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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Elders, Deacons, and Saints (various texts)

Some Music Used
Praise the Lord (Cameroon Procession)
Mighty to Save (Hillsong United)
Take My Life and Let It Be (Chris Tomlin)
He Saved Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)

Texts: 1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1;1-3; Romans 1:1-7
September 26, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the spoken sermon varies significantly from the written version. This is one of those cases. Because of a very full service, I summarized the points about elders and deacons and preached primarily on the "saints" portion (last 1/3) of the sermon. That's what is on the audio recording, though the original manuscript is included below.

Today we are installing our new elders and deacons. I thought this would be a good opportunity to give a brief overview of what elders and deacons do in the New Testament and at Good Shepherd. I also want to use that study as an opportunity to talk to the folks who are not elders and deacons.

What Do Elders Do? (1 Peter 5:1-3)

There are actually a number of passages that talk about elders. If you didn’t know, elder is the English translation of the Greek word, presbyteros. Sound familiar? That’s where “Presbyterian” comes from. “Presbyterian” means “ruled by elders.”

You can find qualifications of elders and other such passages, but I chose this short passage from 1 Peter 5:1-3 as a good overview of what elders do, particularly in the Presbyterian church. Let’s look at that passage and I’ll highlight five key phrases:

1. Shepherd the flock of God among you (v. 2)

Elders are “shepherds.” That means they are to care for, protect, defend, and lead the congregation. That’s why they chair all the ministries of the church and are granted local authority in the Presbyterian form of organizing the church. Pastors are understood to be one type of elder-shepherd, given particular responsibility for teaching and preaching. But the whole group of elders, which we call our “Session,” are collectively the shepherds for this flock.

2. Exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily (v. 2)

I said that “Presbyterian” means “ruled by elders.” But this scripture makes clear that this rule is not by might, but through service. That’s why we nominate and elect elders. The congregation chooses to submit to their leadership, in recognition of God’s gifting and calling. That leadership is never forced, but welcomed.

3. According to the will of God (v. 2)

Elders are to lead “according to God’s will.” The primary way to do that is through attentiveness to scripture. I’ve been teaching the last few weeks about the importance of studying the Bible for knowing and responding to God’s will, and this is all the more true for our elders. That’s why you’ll find many of them teaching Sunday school or leading studies, and why participation in our Christian education program is one of the key qualifications as people are considered for nomination.

4. Not for sordid gain, but with eagerness (v. 2)

I’m not sure anyone thinks that being an elder could produce “sordid gain.” It’s not like they are paid. Having said that, sometimes people do seek church leadership positions for less than pure reasons. Some may seek visibility in the community or for what was already addressed, exercising authority over others. This phrase commends eagerness – elders should be enthused about serving, but for the right reasons, not selfish ones.

5. Nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (v. 3)

If it was not yet clear what biblical leadership looked like, this description makes it clear that elders are to be servant leaders who strive to model their lives and actions after Christ. Elders are not perfect (including pastors); but our goal should be consistent Christ-like character and behavior, including repentance and reconciliation when we do fall short.

I commend our elders to you as well-chosen, gifted, and called by God. We are blessed by the leadership God has provided at Good Shepherd.

What Do Deacons Do? (Acts 6:1-6)

Now, what do deacons do? I would invite you to turn to Acts 6:1-6. We haven’t always had deacons. We added the deacons’ ministry about six years ago for similar reasons to those found in this Acts passage. We also modeled our deacons’ ministry after this passage.

Like there are for elders, there are passages listing the qualifications for deacons. What I want to look at with you this morning is a brief description of what deacons do.

In the Acts 6 passage, the twelve Apostles were becoming less and less able to keep up with the needs of the growing groups of Jesus-followers. And so, in order to not neglect the prayer and teaching ministries, they identified a group of people to serve those in physical and material need, particularly the widows among them. First acting as literal “table servers,” (the meaning of the word ‘deacon’), these deacons became those set apart for various ministries of mercy and compassion in the early church.

And so, at Good Shepherd, we have set apart men and women to serve our congregation and the neighbors around us in areas of visitation, crisis, material and physical need, and hospitality. Each member of the congregation should have their own deacon who communicates with you regularly, prays for, responds to, and communicates any needs to me or to our larger prayer ministry. They meet with folks inside and outside the church who are facing financial needs and can offer both immediate help and longer-term counseling and tools around budgeting, saving, and wise use of resources. They help coordinate our welcoming and hospitality ministries.

Like elders and pastors, our deacons are not perfect! They also get discouraged, lose jobs, have crises, and need prayer. But they are here to lead the way in caring for those in need in the name of Christ, and God has called together a pretty extraordinary group of men and women as deacons at Good Shepherd.

Please, when your deacon calls you, welcome that contact and make use of them. They aren’t just performing a routine administrative task. God has gifted and called them as Christian servants and they are exercising those gifts and helping us experience the compassion of Christ in this place.

Who are Saints? (1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 1)

And now, for the rest of you! I hope that even if you are not an elder or deacon, you gained something from hearing about the ministry of elders and deacons. But I’m not done; you are not left out!

Please turn to 1 Corinthians 1 as I speak briefly about God’s “calling” on the rest of us – actually on every Christian, including pastors, elders, and deacons.

Listen again to verse 2, to the identified recipients of Paul’s letter:

…to the church of God which is at Corinth … with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

Paul is writing to the whole church in Corinth, and to all Christians beyond – all who call on the name of Jesus as Lord. That’s the basic definition of a Christian and of what makes up the Church – it’s all those who trust Jesus as Lord.

But I left out the part I want to focus on. I wanted first to make sure you knew Paul was talking to you. You are the church! If you trust in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, look again at verse two at how Paul identifies you: …saints by calling.

God calls some to be pastors, some to be elders, some to be deacons. But those callings are not super-Christians or more or less than Christian; they are simply people set apart for certain roles. But every Christian has a calling – YOU have a calling, and it is as a saint!

I realize that most of us may have a different idea about what a saint is, but much church tradition in that area has moved away from the biblical use of the word. And it’s not that any of the traditional saints weren’t saints; it’s just that everyone who trusts in Jesus as Lord is a saint.

So just as I did with elders and deacons in describing their calling, I want to do with you saints to describe your calling.

First, let me start with where I ended in that description. I said that pastors, elders, and deacons were not perfect people. Likewise, saints are not perfect people. That’s not what the word means. It means “set apart” or “distinct.”

For some of those specifics, let’s look at some more details in this passage in 1 Corinthians 1, then we’ll turn to Romans 1.

1. The church… (1 Cor 1:2)

In both these passages, as well as some 60 times in the New Testament, followers of Jesus are called “the saints” as well as the church. In fact the two words ‘saints’ and ‘church’ give us insight into God’s intent for a Christian. The word ‘church’ means “gathered together” and the word ‘saints’ literally means “set apart” with the specific connotation of “make distinct” The saints are the followers of Jesus who also constitute God’s church. God’s purpose for the followers of Jesus is to gather you together and make you distinct.

2. Those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:2)

“Sanctify” is a word that is related to “saint” – it refers to the process of making you distinct by molding or growing you into the character of Jesus. It began at your spiritual birth and continues through your earthly life. A saint belongs to God’s family, but is growing up into spiritual maturity.

3. All who call on Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 1:2)

As I said, this is the basic definition of a believer. But with the words or actions of “calling on Jesus” comes the obedience and submission implied in the words “as Lord.” Jesus makes clear that it is not enough to say “Lord, Lord” but that being his involves believing and following. A saint is a believer and a follower of Jesus.

4. Called among the Gentiles (Romans 1:6)

Turning now to Romans 1, notice that in verse 7 Paul is again writing to a church – this time in Rome – to those “called as saints.” In verses 1-6 he is describing his own ministry, but in the midst of that, after making a reference to the Gentiles, he refers to the saints as those who are “called among the Gentiles.” Remember I said that saints were gathered together to be made distinct? Here (as in many places) we see that we are not gathered and set apart AWAY from the world, but gathered and made distinct FOR the world. Jesus described us as “salt and light” in the world, and here Paul is reminding the saints that they are “made distinct” in order to be out among the Gentiles in the world. Saints are those who Jesus described as being “in the world but not of the world.”

5. All who are beloved of God (Romans 1:7)

Finally, as a good reminder in verse 7, saints are “beloved of God.” God loves you! Notice the order in verse 7. God does not look for saintly people in order to then reward them with His love. Paul is writing to all the Jesus followers in Rome – those who are beloved of God. That is simply an identifier for Christians – you are loved by God. Paul writes that first, and then identifies them as the ones God is making distinct in the world. In fact, God’s extravagant love for you is part of what makes you distinct, bearing the perfume or aroma of Christ.

Called by God

What do all of these scriptures and points have in common? It is that each of you is “called by God.” Every Christian is called or named as a saint. That is not a role to play, but an identity to accept. You are gathered together and are being made distinct for the sake of God’s work and witness in the world.

Some are called for a season for a particular work in the church and community. Those are elders and deacons, but they are not super-Christians. And, more practically, they are not the designated worker bees of the church. They are servant leaders for the church. But you – each of you – are gathered together (that’s “Church”) so that God may make you distinct (that’s “saints”) for His work and worship.

Do you yet need to call on the name of Jesus as Lord?

If you have or will, how will you respond to God’s declaration of who you are?

For what has God called you here and for what is God making you distinct?

Those are the questions of a saint and those are God’s questions for you. Amen.

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