Sheep and Shepherds

By James Cornwell

A Reading from Acts 20:17-38

17 From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. 18 When they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. 20 I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. 22 And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24 But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

25 “And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. 26 Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. 35 In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

36 When he had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. 37 There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.


In the reading today from the book of Acts, St. Paul, the great apostle, is departing, and leaves the church there with a warning that soon wolves will rise among them, and that even among the leaders of the church will come those who lead the faithful astray. In light of this admonition, we may be tempted to identify these deceptive “leaders of the church” with “the clergy.”

There is a kind of clericalism that treats ordained leaders as deserving such special deference to their ecclesiastical authority they are no longer held accountable for their actions, or a respect owing to the holiness of their office that borders (or trespasses) on idolatry. But there is another form of clericalism that is perhaps even more insidious in our era. This form of clericalism says that in order to influence the Church, one has to be ordained, that the responsibilities and obligations of the Church toward the present, past, and future faithful can only be executed by those with a collar. Therefore, any problems that arise are the clergy’s fault and theirs alone.

Both forms of clericalism rob the laity of agency. But perhaps church decline tempts us more toward the latter, as it robs us of our responsibilities as well. In the model of Pilate, it can be attractive and expedient to leave our agency to the side, simply washing our hands of it. It can be easy to embrace passivity in the face of the wolves, cursing the craven shepherds. By focusing solely on the flaws of the ordained leaders of the Church, might we risk being witnesses to the grave rather than evangelists of the resurrection?

We should not turn a blind eye to the sins and scandals within the Church, but we must remember that all of us are church leaders in some sense, leaders called to bear witness to hope. Hope does not sit passively by when wolves close in, but enkindles our souls to take up spiritual arms, and join in the battle against seemingly impossible odds.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Duk (Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan)
The Diocese of Upper South Carolina


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