“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not out of coercion but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.” I Peter 5:1-4)
As Peter comes to the end of his first letter, his thoughts turn to the leaders of the churches to which he writes. It is obvious they will play an enormous role in enabling the entire church to remain faithful and to live effectively through the time of persecution that is to come. That is, they will play such a role if they actually are the leaders they are meant to be. It is to that end that he issues them the exhortation in today’s passage. It is almost exactly the same charge the Apostle Paul gave to the Ephesian elders in his last parting with them:
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to rightly shepherd the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.”
For almost fifty years these two passages have inspired, challenged, instructed, and rebuked, and corrected me. They have done so for countless others through the centuries, as well, for they provide with great passion the clearest image and call to what God wants from all who lead within the church.
That image is captured in one word: Shepherd. Not a title of authority, like king or bishop, but the humble role of one whose task is to serve the needs of those he oversees: to guard, protect, feed, and care for his flock, though he may also bear the title of king or bishop. The shepherd is a servant of those whom he leads for their well -being. He lives with the sheep and is almost one with them. As Pope Francis has said, good shepherds always have “The odor of the sheep”. Furthermore, he sacrifices for the wellbeing of the sheep, even to the point of laying down their life for them. It is the ideal we see captured in the wonderful Psalm of God’s provision and protection: Psalm 23. And it is embodied in the life of Jesus, the Good shepherd who did indeed lay down his life for his sheep.
This is what we are all called to be.
However, we are to realize that our role is not our own to grasp but an entrustment from another. Most shepherds are not the owners of their flocks. Rather, they have been entrusted by another to care for them on his behalf. So Peter says, “Tend the flock of God which is your charge (entrustment)” and Paul says it even more emphatically ,with an emphasis on the price paid for the flock and who paid it: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians…which he obtained with his own blood.”
Finally, the motive of our service must not be a sense of resented duty, a desire for personal gain, nor the pleasure of being in authority or “lording it over” those beneath. Rather it should be an entrustment we take on willingly and eagerly. In particular it must come from love–of the one whose flock it is and love of the flock itself. Here I think of Peter sitting with Jesus by the sea of Galilee after the resurrection. “Peter, do you love me?”, Jesus asked three times to the one who had denied him three times, to which Peter responded each time, “Lord,you know I love you!” And after each answer our Lord said, “Then feed my sheep”. In the same way, our accepting of the role of shepherd in whatever capacity (official or not), his call to “feed my sheep”, is to be the glad response of love.
Three years ago, just after he became Pope, Pope Francis addressed a group of newly consecrated bishops. His text was our passage from I Peter. What he said to them is for us as well:
“May St Peter’s words be engraved on our heart! We are called and constituted pastors, not pastors by ourselves but by the Lord; and not to serve ourselves but the flock he has entrusted to us, and to serve it to the point of laying down our life, like Christ, the Good Shepherd.”
May all who are called to lead aspire and, by the Spirit, be empowered to be just such shepherds of the flock of God.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.