************ Sermon on Acts 20:28 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 30, 1998
My father-in-law has served as an elder for many years. He loves to tell the story about the time he was scheduled to do a home visit with a family. He and his partner arrived a little after 9 p.m. and knocked on the door. A door called them to not only come into the house but even into the bedroom. The couple they were to visit were already in bed because of the lateness of the hour but invited the team of elders to proceed with the visit.
My wife remembers the time, as a girl, when her family received a home visit. She and her five siblings were seated on the couch. At the end of the visit an elder closed in prayer. This elder had a rather peculiar way of praying – he sang his prayer with low notes and high notes. As he began his prayer the couch began to shake. When he finally said "Amen" 6 kids exploded off the couch, ran into another room, and collapsed to the floor with gales of laughter.
In spite of stories like this, we in the Reformed tradition consider home visiting by the elders to be very important. Yet, home visiting is in disrepute today. About home visiting I have heard things like: "Do you still do that?" "What a waste of time!" "I don't need it."
Home or family visiting is starting up again soon – you can find a schedule at the back of today's bulletin. Before it begins again, the elders requested that I say something about this important practice in this morning's sermon.
The church fathers of the early Christian church emphasized the church's duty to pay personal visits to the members and families of the congregation. An amusing incident took place at one of the synods of the early church. This incident underscores the importance the early church leaders placed on such visits. A priest brought a complaint to the Synod: he explained that his bishop required him to make 1,000 calls on members of his parish that year, a number he felt was excessive. The synod replied that he had no reason for complaint; after all, God required Jonah to reach 144,000 people in only forty days!
In the medieval church the practice of home or family visiting was suspended in favor of the confession booth. People were expected to come to the church instead of the church coming to the people. The Reformers rebelled against this development: they restored private, personal confession to God and a personal, pastoral ministry to the members by the deacons, elders, and pastors.
I Spiritual Care
A Do you know what the Apostle Paul is saying in our text?
(Acts 20:28) Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. Paul is telling the elders and pastors to give spiritual care to the members of the church. In obedience to this command the deacons, the elders, and myself as pastor visit the sick, the widows, the distressed, the shut-ins, and the erring. In churches of the Reformed persuasion this also means home or family visiting.
B The practice of home or family visiting can be traced back to the example of the Apostle Paul. We read in this morning's Scripture passage that Paul went from "house to house," to expand upon what he said publicly (vs 20).
Our Reformed practice of home visiting goes back to the time of John Calvin. Calvin's Ordinances prescribed that each minister, in the company of an elder, should regularly call on the families of the parish. In 1550, church leaders in Geneva ordered that ministers should visit each home once a year. The Convention or Synod of Wezel, meeting in 1568, ruled that the elders shall visit each home of their district every week. And the 1914 Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church stipulated that the elders shall visit every home "both before and after the Lord's Supper." Our present Church Order says this:
Article 65 Pastoral care shall be exercised over all the members of the congregation. The minister of the Word and the elders shall conduct annual home visitation ...
C What is the purpose of home or family visiting? The emphasis has to lie on spiritual care. The elders and minister, like Paul, go from home to home in order to give spiritual care. It is spiritual care that Paul has in mind when he, in our text, says "Keep watch ..."
The trend today is for elders and pastors to counsel, lend emotional support, offer a listening ear, and show concern. Many people need this in today's world, but this is not what ministers and elders are first called to do. At home visits, our calling, our task, our duty is to give spiritual care! "Keep watch," says Paul.
Another trend today is for elders and pastors to have a social visit, a time of fellowship, with members in their homes. But home visits should be far more than social calls and social chit-chat; they should be, first of all, a time to give spiritual care. "Keep watch," says Paul.
I still remember the comment about home visiting made by a woman in my first congregation. She called up to tell me not to come. "We don't need it," she said, "because we have nothing to complain about." This woman completely missed the boat. Home visiting is not meant to be a time to unload gripes and deliver complaints; it is a time for pastoral and spiritual care. "Keep watch," says Paul.
"Don't bother coming," said another person in my first church, "because we have no problems." Again, the elders and pastor do not conduct home visiting in order to counsel a family on marital discord, alcoholism, financial mismanagement, drug abuse, or strife with teens; rather, they are there to give spiritual care. That doesn't mean problems are ignored but they are not the first priority. "Keep watch," says Paul.
D What is meant by spiritual care? What are the elders and pastors to do when they "keep watch"? Pastoral care – such as home visiting – should help members live Christian lives. Our Church Order says the minister and elders shall "encourage the members to live by faith." A young couple or a single mom may wonder where the money for Christian education is going to come from; the elders encourage them to take a step in faith, trusting the Lord will supply their needs. A teen may be afraid of ridicule from peers if he or she speaks out for the Lord and against alcohol or drugs; the elders encourage him or her to live out the faith. A businessman, wondering if it pays to do business Christianly, is encouraged by the elders to live and work by faith. An unemployed or under-employed or unhappily employed person is becoming desperate; the elders encourage them to wait upon the Lord. Someone is discouraged, disheartened, depressed and dismayed; the elders encourage him or her to keep the faith. Someone worries about their sin and salvation; the elders tell them to rely not upon themselves but, in faith, upon the Lord. Dads and moms, sons and daughters, may lead such busy, busy lives that they hardly have time for each other or for the Lord; the elders encourage them in the faith. God's people need to be encouraged in so much: to pray and read the Bible, to have Christian reading material, to faithfully attend worship services, to be involved in the life and ministry of the church, to live godly lives, to instruct children in God's ways. "Keep watch," says Paul.
Home visiting can also be a time of instruction. This was especially needed at the time of the Reformation when members were unsure of what they believed and why. At that time, the elders and pastors had to constantly instruct members steeped in the superstition and works righteousness of the Roman Catholic Church to rely for their salvation on grace through faith. Even now members sometime need instruction in such fundamentals as infant baptism, millennial view points, election, providence, and the like. "Keep watch," says Paul.
Home visiting can also be a time to comfort believers in adversity, not by way of counseling but by means of the Word and Spirit of God. The elders and pastor listen to grief, hurt, heart-ache, pain, suffering. They then open the Bible and read words of comfort and cheer. And, in prayer they plead with the throne of grace to meet the needs of the family or individual. "Keep watch," says Paul.
Lastly, home visiting can also be a time to admonish and warn against errors in doctrine or life. If someone lives wrongly they must be admonished and led to a godly sorrow. When someone is wrong in fundamental doctrine like the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, the resurrection of the body, the virgin birth, the Creation of everything out of nothing, then the elders and pastor must admonish and correct. "Keep watch," says Paul.
II All Members
In the home visits it is important that every family member be present – not just the parents but also all children and young adults living at home too. I say this because a close reading of our text makes it clear that all members of the church are to be subject to her spiritual care. Paul clearly specifies "all the flock." "Keep watch over ... all the flock," says Paul. This means young and old, married and single, clergy and laity, elders and deacons, they all are to receive spiritual care.
I can't stress enough that the elders and myself need your full cooperation in order to give spiritual care to all of the flock in and through home visiting.
III Sin and Evil
A Now, why are the ministers and elders to keep watch? Why do we – with the deacons – engage in home visiting and other kinds of spiritual care? In our text Paul says "Keep watch over ... all the flock." Paul's image is of a flock of sheep on a hillside or in a meadow. Trying to creep up on the sheep in order to destroy and devour them is a pack of wolves. In such a situation the shepherds must keep watch – they must remain vigilant – in order to defend the sheep and beat back the wolves.
The church of God, the flock of Jesus Christ, is under attack. Paul says,
(Acts 20:29-31) I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. (30) Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (31) So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.In another place it is Peter who says,
(1 Peter 5:8) Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
B The wolves are encircling us, congregation. We see the forces of Satan everywhere: outside the church, within the church, and even within ourselves. Outside of the church are many who would love to see the church of Jesus Christ devoured. Much of our mass media mocks the Christian faith and Christian values. Across the length and breadth of this land the forces of darkness are trying their best to take the Christian faith out of all facets of public life: government, arts, media, public schools, finance.
The forces of Satan are not only outside of the church. We see them within the church too. Within many churches there are those who deny the Trinity, the virgin birth, the Creation account, and salvation by grace through faith. Many churches no longer condemn homosexuality, live-in relationships, divorce, or even abortion.
The enemy is out there. The enemy is within these walls. But even scarier is that the enemy is within you and me. Even the holiest of saints are weak and imperfect and subject to the wiles of the evil one. Satan is hard at work making our spiritual life lukewarm. He tries his best to make our spiritual life like that of the Pharisees: mere ritualism, a going through the motions, a stifling legalism. His aim is a spiritual life that is empty and fruitless. He wants us to lose ourselves in seeking treasure on earth rather than in heaven. He wants us to lead a self-centered rather than a God-centered life. He wants us to seek worldly pleasure rather than heavenly joy, muscular development rather than spiritual growth, and earthly success and accomplishment rather than kingdom blessings.
C The elders must keep watch, they must be on guard, because the enemy is everywhere: outside, inside, and even within ourselves.
"Keep watch over ... all the flock," says Paul. "Be on your guard!" Some churches and elders and pastors hear this command and they feel they must overture Synod, write letters to Calvin College and some of her professors, bemoan and criticize the current state of the Christian Reformed Church, and even leave the denomination and join the United Reformed Church. We must keep watch and be on guard against the attack of the enemy at the denominational and classical level.
"Keep watch over ... all the flock," says Paul. "Be on your guard!" This text reminds us that the watching and the guarding must always start at home, within the local congregation. Satan is attacking us and the church's first line of defense is the spiritual care of the deacons, elders, and pastors in the local church. If we do not do our work at home first we are wasting our time keeping watch at the classical or denominational level. It doesn't make sense to fight wolves a long distance away if nothing is done about wolves busy destroying the flock at home.
Listen again to the words of our Scripture passage for this morning.
Acts 20:28-31a Keep watch over ... all the flock ... (29) I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. (30) Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (31) So be on your guard!
Home visiting by the elders and pastor:
"Do you still do that?" Yes we do.
"What a waste of time!" Absolutely not.
"I don't need it." Yes you do.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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