If there is any word that in fact describes the active, present-day living priesthood of Jesus, the One who “always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25), the one who stands before the throne of the Godhead praying on our behalf, it is the word “shepherd.”
This word describes one who, by the very Holy Spirit of God, is calling us and gathering us into his own, who stands beside us even in the deepest places of sorrow and suffering and who continues to open doors for us in a way that we could never ask or imagine.
He does all this because he has a purpose for each of us. And in that light, he will do what is necessary, working all things together for the good in such a way as that we are in fact being changed, conformed to the image of his Son, the very likeness of the invisible God.
In the midst of that all-consuming work, which literally flows through the whole earth, here comes the local priest, who is called to take his or her place in a very specific role to help carry out, to be a vehicle and a channel through which the shepherding work of Jesus moves and operates.
In some ways, a local priest is a priest for the whole church. God raises each one in both a universal calling for the whole church and a calling to express that in a very specific time, place and location.
Place is important. Even the ministry of Jesus says, “The word became flesh and lived among us”—literally, “pitched his tent” (John 1:14a). In other words, he wasn’t in Brooklyn. He was in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Israel. And because that’s the case, each priest’s expression of the universal shepherding and priesthood will have the kind of tang and accent that looks like the particular place where he or she serves.
Such an accent might be terribly out of place in downtown New York City, for example, but right at home here in Central Florida. And that should be the case, because the two are very different. The priest’s job is to express what is universally true in the language and accent of a very specific place.
The local priest also has the charge to “in faithful witness preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.” The world needs someone who can stand up in faithful witness and preach the gospel. It needs someone to reach out to those who do not yet believe, to those who may have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the gospel through that person’s specific calling and service. The world needs someone who can speak a word of peace and forbearance that unites instead of divides, someone who can promote the dignity and freedom of every person.
Because of our long history and tradition, too often, the particulars of the location bow to the overarching culture of this global communion, and specifically, in our roots as East Coast Episcopalians, going back to the 13 colonies. But it should actually be just the opposite, where the specific community and the gospel intersect in a way that is profoundly unique. And while there are doctrinal and even liturgical truths that expand beyond any borders, the local ministry still has the tang and flavor of the very specific location in which God has placed that priest.
That’s in fact, you see, a part of the work of priesthood: to take the universal and express it in the local and the personal. Wherever he or she goes—whether it’s a hospital room or a conversation on Main Street, in those “Hi, how are you?” occasions as well as the high and holy ones, the universal good news of the Chief Shepherd flows through. Because of the priest’s local ministry, the people there know that Jesus loves them and has a plan for them, and they fit into this grand scheme that only God can do: to bring everything and everyone together in Christ.
A local priest who keeps that kind of tender, heartfelt, prayer-soaked ministry will cling to the calling to that place and those people, to the truth that all people matter—no matter who they are, no matter where they’ve been. And even in the places where the darkness pushes in, none of that can shake the priest, because of the deep knowledge that he or she serves the One, and, even more importantly, is filled with the power of the One who conquered even death and hell. And therefore, the priest is not afraid.
And in that place of both pain and joy, the priest expresses the light of Jesus, learning, even as Jesus described it, that a good shepherd lays down his life (see John 10:11). He lays down his life because his heart has been changed so that he loves the sheep. In this way, it’s almost second nature for a priest to respond, when someone’s in need, “Of course I can go.”
We need to pray for priests who live out that kind of deep and profound calling to shepherd the people of God. What they offer is never based on their character, strength, stability and leadership development, but instead, the secret joy of discovering that God’s strength is made perfect in their weakness.
It is then that the local priest most reflects the Chief Shepherd.
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Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.