By Paul Koch –
One of the (many) things that almost derailed my path to become a pastor was the reading of a book by the church father St. John Chrysostom. I read it in my fourth year of study at the seminary because he was regarded as one of the greatest preachers of his time. I thought if I’m actually going to be a preacher I ought to try and learn from him. Little did I know that this text titled “On the Priesthood” was his arguments on why most people should avoid the ministry – including himself.
You see he painted this picture of a landscape upon which the life of a pastor would be carried out. It was not unlike many images of the ministry; that of a shepherd caring for a flock. But Chrysostom’s image was not peaceful. It was one where the shepherd’s eyes were constantly scanning the horizon, fearful to take his eyes off the expanse before him because at any moment there could be a wolf coming at full speed to tear apart the sheep. And his fear was driven not just because the wolves were sure to come but the flock that he tended was not his own. Oh it was his charge but they belonged to another, they belonged to Christ alone. You see, the constant roaming of the wolves, the responsibility of the charge, and the immanence of the attacks all amounted to a task that was too much for one to willingly undertake.
And we all know full well that these wolves are real. I don’t mean they are real in some sort of cosmic good versus evil sort of way that doesn’t actually impact our daily lives. I mean we know them, we feel them, we experience their attacks all around and even within ourselves. The wolves attack our confidence in the promise of Christ. They devour our assurance that we are the saints of God. They work in communion with our sinful selves to turn our trust away from our Lord and His gifts and instead have us focus on our own abilities, our own feelings, our own passions and desires. Their attacks are so constant and so fierce that we soon learn we cannot withstand them alone. The wolves are coming and there will be blood.
And then our God does something very unsportsmanlike. While his flock is still within earshot, while they still listen to the words of their shepherd he draws them close to him. He brings them into his fold, calms their shaky nerves, and then sucker punches them with incredible brutality.
By a sucker punch I mean that surprising first shot of a war where everyone has their guns drawn but no one is willing to shoot first. The person that does shoot is the one no one else was expecting. As the wolves start encircling the flock of God, He responds by sending out His preachers to start killing off the sheep before the wolves have a chance to feed. This is the move no one is expecting. God doesn’t start to build bigger and stronger fortresses for His sheep, he doesn’t weaponize them and send them into battle on their own; no, He actually begins to kill them before the wolves can do it. He kills them in order to save them.
So to return to Chrysostom’s image. A shepherd of our Lord’s flock is to be willing to throw the sucker punch. To look with love upon those who are terrorized by the wolves and kill them before the wolves can do it. This means that the subject of his work is not the wolves but the sheep. The wolves are coming and will continue to come until the end of this age, but the task is to focus on the slaying of the sheep.
But the death blow given by our Lord comes from the mouth of the one who has died himself. He is the one who destroyed the eternal grasp of the grave, the one who shines light into the darkness of sin and shame. So his death is not a death without hope, his death blow is a death that leads beyond wrath to the promise of eternal life. When our Lord kills, He is not leading to despair but to life eternal.
This sucker punch is the realm of Law and Gospel. It is not simply the idea that we have fallen short of the glory of God and are saved by Christ alone, it is the proclamation that we are dead in our trespasses without hope and doomed to eternal wrath. It is the Word that turns us to see the depth of our own depravity. The sucker punch leads us to throw up our hands as the wolves come close and we cry out “It is too late, we are already doomed, the fight is over.” And as we cower in the corner no longer able to fight, we find that the Word spoken by the shepherd has suddenly changed. The Word proclaims now life instead of death, it gives strength and healing and hope. As we died by his Word so now we live. We are given a new life in the holy Word and work of Christ.
Or to put is as St. Paul does, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20) So, you see when the wolves finally make it to the flock they are not coming to devour any ordinary little lamb, rather come to attack the very Lamb of God himself.
The preaching of the Word, the call to kill and bring forth new life is the task of the shepherds. Though it may be viewed as unsportsmanlike, though it may not win us any popularity contests, let us continue to be willing to throw the sucker punch.