My Dear Shepherds,
A few years ago Ted and Margaret from our church had a beautiful little grandson named Nathaniel Ziga Ward. Nathaniel is a Hebrew name meaning Given of God. Ziga is a name reflecting his Rwandan mom’s heritage. It means Remember Who You Are. And his last name, Ward, reminds him he belongs to a family. Without that last name, he wouldn’t know who he is. So: Given-of-God Remember-Who-You-Are Ward. That name gives a boy a head start in life.
One effect of this long isolating season is that God’s people start to forget who they are when they can’t be together. Our identity is wrapped up in our Christian family. Churchless Christians develop a kind of spiritual dementia, an amnesia where they forget their identity. A pastor’s job, like any parent, is to keep reminding God’s people who they are as a family.
Recently I read Acts 9, with the wonderful story of Saul’s conversion. I noticed how many different ways Christians were described just in that story (vv. 1-31):
“Disciples”—followers of Jesus
Those “who belonged to the Way”—walking in the Way of life he made possible
The Lord’s “holy people”—saints made holy to live holy
Those “who call on your name”—prayer people dependent on our Father
“The brothers”—spiritual everlasting siblings in a new family
“The church”—those who are gathered
And those are just some of the ways our people are identified in Scripture.
We are shepherds, to be sure, but our people are more than sheep.
The people you shepherd were once nameless nobodies, orphans, and castaways, people without a country. Now, according to 1 Peter 2:9, they are “a chosen people”—the elect on whom God fixed his love before time began.
Your people, tuning in to hear you from their couches and computers, are an unlikely, well-disguised “royal priesthood,” born anew into the bloodline of God’s great King and our tireless High Priest. Crowns await them as the royalty of heaven. Their prayers even now are transformed into incense rising from the altar in God’s temple, and throughout eternity they will pursue the delightful duties of heaven in the white robes of priests.
Your little flock is also part of God’s “holy nation,” blood-cleansed citizens utterly set apart from any other people by his love and their faith.
There’s more: that very ordinary group of people you serve are, in fact, God’s “special possession,” purchased and prized, his glad and free slaves. Once they lived condemned and impoverished, with no mercy to rescue them, but now “they have received mercy,” which is what we must keep telling them!
In Acts 9, the first thing Ananias said when he met the blinded, notorious persecutor was, “Brother Saul.” That wasn’t the greeting of one Jew to another but his initiation into the distinctive bond of Christian believers. We are so accustomed to calling one another brother and sister that we don’t realize how radical it was in the beginning. Joseph Hellerman, in his book, When the Church Was a Family, taught me that in the ancient world, nobody—nobody ever—would regard someone outside their family as a brother. Then Jesus, when told his mother and brothers had come to see him, “Looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 31:35). So when Ananias put his hands on this unlikeliest of disciples and said, “Brother Saul,” he gave him the ennobling name Paul would use of every believer he met after!
Your job in these distancing days is to keep reminding your people they are family, the household of God, brothers and sisters, believers, disciples, God’s company of the holy, the siblings of Jesus, and the bride of Christ. That even when they aren’t in the same place they are “the gathered”—“the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
On a Friday night a teenager grabs the car keys and heads out the door and his father says, “Son, remember who you are.” That’s your job, too.
Be ye glad!