I experienced one of those “zoom in, zoom out—aha!” moments this weekend. I was wandering through the rooms of Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of its splendor that it was numbing me. The ache in my feet and the smell of the crowd became a more noticeable reality to me than the priceless works of art or the astonishingly sumptuous architecture. I left the Hall of Mirrors and veered off into a corner of the King’s Chambers, really just looking for a space to mentally regroup.
And there, with my back to the rest of the grandeur, my eyes fell on a small section of intricately carved wood paneling, slightly chipped and worn from centuries of being bumped against, but exquisite just the same. I marveled at its elaborate design and wondered about the long-gone hands that had carved it. And just as this tiny piece of golden beauty began to spark my wonderment, I noticed that it was only one of three strips of identically carved paneling arching over the same door. I turned around to see their overall effect, only to be awestruck by the vision of countless windows, doors, and an entire ceiling crisscrossed with the same carved panels, their golden patterns fading into a ribboned effect that draped the room in brilliance.
It struck me that the Church is much the same as this palace. We are the magnificent residence of our glorious King, developed and expanded over the centuries since His coronation. Each room, each section of paneling is a tiny but significant piece of its overall grandeur: no more, no less.
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John 1:35-37; 3:26
John the Baptist lived and expressed this tension in an incredibly admirable way, especially when his ministry began to rapidly dwindle as a result of the New Guy in town. Initially He had just shown up as a visitor in one of John’s services, but even then John’s public affirmation of Him resulted in two of his associate pastors walking out and joining this start-up ministry. When this Visitor set up a seemingly identical ministry just down-river, John’s remaining associates got really nervous. They felt threatened by all the people going over to Jesus, worried that His presence would put their leader “out of ministry”.
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:6-8, 23, 26-27
But John wasn’t threatened. From the beginning of his ministry he had known and proclaimed that he was merely the forerunner, the one who had been sent by God to get things ready for Jesus. This was no small role, and John knew that, too. He embraced his assignment with all the gusto of someone who recognizes its prophetic significance and its practical importance. But pouring his life blood (literally) into that particular ministry did not cause John to amplify its significance at the cost of valuing the bigger picture of which it was designed to be a contributing part.
To this John replied, “…You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
When Jesus’ increase in fame and followers caused John to decrease, he welcomed it. John rejoiced that his overarching goal was being accomplished, even if that meant he was being made redundant. He gladly faded into the background of the grandest of structures, fulfilled in the knowledge that he had gotten to play a supporting part in something way bigger than he was. Jesus’ success was sweeter to him than his own. It had always been his highest goal.
Whose sheep are they?
The challenge for all Christian leaders is to maintain this big picture of Christ and His Church. Our tendency is to build our church, denomination, or organization to the exclusion of the whole, defining our “group” by its distinctives (what sets us apart from all the others) and seeking to draw and keep the greatest number of people within our particular fold. While we would insist that we are doing it all for Christ’s sake, the way that we cling to “our sheep” and zealously (or even jealously) promote “our group” betrays us. As John so wisely reminded his disciples, the church is not our Bride.
…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
When I step back and gaze at the Church from across the room of time and space, I see how all these segmented ministries are really tiny sections of paneling set side by side in a gloriously diverse, complex pattern that fills the walls of God’s temple. Each one has its distinctive place and particular role, but no one comprises the focal point of the structure. As one rises and another fades, we should all be able to celebrate the way they each contribute to the grandeur of the whole.
In light of the big picture, perhaps migrating sheep isn’t our big problem, after all. Possessive under-shepherds is.