Sunday, July 14, 2019

Good listeners—a sermon on the gifts of shepherding and apostleship

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Good Listeners
Acts 18.24-27, 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 (NRSV)
14 July 2019, spiritual gifts 5 (shepherding/mentoring and apostleship)

Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers.


For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.


“I have become all things to all people,” Paul writes. It’s a phrase that is often misused, taken out of context and applied to the idea that one person can do all things, or can make everyone happy in a situation. But Paul doesn’t say anything about his skills in people-pleasing or in being a jack of all trades. In fact we know that his people-pleasing skills were....nonexistent. He didn’t sugarcoat the truth just so people would like him. 

But he did have a way with people, specifically with getting into spaces and relationships where they would be able to hear the truth he spoke and receive it. He could go across the boundaries the world imposed, and meet people on their terms. Paul was gifted by the Holy Spirit with apostleship, a zeal and skill that moved him out from familiar territory into uncharted waters for the purpose of sharing the good news. He met people where they were, and however he found them, he accommodated that in his preaching and teaching so that all could hear about Jesus in one way or another. He didn’t make people come to him, he didn’t wait for them to turn up when he was preaching on a Sunday. He didn’t insist that in order to hear the good news you had to look or act or speak a certain way, or be his type of person. Instead, he went to them, bringing to the fore whatever aspect of his personality or history would be most useful in engaging a relationship.

Some might call this inauthentic. It certainly sounds like that chameleon thing some people are able to do, to pretend to be one way for this relationship or job or place, and a completely different way somewhere else. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying he did, or suggesting we do. I think Paul is reminding us that, as one commentator puts it, “the gospel always encounters and engages people where they are, in their own social matrix. It moves and changes us, but it always first nourishes us exactly where and as we are.” (NIB p.908) 

There is a famous quote that says that God loves us enough to meet us where we are, and loves us too much to let us stay there. That seems to sum up Paul’s approach to apostleship. First, he crosses the boundaries. Whatever boundaries the world has set up, he knocks down. Religious barriers? Class barriers? Ethnic barriers? Age barriers? Personality, mental health, emotional maturity barriers? Physical ability barriers? He breaks them all. He knew how to speak the language of people whose life experience is different from his—which really means he knew how to listen well, to engage with people in the everyday realities of their lives, to make them feel seen, heard, and understood, and like he was really one of them.

Too often, I think, when we think of crossing social or economic barriers, we do it in a patronising way, or even a colonising way. Rather than starting with listening, we start with telling, or fixing, the things we assume need doing...and then, if we’re honest, sometimes that leads on to bragging about our great magnanimity in taking the risk to cross the boundary in the first place. But Paul’s description of this apostle life begins with “I have made myself a slave...”—suggesting he went in with a heart for service. And true service starts with listening, not with doing. The most important thing we can do, honestly, whether we have the gift of apostleship or not, is to learn how to listen carefully to what others are really saying. 

Imagine the possibilities, if Christians had conversations with people out in the world, not with the goal of making people come to church, but with the goal of learning about their lives, their experiences, their hopes and dreams and fears and worries, their joys and sorrows, their capacity and limitation? What if we were known for listening with the heart of Jesus, rather than for telling people they don’t belong? To really get to know one another, regardless of whatever barriers the world thinks we ought to have between us...we would have to be willing to start conversations, ask questions, and listen to the answers. Along the way, we might just find that what the Church has offered to people has not been what they needed or wanted, or that it has been answering questions no one is asking. We might find that there are real needs in our community that Jesus calls us to meet, but we haven’t known anything about them because we have assumed we knew what the needs were. And we might find that people are more open to the good news of God’s love because they have been seen, heard, known, and loved by God’s people in a real and effective way.

This kind of work, listening carefully and making people feel like you’re one of them, part of the team, requires knowing and being secure in one’s own identity. This is how we know it isn’t just the chameleon thing that some people are so good at, changing themselves to suit the circumstances or company...because those people often don’t have a good sense of their own core self. Paul knew who he was, and he knew to whom he truly belonged, and so he was able to be strong in that core, while flexing other things to ensure that everyone felt he was on their team so that he could then share the truth of God’s grace with them. 

Growing strong in that core identity is work each of us has to do, rooted in God’s word and prayer. Knowing ourselves as beloved children of God, and knowing God’s will for us, is part of our lifelong task as Christians. Along the way, we may find that we have the help of a community or a mentor who guides us in examining our hearts and aligning ourselves more closely to the Way of God. People like Priscilla and Aquila, who helped Apollos on his faith journey in Ephesus. Apollos would go on to become a teacher almost on a par with Paul—he is mentioned in several of Paul’s letters as a fellow worker for the gospel. But when he was just starting out, he had more enthusiasm than knowledge. The book of Acts tells us he was educated, well-trained in rhetoric and scripture, but that he hadn’t yet experienced the Holy Spirit—that’s what it means when it says “he knew only the baptism of John.” He was excited about the story of Jesus, but it was still intellectual for him. It wasn’t yet in his heart, in his body, a part of who he was. So when he spoke boldly in the synagogue, some of the people with a more developed faith took him under their wing. 

Notice how Priscilla and Aquila, also co-workers of Paul’s, exercised their gift of shepherding, or mentoring. They heard Apollos themselves—they didn’t rely on secondhand reports about him, they had firsthand knowledge of his gifts, his teaching, his passion, and his level of knowledge. They took him aside, not in a public place or in front of everyone, but rather they developed a relationship with him outside the synagogue. They walked with him, got to know him and let him get to know them. Together they studied God’s way, explaining things they knew, and letting him discover more of the Spirit’s power. They guided him in learning and in experiencing the fullness of God’s story. They gave him opportunities to lead in the Christian community, and to know others who could also guide him, and let him practice becoming the shepherd he was called to be. And then, when he was ready to go share the good news somewhere else, the whole community of believers commissioned him, essentially confirmed him as a newly qualified teacher, and wrote to the other disciples with a recommendation. After all this mentoring, Apollos then became a mentor himself, as it says he “greatly helped those who had through grace become believers.” 

Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos develop that sense of core identity, of being personally engaged by God’s grace and in Christ’s work, encountering the Holy Spirit in person. In some ways, their method sounds similar to the gift of apostleship that Paul describes, but with one important difference: They didn’t have to go anywhere or cross any boundaries. Apollos was already among them, and they had firsthand experience of him before they became his mentors. Then they developed a relationship that would allow them to share their own experience and learning to facilitate his spiritual growth and development, guiding him on his walk with God by coming alongside and joining him on the journey.

Usually people with this gift of shepherding or mentoring are people of deep spiritual maturity, people whose own experience of God is personal and long-standing. They have seen many parts of the journey of faith, and so are equipped to guide others on the way. Having said that, few would probably describe themselves that way! Shepherds are also always learning, always growing, and they know they have not reached the destination, so they may sometimes hesitate to offer mentorship to others because they know they are not themselves perfect, and that there’s always more depth to reach, more of God to know.

Like apostles, the root of the shepherd’s gift is listening. Building a relationship always requires a willingness to hear others and to know them for who they really are before offering anything, and a willingness to let people grow at God’s pace rather than forcing them to change to meet our own ideas of what their faith or life should be like. And so both gifts require being strong in one’s own faith and identity, because relationships like this are not for the faint of heart! Being a facilitator while allowing the Spirit to do the work of transformation, rather than imposing our own ways, can be hard work. But the relationships formed between those who are seeking God together can also transform the world. If nothing else, there’s a little more peace, justice, and love, and less conflict and hate, when we are really listening to one another, and to God, together. 

Paul says that he does all this boundary crossing, all this listening to others, for the sake of the gospel—so that he may share in its blessings. And when Priscilla and Aquila mentored Apollos, he was then prepared to participate in the community of grace to which he was called, sharing the blessing. Perhaps if we too practice listening to others, without an agenda, and listening to God together as a community, we will also find ourselves sharing in the blessings of the gospel, here and now.

May it be so. Amen.

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