Shepherd received The Best Preacher Award by the Centre of
Mentorship and Theological Reflection at Tyndale University College
& Seminary, June 5, 2008. Following is the sermon he delivered
at that event.
Ministry Is Dearer To Me Than Life”
Thessalonians 1:1- 2:8
John Calvin suffered atrociously.
He was afflicted with chronic tophacceous gout, deposits of
calcified material around his joints.
In 1562 he wrote to Theodore Beza, “God keeps me bound by my
feet…. it is difficult for me to creep from the bed to the table.
Today I preached. But
I had to be carried to the church.”
In addition Calvin suffered terribly from kidney stones.
His physician advised him to ride his horse vigorously in hope of
discharging a stone. At the
end of the agonizing horseback ride Calvin wrote, “On my return home I
was surprised to find that I emitted discoloured blood rather than
urine. The following day the
calculus had forced its way from the bladder into the urethra.
Hence still more excruciating tortures….the urinary canal was
so much lacerated that copious discharges of blood flowed from it.”
Calvin also suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, and at one
point coughed up so much blood that he had to be confined to bed for
eight months. While he was
in bed for the eight months he dictated the 1559 edition of his Institutes and
translated it from Latin into French and revised his
commentary on Isaiah.
Calvin also had intestinal parasites.
(He describes in detail the hookworms and tapeworms that he
passed, but I shall spare you the details tonight.)
Calvin also suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (also known as
spastic colon), with its cramping abdominal pain.
For ten years he could eat only one meal per day.
He endured migraine headaches, often for days on end.
Not least he was afflicted with haemorrhoids.
The immediate cause of his death was probably septicaemia, shock
caused by bacteria growing in his bloodstream.
Repeatedly he had to be carried into the pulpit in a chair.
Why didn’t he quit? Or
if not quit altogether, why didn’t he take it easy on himself?
Why didn’t he take a few more days off and enter upon a life of
Why not? He tells us
himself in the dedication to his commentary on 2nd
Thessalonians: “My ministry…is dearer to me than life.”
Of course his ministry was dearer to him than life in
light of how he understood the ministry.
Consider what he wrote in his Commentary on Galatians: “When
the gospel is preached, the blood of Jesus flows”; and in his
Commentary on Hebrews: “When the gospel is preached, the blood of
Jesus falls on the congregation together with the words.”
It almost sounds like a Protestant version of transubstantiation,
the transubstantiation of the ministry.
To be sure, the ministry is more than preaching.
Calvin knew that. At
the same time, Calvin knew that every aspect of the pastor’s work –
preaching, teaching, visiting, listening, consoling – embodied the
logic of that work. And the
logic of the work of the ministry was that in every aspect of the
gospel-ministry that a pastor exercises the blood of Jesus flows;
through every aspect of the ministry that a pastor exercises the blood
of Jesus drips salvifically on the congregation that has been entrusted
to the pastor.
It’s a singular honour to be a pastor.
I am moved every time I recall the remark of Jean Vianney, an
early-nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest from the city of
. “If we really knew what
it is to be a pastor”, Vianney said, “we couldn’t endure it.”
What did he mean, “We couldn’t endure it”?
I have glimpsed what he means, for in the course of my pastoral
work, especially in situations of distress and anguish, grief and pain,
I have staggered home stunned at how eager people are to see their
minister and what comfort they derive from his presence.
I have slowly learned why they are eager and how
they derive comfort: it’s because they are trusting the pastor’s
faith to support their own faith when their own faith is assaulted by
tragedy or turbulence or sin. They
are counting on the pastor’s heart-knowledge of God when a wall has
fallen on them and mere head-knowledge isn’t going to help.
They want to lean on the pastor’s assurance, borrow from it (as
it were). They are hoping the pastor’s assurance concerning God’s
truth and God’s triumph will reassure them that God hasn’t abandoned
them despite shocking evidence to the contrary.
They are hoping that the pastor’s confidence will restore their
confidence that God will never forsake them even though God seems to
have. And therefore while a
pastor who appears to be a know-it-all is a nuisance, a pastor who never
exudes unselfconscious intimacy with God is useless.
What is it, then, to be a pastor?
It’s to have the conviction of God’s mercy and faithfulness
so deep in one’s bloodstream that the suffering person will feel the
foundations of her life to be in place once more.
It’s to be so unselfconsciously a conduit of the Spirit that
the same “current” will be induced in the person whom mishap has
made to feel unplugged. Every
high school student knows that if a current is passing through
electrical wire and another wire is laid alongside it, the current in
the first wire will induce a current in the second.
This is what it means to be a pastor.
Robert Coles is a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. In
one of his video-taped lectures Coles branches out into a discussion of
painting, especially the work of Edward Hopper, an American artist.
Coles points out that the people depicted in Hopper’s paintings
sit close to each other but never look at each other.
They share the same space geographically but are humanly remote.
Coles points out that it’s easy for people to be proximate to
each other physically, to chatter, even to meet conventionally; yet
it’s rare -- because difficult -- for people to communicate
intimately, heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, deep-to-deep.
Coles is correct: such communication is rare because
But not so difficult and therefore so rare in the ministry.
The human intimacy characteristic of pastoral work
guarantees that a smaller congregation of even one hundred people is
assailed with enough pain and perplexity, enough anguish and anxiety, to
give a minister no rest.
Plainly, regardless of what else pastor and people need in the
midst of life’s contradictions, above all we need courage.
We always need courage. Few
books in scripture speak as much about courage as the book of Hebrews.
It likens the Christian life to a race, a relay race.
Those who have run their leg of the race ahead of us (i.e.,
Christians of an earlier era who have predeceased us) are awaiting us at
the finish line. They
remained courageous throughout their leg of the relay race.
They remained courageous: that’s why they finished (rather than
quit) and are awaiting us at the finish line.
The unknown author of Hebrews cries, “Since we are surrounded
by so great a cloud of witnesses...let us run with perseverance the race
that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of
our faith.... Therefore lift up your drooping hands and strengthen
your weak knees.” Because any Christian congregation is
surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, we can
lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees.
One task of the pastor is constantly to point the people to the
cloud of witnesses.
It’s the cloud of witnesses that becomes for us a vehicle of
the grace of God. One such
witness in the great cloud is John Calvin.
Calvin was a giant among the Protestant Reformers.
Calvin spoke characteristically of the grandeur of God and the
majesty of God. No one else
seems as awed with God’s sheer Godness.
God, for Calvin, infinitely transcends all that we can say or
think of him. And yet when
Calvin pens a comment on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian
congregation he writes what we don’t expect him to.
Paul has written, “We give thanks to God always for you all”.
In other words, the apostle thanks God for the congregation.
Calvin comments, “Is there anything more worthy of our love
than God?” Of
course there isn’t. But
here comes the surprise. “There
is nothing, therefore, which ought to make us seek the
friendship of men (and women) more than God’s
manifestation of himself among them through the gifts of the
startling! The Reformer who
is awed at the sheer, overwhelming Godness of God maintains that our friends
in the congregation mirror God to us.
Our friends in the congregation aren’t friends chiefly because
we get along with them or they like us; our friends in the
congregation are those whom we are to cherish just because they
mirror to us the mercy and patience and truth of God himself.
Calvin was born in 1509 in the town of
, fifty miles outside
. At age eleven he went to
to begin university studies. His
father steered him into law, having noted (his father said) that lawyers
never starve. Calvin
graduated with a doctorate in legal studies at age twenty-three.
Soon he left behind the technical details of the law for the
riches of Renaissance humanism. Then
in 1534 the gospel seized him. He
, and quickly became known for his first major work in theology, The
Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The first edition had only six chapters; the final edition,
eighty. It had grown into a
two-thousand page primer for preachers.
Subsequently Calvin became the leading thinker of the Reformation
outside German-speaking lands, a prolific writer, and a diligent worker
on behalf of the citizens of the city.
Before Calvin died in 1564 he had written commentaries on most
books of the bible, including 1st Thessalonians.
I am moved every time I open it, for here Calvin speaks so very
warmly of the pastor’s life with the congregation that the pastor
serves. In 1st
Thessalonians the apostle Paul speaks of the style of his ministry with
the congregation in the city. Paul
writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her
children. So, being
affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only
the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very
dear to us.” Calvin
comments on this passage, “A mother, in nursing her child, makes no
show of authority and does not stand on any dignity.
This, says Paul, was his attitude, since he willingly refrained
from claiming the honour that was due him [i.e., as an apostle], and
undertook any kind of duty without being ruffled or making any show.
In the second place, a mother, in rearing her child, reveals a
wonderful and extraordinary love...and even gives her own life blood to
be drained.... We must remember that those who want to be counted
true pastors must entertain the same feelings as Paul -- to have higher
regard for the church [i.e., the congregation] than for their own
life.” When Paul
maintains that one mark of an apostle is his willingness to make any
sacrifice for the edification of the congregation, Calvin adds, “All
pastors are reminded by this of the kind of relationship which ought to
exist between them and the church”.
Calvin always knew that a dictatorial, tyrannical pastor is a
contradiction in terms. The
pastor is to lead the congregation, not hammer it; he is to plead, not
whip; he is to model the gospel, not hurl it. When Paul says to the
congregation in Thessalonica, “We beseech
you”, Calvin adds, “His beseeching them, when he might rightfully
command them, is a mark of the courtesy and restraint which pastors
should imitate, in order to win their people, if possible, with
kindliness, rather than coerce them with force.”
The pastor is always to plead rather than pummel.
Calvin summarizes this issue: “Those who exercise an absolute
power that is completely opposed to Christ are far from the order of
pastors and overseers”.
To be sure, Calvin speaks of two kinds of pastors who give the
ministry a bad name. Class
one: “stupid, ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves
from the pulpit”. Class
two: “ungodly, irreverent individuals who babble on with their
detestable blasphemies”. Any
minister who reads Calvin here must search her own heart.
I search mine, and trust that you will never find me blurting out
worthless brainwaves or babbling detestable blasphemies.
Calvin had the highest estimation of the ministry.
Such work, he said, is “...the edification of the church, the
salvation of souls, the restoration of the world.... The excellence and
splendour of this work are beyond value”.
There is no greater privilege than being a pastor.
Realistically Calvin knew that pastoral existence could be
difficult, even dangerous. He
had seen congregations trample ministers.
When he reflects on the disputes and feuds which make life
miserable for a minister he writes something that is, regrettably, true
of too many congregations: “So we see daily how pastors are treated
with hostility by their churches for some trivial reason, or for no
reason at all.” Yet Calvin
also knew that no one is cherished as much as a diligent pastor is
cherished by a grateful congregation.
One day in May, 1954, Stan Musial, the superb right fielder for
the St.Louis Cardinals, hit five home runs in a single game.
A few years later Musial was in the twilight of his baseball
career. His legs no longer
ran fast; his arm was no longer a cannon; and opposing pitchers with
even a mediocre fastball were starting to sneak it past him.
He knew that he could now play only occasionally as a
pinch-hitter. “Even if I
know I’m going to sit on the bench for most of the game”, he told a
sportswriter, “every time I go to the ballpark and put on my uniform I
get a thrill”.
I am 64-years old. I
am in the twilight of my ministry. Nonetheless,
every time I exercise this ministry I get a thrill.
Whether it’s when I step into a pulpit on Sunday morning and
see the expectant faces of the congregation, or whether it’s when
I’m helping someone to die in peace, or whether it’s when I sit by
myself and intercede for those whom God has laid on my heart –
whenever I exercise the ministry to which I’ve been called I get a
thrill. And as often as
I’m thrilled I’m also startled, sobered and awed, for I recall Jean
Vianney: “If we really knew what it is to be a pastor, we couldn’t
I relish teaching in a seminary, and relish it for several
reasons. One reason is that
it keeps me probing the work of the giants in theology.
Another reason is that it keeps me acquainted with men and women
(younger than I) who are preparing for ordination.
Entirely too often, however, a student remarks that after his
first degree in theology he plans to do a second and third degree –
i.e., a doctorate – because a doctorate will be the ticket out of the
pastorate and into a professorship.
The first degree in theology lets one into the pastorate; the
final degree lets one out. The
truth is, I heard as much when I was a seminary student myself forty-one
years ago. Whenever I hear
this I tell students most emphatically that the real Doctores
Ecclesiae, teachers of the church, were pastors first.
Luther worked as a pastor every day in addition to teaching,
writing, travelling, and wrestling with most vexatious problems in
church life; e.g., the predicament of nuns who left the convent in
response to the message of the Reformation and then had no means of
support. Calvin preached on
average every second day. Yet
his writings are so massive that his 2000-page Institutes
represents only 6.8% of his written output.
In addition he sat with the dying, married the living, visited
the sick, sorted out conflicts in the wider church (rural pastors, for
instance, complained vociferously that they should be paid the same as
urban pastors in
.) He ordered provisions for
the city hospital. And he
had to endure the humiliation of his sister-in-law’s repeated
Why did the real
giants of theology persist in shouldering such a hugely variegated
pastoral work, doing vastly more than merely the scholarship for which
they will never be forgotten? Calvin
spoke for them all when he wrote 450 years ago, “My ministry is dearer
to me than life.”