Take Care of My Sheep

Stephen Lee 
Lam Ko Kit Tak Professor (Biblical Studies)

Address to be given at the Commencement Service of Chinese Theological College Australia in Sydney on 19 March 2020, event cancelled because of COVID-19.

On behalf of China Graduate School of Theology ( CGST ), I would like to congratulate each and every one of you graduating from CTCA today. My own divinity graduation from New College, Edinburgh, was way back in 1982, almost 38 years in retrospect. But for you, the 40 years of faithful ministry, called and sent by our Lord, is still ahead of you. May the good hand of our God guide you and keep you, as you seek to follow His will in your footsteps. And neither should you forget that 45 years ago, your principal, Rev Dr Dennis Law, came to CGST in Hong Kong. He was among our first MDiv graduating class, together with Andrew Ng, Joshua Mak and Ronald Yu; people used to memorize this gang of four by their last names, “Ng, Law, Mak, Yu” (in Cantonese, it means “five baskets of squids”). These “153 big fish” lead us back to the shores of Tiberias, and recall Jesus' last words to Simon Peter after His resurrection.

Chinese seminaries all consider training and nurturing church ministers as their core responsibility, but few have included the word “pastoral” in the very name of the school. As a matter of fact, the word “ποίμαινω” appears in the New Testament just four times1 : John 21:16; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 5:2. We may want to trace the metaphor of “shepherding” as applied to church ministry to this conversation between Jesus and Peter. In other words, all subsequent ecclesiastical understandings of “pastoral” ministry must begin with these words of our Lord in order to remain faithful and true to its original meaning.

In the three times Jesus asked Simon Peter to “take care of my sheep”, the first and the last time the word “feed” is used. Only in the second time the word “shepherd” is used. In the Greek Septuagint these two words are synonyms, but we may observe a focusing from a broad to a narrow sense. Paul encouraged the elders of Ephesus to be vigilant to “pastor the church of God,” and the key is on “God, and the word of his grace.” He also listed the various spiritual gifts of serving the church, and intentionally used a conjunction to connect “pastors” and “teachers” together. Many people think “pastoring” involves “caring, counselling, and therapy.” I am not saying that these are not important, but if we go back to New Testament theology, we must try to distinguish among the priorities. John Stott, without doubt, was the most influential Church leader in the 20th century. For his whole life Stott was a rector of an Anglican church in central London. From the time he began his pastoral internship, Stott had made up his mind to faithfully expound the Holy Scripture on every Sunday. I would suggest that you read chapters 9 and 10 in the first volume of his biography.2 They may help you to set up your direction and goal when you launch out into your first year of church ministry.

Many New Testament scholars have pointed out that although Jesus used “my lambs” and “my sheep,” and that in ancient manuscripts there even appear three different words for “sheep,” these are probably to be best taken as stylistic variations without any intention of making a significant distinction. But what Jesus did was to repeat the “sheep” metaphor three times, and He also stressed that they were “My sheep.” From the perspective of pastoral ministry, the congregation is never the volunteer team nor the clientele of the church minister. To use another familiar imagery to make the same point: “the Lord's sheep” are not to be trained to become “Christian soldiers.” The former is straight from the Bible, whereas the latter is a slogan from hymns of the Victorian era. Peter reminded the church elders that when they “shepherd God's sheep,” they should not adopt the ways of a gentile monarch, “to rule those entrusted to you.” The congregation is not the stepping-stone for the pastor to succeed. “With me, you win; against me, you perish!” This style of strong man leadership, even if it brings hundred folds of increase in number, is no more than a temptation of “the glory of the nations.” Be on your guard.

Eugene Peterson looks back in his Memoir on his life journey during the 29 years of full-time church ministry in Maryland. There were two years he was together with 15 other pastoral colleagues every Tuesday, learning from a practising psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins Hospital to recognise various needs of psychological counselling. This valuable experience expanded his horizon, but also brought an unexpected reflection. He found that he started to classify his congregation into various groups of “problem cases,” and tried hard to find therapies and solutions, forgetting that they were individuals created in the image of God.

“They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honoured and revered.
Who else in the community other than the pastor has the assigned task of
greeting men and women and welcoming them into a congregation in which
they are known not by what is wrong with them, but by who they are,
just as they are?”

Peterson did not ignore the contributions of clinical counselling in modern society, but he insisted that it was not the same as the duties of the pastors. “And my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them to living a holy life.” “Holy” means “separated, belonging to God,” as they are all “the Lord's” sheep.

Biblical scholars also have different opinions on the use of the two distinct words for “love” in John 21:15-17, and the arguments keep going on. We have no intention to be drawn into this debate in these last minutes. But we still have to ask, at the end of the day, what is the connection between “pastoring my sheep” and “do you love me?” If the motivation of pastoring comes from “loving the Lord”, then whether the sheep are lovable is of no relevance. Actually, there are warnings from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that the nature of the sheep is “going its own ways.” The Lord as the supreme shepherd will use His rod and His staff to chastise.4 Daniel Jenkins, visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982-83, half-jokingly said that we were, at the most, sheep dogs of our Master. In a BBC TV series, “One Man and his Dog”, one sheep dog following the whistle of its master, has to fetch a group of four sheep from the opposite hillside back to the pen. On the screen you can see the dog running hard, chasing or blocking the sheep here and there, and barking constantly. But the dog would never knock over or bite any sheep, though the sheep may just turn away at the last moment in front of the sheep pen. From where does the dog get its endless energy? The answer is easy to be seen: it is from its loyalty and obedience to the master. In fact, this is the teaching going through the Old and New Testaments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Serving as a pastor is a life-long calling. Let us dedicate ourselves as a living sacrifice, “a worker who does not need to be ashamed, and who correctly handles the word of truth.” The ultimate goal of our vocation is never success nor significance, it is sanctification. “To be holy and separated for His ministry,” be it the first or second half of our entire lives. “Pastor my sheep” is the gracious Lord's command for those of us who have responded to His calling. There is no promise of “skies always blue, flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.” May our Lord's sacrificing love revealed on the cross encourages us all to “fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith.”

Let us meet again on that day when Christ will award all His servants the crowns of righteousness. Take care!

1 Derek J. Tidball Builders & Fools: Leadership the Bible way (Leicester: IVP 1999) p.133.
2 Timothy Dudley-Smith John Stott, the Making of a Leader: A Biography: The Early Years Downers Grove: IVP 1999.
3 Eugene H. Peterson The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins 2011) p.137.
4 Jonathan Magonet A Rabbi Reads the Psalms (London: SCM 1994, 20042 ) p.59 / p.53.


Back to Bulletin Index ^TOP