The Pastoral Icon

Reference: Luke 15:1-10

“I have found Jesus!”

To which the jaded among us reply, “I didn’t know he was lost.” And, while that is a snarky response to a happy statement, it rings true. To “find” Jesus is in fact to discover your real self. Jesus has never been lost, you have. God, who has created each of us, has never needed a GPS to keep track of us. Being omniscient and omnipresent has advantages. It is we who are lost and need finding, not because God has lost track, but when we, in our freedom, have become unaware of his presence and purpose in our lives.

It is perhaps best activated in baptism, which is the act of God to indelibly mark you as his child, an act of union to incorporate you into the Body of Christ. It is indicative of how backwards people can get things that they think they have found Jesus, and that baptism is an act they have done to witness for him. In an age of great spiritual hunger, it is sad to see people desperately looking in all the wrong places to find the one who has never left them. It is like a person who searches to find his glasses, only to realize they were on his face the whole time.

How, then, can we help people to gain the awareness of a God who always cares, who always seeks them, who always remembers the day of their baptism into the family, who always seeks to be a part of them through the real presence in the very bread of life offered to them regularly? Suppose the image of the Church was not “Come to us to find Jesus” but rather the image of a church constantly searching for the lost, especially those quite unaware that they are in fact lost, and even less aware of the dangers of their situation. That is the pastoral mandate we are given by our Lord (see, for example Matthew 28:18-19).

The words “pastor” and “pastoral” come from the Latin for “shepherd.” It is the image Jesus uses for himself in the reference above and when he describes himself as “the Good Shepherd” (see John 10:14). In the parable from Luke referenced above, Jesus poignantly emphasizes the importance of each one of the sheep. He does not operate on principles of acceptable losses in the sheep industry. No loss is acceptable, even if great effort must be exerted to search out one sheep in the flock. The likelihood is that the one missing is lost due to his or her own disobedience or foolishness. The ninety-nine who are faithful to the shepherd are perhaps muttering that attention is being paid to someone who is such a pain. The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal (which follows immediately in Luke 15) speaks for them when he complains about the inequity of it. Nevertheless, that is the compulsion Jesus wishes to share with us.

The pastor today is the Body of Christ. Those within it designated as “pastors” are a crucial part of it, but it is the whole Body which is mandated to be pastoral. Unfortunately, the ratio of wandering lost sheep to the gathered faithful ones is no longer anything like one in ninety-nine, but a far higher number. But the mandate remains the same. Some of the lost are willful and disobedient. But many others are gone because of being hurt by the flock, or are in the state of unawareness mentioned above, because no shepherd has sought them. Remedies have been tried. Evangelistic programs ranging from revivals to circus-like events, to dutifully knocking on doors or standing on corners to ask people if they know Jesus. In thousands of other congregations, all remedies have been rejected. The sheep huddle, and may or may not welcome visitors. They certainly don’t go looking for them. The pastor is expected to care for them, not go off looking for the lost. Nor would they themselves ever think of such a thing.

The early church didn’t need an evangelism program. People didn’t practice Christianity as if it were a hobby for the weekend. They lived it, it permeated them. It didn’t make them super-pious judgmental Puritans who avoided the unwashed. It made them pastoral. Every day, everywhere.

As we steward this earth on behalf of its owner, the true Church, “the blessed company of all faithful people” (as the Prayerbook denotes it), seeks to cultivate the fields of that earth given us, including the fields of humanity Jesus describes as ripe for harvest (see John 4:31-38). We do that by being who we are meant to be, carrying the real presence of Jesus with us as part of ourselves and trusting in the Holy Spirit. When the lost are encountered and respond, they too will want to be included in the flock. But before that can happen, they first need to be made aware that God is present with them also, that they are loved as his child and treasured as his iconic creation. Evangelism is for us, who are the icons of the Good Shepherd, to communicate that awareness as step one, and not worry about organizing them institutionally as the top priority. We are mandated only to seek them and let the icon do the work, maybe with words, maybe not. As we do so, we know the Lord who seeks incessantly is right there.