A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison
At St Columba’s United Reformed Church, May 12th 2019
During a service where new Elders were ordained and inducted into office
What sort of Elders do we need at St Columba’s United Reformed Church? Or should I have been preaching this sermon before our Annual Church Meeting where we elected or re-elected those we ordained and inducted today?
As the name of our church suggests, we’re a congregation that’s part of the worldwide Christian Reformed tradition; small beer in denominational terms in England, but in world terms, larger than the Anglican communion. As well as looking back to the 16th century European Reformation – the clue’s in the title – for the emergence of our tradition, Reformed Churches tend to have some distinctive emphases today. It’s not to claim that other Christian churches don’t have these things, just that we emphasise them.
So, for example, when faced with challenging situations we’re likely to ask, “what’s the Bible say about this,” before we ask, “what does the Church say about this?” In more official language, that, “the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.” Of course, that’s from the statement concerning The Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church, which we read together earlier in the service.
Another distinctive mark of Reformed Churches is how we organise ourselves. We believe it is best for Christian Churches to make decisions and express leadership through councils – groups of people, together trying to discern God’s will for the way ahead – rather than by investing decision making power primarily in individuals. Some years back, when I was a minister in Liverpool, I received a letter addressed to “The Minister in Charge at Westminster Road United Reformed Church”. When I shared this with that church’s Elders Meeting it was received with great hilarity.
And, on one level at least, this was the correct response. In a Reformed Church congregation like ours, leadership authority is not simply invested in the Minister – what can you say? – but in the Elders Meeting. And as the United Reformed Church Manual – your habitual bedtime reading I’m sure – informs us, the Elders Meeting “shall consist of the minister(s) and the elders elected by the Church Meeting of such Local Church and shall exercise oversight of the spiritual life of the Local Church. The elders’ meeting shall serve the Local Church and by its relation to the wider councils of the United Reformed Church represent the whole Church to the Local Church.”
There then follows a list of twelve functions of the Elders Meeting, some of which, rather sneakily, I think, contain more than one element; and, just in case that was not enough, no. 12 is the catch-all which reads, ‘to do such other things as may as may be necessary in pursuance of its responsibility for the common life of the Church.’ Upon reflection, perhaps it’s better that I did not preach this sermon until after people had offered and agreed to serve, and after they had been elected at our Annual Church Meeting!
So, now that we know or have been reminded, about the vital leadership role exercised by the Elders Meeting, I return to my original question: what sort of Elders do we need at St Columba’s United Reformed Church?
And being Reformed, of course our natural first response to that question is, “what’s the Bible say about this?” And today the Bible reading from John’s Gospel has a lot to say about a shepherd and sheep, about a leader and followers. Jesus is in Jerusalem, walking in Solomon’s Portico, located on the edge of the Temple. “The Jews” – by which John means, not Jews in general, then or subsequently, but those Jews at that time opposed this Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers – the Jews are gathered around Jesus, demanding ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ (10:24)
And Jesus’s answers help us to see that we need Elders who are already members of the flock; that we need Elders who are committed to caring for a flock; and we need Elders who look to the world beyond the church flock.
Asked by others whether he will finally reveal himself as the messiah, Jesus says that he has already done so, not just by the content of his teaching but through his actions: ‘I have told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.’ (10:25, 26) Jesus identifies a flock: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.’ (10:27) Here, Jesus is the great shepherd, not Elders or Church Ministers, but if leaders are to arise, now that Jesus no longer walks upon the earth, the flock – his followers – is where they will come from.
That sounds a bit obvious: no members means no Elders. Where else would they come from, after all? But in addition to declaring that there is a flock, of which he is the shepherd, Jesus says some things about the nature of its members: they ‘hear my voice … they follow me.’ (10:27) In this world today, members of the flock, including members of this bit of the flock, Saint Columba’s URC, are those who make the effort to listen for the voice of Jesus – ‘they hear my voice’ – as their way of understanding the world, and then attempt to apply those insights in how they live – ‘they follow me.’
One comment I read about this Gospel passage said that whereas those who interrogated Jesus suspected that he was not the messiah and so was not really the shepherd, the real problem was that they were not really sheep: ‘I have told you and you did not believe. The works … testify to me, and you did not believe … you do not belong to my sheep,’ says Jesus. (10:25, 26) So, all we want, as first qualification, are Elders who are members of the Church; members who demonstrate in their beliefs, speech and actions that they are listening to what Jesus says and are trying to act upon it. Good members make good Elders.
Then, as well as needing Elders who are already members of the flock, secondly, we need Elders who are committed to caring for, committed to leading, this this part of the Jesus’s flock. Back to the URC Manual and we find that the Elders Meeting should be fostering congregational care for witness and service in the community, evangelism at home and abroad, Christian education, ecumenical action, and local inter-church relations. And that’s only the first of the twelve functions of an Elders Meeting. We have not even got to no. 2: seeing that public worship is regularly offered, and sacraments are duly administered, or function 3: pastoral care of the congregation. We don’t even get to buildings and finance until no.10!
It should not surprise us that the Elders Meeting is heavily involved with actions. After all, just as much as his teachings, Jesus said that it was his actions that marked him out as shepherd-leader: ‘the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.’ (10:25) So, this requires a group of Elders who are hard-working, who are active, which in turn calls for the members (from whom they have come) to be supportive and encouraging, with their comments, prayers and actions.
And a third quality of the Elders that we need at Saint Columba’s may challenge the church’s members, because what is needed might not be what we want: note that my question in this sermon has always been, what sort of Elders do we need. And the third quality of the Elders we need is that we need Elders who not only look after the flock but look beyond the flock.
It’s no coincidence that questions about whether Jesus is the messiah moved into talk about his being shepherd for his sheep. “Messiah” meant “God’s anointed one”; the one appointed to by God to save God’s people. It was as much a political term as it was a religious one. A messiah was there to lead a people, not just head up a religious movement. And also, “shepherd” was a term used not only of people who looked after the sheep but for political leaders who looked after the nation. They were supposed to model themselves upon God – ‘the Lord’s my shepherd’ – and if they did not, God would replace them: ‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture says the Lord,’ concerning Israelite leaders in Jeremiah 24, ‘I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them and they shall fear no longer.’ (Jer. 24:1, 4).
So, Elders who model themselves on Jesus, model themselves on a messiah, a shepherd who is as much concerned with what is happening in the wider world as with what’s happening within the flock. That’s a challenge for Elders meeting, Church Meeting; for the whole of the congregation. Most of us want leaders who look after us more than we want leaders who spend time looking beyond us. That sort of challenge got well summed up by a speaker I heard a few years back. He was talking about churches which set up new forms of ministry, projects or “fresh expressions” of church that reached out beyond the congregation, beyond present practice. When it came to time for questions, one of the audience said, “that sounds very exciting, but most of us in the congregation don’t have the energy for that sort work. What’s our role?” And I liked his response: “you can pray for it, you can pay for it, and you can promise not to obstruct it!”
As a Church in the Reformed tradition, we value our Elders Meeting. As Scripture suggests to us today, we need Elders who are rooted in the here and now, already members of this flock who follow Jesus. We need Elders who are committed to leading and caring for a flock in all sorts of practical situations. Like Jesus, they can be judged as much on their actions as their words. And finally, we need Elders who look to the world beyond the church flock and are ready to lead us there as well. And what do Elders need? They – we – need your support, in prayer, in action, both today and in the days ahead.