April 13, 2008 - Fourth Sunday in Easter
I flunked evangelism. It’s true. I withdrew from the one course I had in evangelism. It was at another seminary, before I went to North Park. The professor required us to use a confrontational, manipulative style of witness, to perform it once a week, and then write a page-long report.
I tried. In two weeks I had two evangelistic conversations, one with a neighbor and one with our Jewish landlord. But in such a short time, I didn’t feel right asking the required question, “Are you ready now to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” So my reports were marked “Incomplete.” When I went to withdraw from the course, the professor refused to allow a passing withdrawal unless I “completed” those two weeks of witness. So I have a “WF” on my transcript, “Withdrew Failing.”
Therefore, I admit right up front that I may be the wrong person to talk with you about how it is we as Christians fulfill our Lord’s call to share our faith. Over the years, I’ve led people to Christ and some have come to faith through my preaching, but as I told the search committee when I came here 15 years ago, I’m not a “soul winner” in the aggressive, always-out-there, in-your-face kind of way.
Evangelism is part of the character of the Christian church. As we learned in the Veritas workshop at the beginning of the year, intentional, deliberate evangelism is one mark of a healthy, missional local church. We believe we have good news—that’s what “evangel” means—and that good news is for everyone. Part of our mission is to help people start believing in Jesus Christ. On the back of your bulletin, that’s the bullet point labeled “Outreach.” Part of what we’re here for is the kind of thing we read in Acts 2:47, to add to the number of those who put their trust and hope in Jesus, the number of those being saved.
However, instead of choosing some text like the Great Commission from Matthew 28, or Daniel 12:3, which says that those who lead others to righteousness will shine like stars in heaven, I decided to stick with the assigned Gospel for today and see what it might teach us about evangelism.
The first thing I notice here is that Jesus gives us every reason to want to share the faith we have in Him. He describes Himself in a wonderful way that captured the hearts of the earliest Christians and still draws people today. “I am the good shepherd,” He said in verse 11.
One or two hundred years before Christians started drawing and making crosses as symbols of our faith, they painted pictures of a man tenderly carrying a lamb across his shoulders. The Good Shepherd was the image they drew on the walls of the catacombs where they baptized new believers and buried their dead. They worshipped there in the serene hope that the Shepherd had carried home those they loved and would one day carry them home.
Most of us are a long way from the agrarian life-style that made a shepherd such a powerful symbol. In the spring we smile as we pass north up I-5 and see the fluffy white shapes of sheep and their sweet little lambs against the green fields. But we don’t have a strong connection to the scene, an intimate sense of a shepherd’s care and protection for those helpless creatures.
Yet something still rings true for us in what Jesus says here about the voices of strangers, the intent of thieves and robbers. We are bombarded by voices calling us to move one direction or another, to support this initiative, to vote for that candidate, to get this kind of education, to join that kind of support group. Whether it’s the shrill sound of a conservative talk show or the unctuous tone of National Public Radio, they all want us to listen, to follow, to be guided by their voices. And we often just tune them all out, run away from all strange voices, as Jesus says in verse 5.
Likewise, we have the feeling we are surrounded by those out to get us, the thieves and robbers Jesus talks about in verse 8. We buy machines and spend time shredding bills and documents so no one can steal our identity. We put our names on “don’t call” lists so we won’t be solicited by unscrupulous telemarketers. We buy deadbolts and security systems and we teach our children not to talk to strangers. We trust no one because “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Among all those voices, you and I rejoice to hear one clear, gentle, strong voice which has only our good at heart. The tender voice of a Shepherd calling us to safety, to nourishment, to joy, to life. It’s the voice of Christ our Lord saying in verse 10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” That is a voice we are glad to hear, a voice we have come to know and love. And we believe others want to hear and know His voice as well.
We have this glorious good news that there is a Good Shepherd, a shepherd so good that what He tells us in verses 11 through 15 is completely true. All those others—the ones we hire with money or votes to protect and take care of us, the police, the politicians, the attorneys, the counselors—they will leave us. In the end, when life is at it’s very worst, they either can’t or won’t help us. But the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Jesus cared and laid down His life for us. He can and will help us. That’s our good news. That’s our evangel. That’s why we want to be evangelistic.
So the church has always seen its mission captured here in the words of Jesus recorded in verse 16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
In the immediate context, Jesus was talking to Jewish people, to Jewish religious leaders. He can only have meant that those other sheep were non-Jews, Gentiles, people that those Pharisees never imagined God had any plans for. But to Jesus they were His sheep, lost lambs to be found and gathered in. He would welcome them into His fenced-in, watered, well-stocked fold where His flock was safe and happy.
We see the Good Shepherd’s mission to His other sheep unfolding as we read the lessons which come from Acts rather than the Old Testament in the season after Easter. Almost from the beginning, the church began to do what Jesus said He needed to do, to bring those other sheep into the fold, to share the good news of the Good Shepherd and let every race and people hear His voice.
In a sense, then, to do evangelism is join Jesus in His shepherd work. We share the Gospel to our Lord’s scattered sheep wherever and whoever they are. Because our work is taking care of God’s flock, the church early on began sometimes to refer to its leaders as “shepherds.” Paul says so in Acts 20:28. I Peter 5:2 calls the elders of the church to be shepherds. Jude warns against bad shepherds. Our word “pastor” means “shepherd.” So in Ephesians 4:11, where we read that some are called to be “pastors and teachers,” the word is really “shepherds.”
When Peter mentioned it, he went on to say that we expect those of us called to be shepherds of the church to give account of our shepherding one day to the Chief Shepherd. Part of that accounting, I am sure, will be how well we’ve done at this business of finding the lost sheep, the other sheep, the ones who are not yet in the fold. It’s an awesome and somewhat frightening responsibility. How are a few fallible human beings supposed to carry on and do well in the work of the Great Shepherd who is God?
A long time ago I heard a sermon that helped lift the burden for me a little over the years. We had a thoughtful pastor who preached this text and suggested that, because of our sin and frailty, it was often just too much and too dangerous for pastors to think of themselves as full-blown shepherds, to give ourselves the same title as our Good Shepherd. So he argued that, instead of shepherds, we might be better off most of the time thinking of ourselves as sheepdogs.
Sheepdogs are wonderful animals. Over centuries they’ve had bred into them an instinct that just naturally makes them gather a herd together. It doesn’t even have to be sheep. Some of you may remember our backpack trips when the Skardas brought their dog along, a beautiful little Sheltie, one of the classic sheepdogs. The kids loved how cute she was, carrying her own food in a little pack, running up the trail alongside us.
We also observed how that Sheltie’s herding instinct kept her constantly on the move. We watched as she would run to the front of the line to check on the first hiker, then turn and run back to the end to make sure the stragglers were coming along. When we stopped to rest, she would run a circle around the group, making sure no one was wandering away, that everyone was there and staying together.
It’s no wonder that shepherds in the western world, especially in the British Isles, have found sheepdogs invaluable. The shepherd’s task is blessed and aided by these amazing four-legged assistants, running back and forth, nipping at heels, barking at reluctant sheep, pushing the flock together.
No one, though, mistakes the sheepdog for the shepherd. That’s the virtue of this image. It’s absolutely clear that the shepherd is in charge. The dog might run itself silly keeping the flock together, but it won’t know where to guide them without direction. A little sheepdog won’t be able to provide food or fight off a large predator. No matter how good or successful a sheepdog may be, it’s absolutely clear who is the real leader of the flock. And, sheepdogs may come and go, but the shepherd remains the same.
It’s a good image for pastors. That’s why it stuck with me. It keeps me in my place. Yes, it’s my job to help take care of the Lord’s flock, to gather in His sheep. But it’s His flock, and I am just a helper, a sheepdog for the Shepherd, not the Shepherd Himself.
Today I want to suggest that being sheepdogs is a good idea for us all, not just the pastor. Our mission is to make Valley Covenant a fold for lost sheep who have been found. To do it we must all be sheepdogs, joining the shepherd in gathering up His lambs.
Someone in your neighborhood does not know what it says in verse 3, that Jesus knows his name. A person you work with is looking for her gateway into abundant life and hasn’t heard that it is Christ. Our job is to nudge, coax, push, pull and welcome them into the fold. He needs to hear the guiding voice of the Master. She needs to feel the love of the Shepherd. It is through us that Jesus is bringing other sheep to Himself.
Anyone can be a sheepdog. It is not just the pastor’s role. It’s not just for some kind of super Christian. In the movie “Babe,” we watched as a pig became a sheepdog, learned how to gather up the flock. The animals on that farm called the farmer, the shepherd, “Master.” The pig Babe became a sheepdog by becoming devoted to his master, by listening carefully and following his directions. That same kind of devotion of to Jesus will turn us into loyal disciples of our Master, following at His heels and chasing after those He has come to save. Even a pig like me who flunked evangelism.
Being sheepdogs also reminds us what the end product of evangelism is supposed to be. As Christians we need the basic herding instinct we saw in the Skardas’ little Sheltie. Our mission is not to go out and find or make a sheep for Jesus here and there, leaving them scattered and alone. Jesus said about those other sheep, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one Shepherd.”
Evangelism was never meant to merely produce individual Christians. It was meant to produce a church, to produce the Church. One flock and one Shepherd. To win a soul is not merely getting a person to believe in Jesus Christ and then rejoicing that now that individual is going to heaven. Winning souls, evangelism, is sheepdog work, gathering, herding people together to be the flock, to be God’s people, to be the Church.
Much of what we do in the church is sheepdog business. We do it when we teach Sunday School or lead Children’s Church and gather the littlest lambs. We do it when we visit the sick or comfort those who are mourning, tending to the hurting members of the flock. We are sheepdogs when we notice someone has been absent lately and make a phone call or write a card. It’s even good sheepdog practice to make sure the grounds look nice or the building is clean, so sheep feel comfortable and at home in the fold. Thank you to all of you who join me in the dogged work of keeping the flock together.
Yet there are those other sheep, not yet of this fold. So we dog it out beyond the edges of the flock, beyond where we ourselves feel comfortable as sheep. We are sheep, but we are sheepdogs too, going out to find those others the Shepherd also wants to bring home.
In Acts 20:28, Paul told all the Ephesians elders, not just a single pastor, to be shepherds of the church of God. Shepherding, sheepdogging, is the business of us all. Bringing the good news of a Great Shepherd and His abundant life to all the lost sheep of our community is a far greater task than any dog, any pig of a pastor can do by himself. It’s a holy task that belongs to us all.
Learning to be a sheepdog takes training. We don’t all start out with the same talent for it and we haven’t all learned how to do it. So I’d like to invite you to join in next week’s adult Sunday School class at 9:30 a.m. where Gary Lane and I will present two options for how we might become better evangelists, better sheepdogs.
Most of all, I want you to know how very good it feels to be a sheepdog. There is a huge joy in seeing someone you’ve prayed for and talked to and sought after come into the fold of the Shepherd. I’ve felt that sweet joy a number of times as I’ve prayed with someone confessing Jesus for the first time, or stood and watched a person walk down the steps into the waters of baptism. It’s a blessed gift.
The best gift of all, we must remember, is still to come. If we have been faithful sheepdogs, faithful followers of Jesus Christ, gathering in His sheep through intentional evangelism, there is a wonderful blessing. Like a faithful dog running into the arms and affection of his master, you and I will come running into the arms and love of our Good Shepherd, as He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj