skopos, which properly means the end marker of a foot race. Put together, they mean something like "on target," with the broader meaning of guiding the flock to their target. Figuratively used here, it means the objective in their life of faith. Some commentaries say that is the individual reward God gives to each believer when He returns. I think it's more than that. I think it's the reward we get when we seek God's will, loving Him and all those around us. I think that's what Paul had in mind in the third chapter of the letter he wrote to the Philippians. "I press on toward the goal - skopon - to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
Translated literally, this passage doesn't mean we are only are called heavenward, as some sort of final outcome because once you have that, why sweat it by continually running? Why cry like Paul was? I think Paul knew that the upward calling could be fulfilled on earth in the two commandments Jesus told us to pay the most attention to. After all, once people are saved, that's not the end of the line. Loving our neighbors as ourselves doesn't end at their salvation. This is long-game thinking.
Why should I care?
There are two reasons you should care about this. The one who died for you, and the one who died for those around you. OK, so that's really one reason, but honestly, it's the only reason we need. The sovereignty of Christ has to be the place we begin to equip ourselves for this fight. Without that, we go into this fight unarmed. The power Jesus has to do what he said he would do is the center point of every promise God made to us. If you recall, it was the promises of God that started us on this journey out of our perceptions.
In the story of the lepers, which of the ten would we be like? Would we be the ones who were just there for the transactional healing of their diseases? Are we just here to get ourselves to heaven, and once that's done we just live this American Dream as best we can? Are we reducing Jesus to just a legal transaction because we got in trouble with the law of God? Or are we the leper who returns, healed, wanting to praise God along with the one who healed him? That leper completed the path to a relationship with Christ. The others didn't. I don't know about you, but I want more of Jesus. I want to be the leper who returned. I want to go and tell other people about Jesus but only after I have returned the love he gave to me in healing me.
If you hear nothing else from this message, hear this. Take this call to a relationship seriously. Paul did because Jesus did. All the law and the prophets hang on it, he said. Love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. It's about relationship first with God and then with others. We've talked about our spiritual disciplines, and we need to be actively involved in them to as high a degree as possible. Because it builds a relationship with God. We've started a challenge of spreading the love of Christ in little ways in the lives of as many people as we possibly can. That's because it builds a relationship with others. Loving God through relationship. Loving others through relationship.
That's Jesus's commandment right there.
According to Jesus, loving everyone we can reach carries a reward. In the latter half of Luke 6:35, we hear Jesus say, "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." Being in that close of a relationship with God is a pretty great reward.
"Reward" is translated from the word misthos, which means "a wage or recompense that appropriately compensates a particular decision or action." Bear in mind, that's a two-edged sword, and in Matthew 5, Jesus shows how it cuts both ways. We're called to love everyone and reach out to everyone, which is why I challenged you to do exactly that. The contrary recompense is called out in Matthew 5 when Jesus said, "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
That perfection is our goal, doing the will of God in a relationship with Him. Finding a relationship with the flock, and loving on them is how we guard, guide, and properly shepherd them. Mercy, kindness, and respect, the hallmarks of sainthood, are the tools at our disposal for this work.
The best reason
"Gettysburg," a movie based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, unfolds three of the most horrifying days in the history of our country. In a scene just a couple of days before the epic battle at Gettysburg, the movie shows Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment (played by Jeff Daniels). He's just discovered that his regiment is going to get a reinforcing boost of 120 Union soldiers. The other shoe falls when Chamberlain learns these are men who mutinied previously. The colonel also learns he is given permission to shoot any mutineers who don't cooperate with the coming battle. As part of a longer speech, Daniels' character says, "This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you'll see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them, or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free."
"It's the idea that we all have value — you and me. What we're fighting for, in the end, we're fighting for each other."
That's why Paul was crying. That's why Paul was fighting.
That's the kind of skin Paul had in the game. I challenge you, as Paul challenges me to put up or shut up.
Because putting up or shutting up isn't for my sake or for yours. It's for those whose eternal fate hangs in the balance.
It's for their salvation, yes, but it's also for their healing and happiness here on earth.
As a pastor, the beautiful part for me is I am blessed to know the hearts of the people in much church. I'm blessed to see the power God has placed inside each of them. I already know how they'll answer that challenge. I understand as a church how we have to fight. I know this church can fight. And whether you realize it yet or not, I know this church is a church that doesn't back down from fights.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.