Several years ago, my wife and I visited the Vatican Necropolis, a burial ground dating back to the Roman imperial period, which lies below St Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Necropolis was originally an open-air cemetery with tombs and mausolea, built on the southern slope of the Vatican hill, adjacent to the Circus of Caligula. When the site was excavated in the 1940’s, archaeologists discovered pagan tombs with bright mural paintings of flowers, birds, vases full of vividly coloured fruit, idyllic landscapes, cupids, and pretty winged beings. They also discovered much simpler graves with Christian inscriptions such as the Ichthus, the Good Shepherd, and the Fisherman.
At the centre of the Necropolis and directly under the High Altar of St Peter’s Basilica, the excavators discovered a shrine which they believed to be the legendary ‘Trophy of Gaius’, referenced by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History. Human bones were found in a small marble-lined niche at the bottom of the so-called ‘Graffiti Wall’. Subsequent testing indicated that they belonged to a 60 to 70-year old man. The ‘Graffiti Wall’ contained a myriad of inscriptions and symbols representing different aspects of the Christian faith. In studying the Wall, archaeologist Margherita Guarducci found more than 20 inscriptions to the apostle Peter, dating back to the late 2nd century, including “Near Peter” and “Peter is within”.
According to tradition, the apostle Peter was martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero sometime after the Great Fire of 64 A.D. He is said to have been crucified upside down and then secretly buried in a cemetery by the side of the Via Cornelia on Vatican hill, near the site of his execution. The Catholic Church has consecrated a small area near the ‘Trophy of Gaius’ and the ‘Graffiti Wall’ where visitors may reflect on the life of the apostle and the hundreds of martyrs who died with him in the great persecution.
No one can say for sure if the bones that were discovered in the ‘Graffiti Wall’ niche in 1942 belonged to Peter the fisherman, or indeed, if he was buried there at all. However, one thing is certain: the soil of the Necropolis is sanctified by the blood of the martyrs. And as I knelt in prayer in that holy place, I heard a voice full of power and majesty resonate within me:
“Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; not as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5.2-3).
It seemed as though Peter himself was speaking to me from beyond the grave. And in that instant, my whole life and philosophy of ministry changed. Up until that time I had seen myself as a prophetic teacher, called to expound the purposes of God to my generation. But in that kairos moment it seemed as though God was calling me to something even greater: to be a shepherd after his own heart.
Furthermore, God showed me that the ministry of Christ the Shepherd is the foundation of all other ministries and activities in the Church. Here I was, kneeling at the alleged site of Peter’s grave, the “fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet 5.1); some 20 metres above me stood the High Altar of the most famous church in the world, a universally recognised symbol of Christian worship and service.
It was as though God was saying to me, “Everything that is done in my name, every ministry that is performed, every sermon that is preached, every rite that is conducted, must originate from a shepherd’s heart. All things must be done in love and with the wellbeing of my people in mind.” The apostle Paul echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “Let all things be done for the building up of the Church” (1 Cor 14.26).
If you love me, feed my sheep
After the resurrection, Jesus encountered Peter in the familiar surroundings of the Sea of Galilee. Three times Jesus posed the question, “Do you love me?”, followed by an instruction, “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep.” It was as if Jesus was saying to Peter, “Demonstrate your love for me by taking care of my people … for in loving them, you are loving me.”
The writer to the Hebrews said that ministering to the saints is, in effect, ministering to the Lord (Heb 6.10). The apostle John said that loving your brother whom you can see is tantamount to loving the God whom you cannot see (1 John 4.20). The principle is clear: in serving the least of Christ’s brethren, we are serving Christ himself (Mat 25.40).
In the Psalms and the Prophets, the Lord likens himself to a shepherd in the way he cares for, protects, and guides his people. Consider the beautiful words of Isaiah 40.11; “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Moreover, the Lord calls men and women to share his shepherd’s heart and fulfill his duty of care: “I will give you shepherds according to my heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3.15).
But history attests that more often than not, the leaders who are supposed to be shepherding the sheep are the very ones who end up destroying and scattering the flock (Jer. 23.1). The prophet Ezekiel charged the shepherds of Israel with avarice and corruption, and rebuked them for not feeding the flock, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the broken, and seeking the lost (Ezek 34.2-5). Similarly, Jesus looked on the multitudes in his day and was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered “like sheep having no shepherd” (Mat 9.36).
There is no substitute for relationship
Bill O’Connell, Director of Training for Focus on Solutions in Birmingham, England, said: “It needs to be reiterated that how we relate to clients as human beings is more significant than any techniques or theories. Technique is no substitute for a relationship built on respectful and attentive listening, reflective silences, empathy, genuineness, immediacy and acceptance.” How true! There is no substitute for relationship. Jesus said that a true shepherd calls his own sheep by name, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10.4). That suggests intimacy between the shepherd and the sheep — the kind of intimacy that comes from spending time together and developing the relational attributes that O’Connell refers to. And note, it’s not a one-way street!
Beloved theologian and pastor, Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message Bible), made the following observation in an interview with Drew Dyck of Moody Publishers in 2017:
“As pastors we’re interested in getting people to live a life that is congruent with the gospel. One of the things I realized from day one is that I needed to listen to congregants and not just put things into their heads. This is one of the wonderful things about being a pastor. You get the time and the opportunity to make connections with the everyday lives of people in your congregation. You can’t just treat Christianity as a pile of ideas from which to add and subtract.
“I don’t think you can help anyone live a congruent life without knowing their name. How can you be personally involved in someone’s life and not know who their children are, who their spouses are, or the trials they go through every day? It just doesn’t work.”
In conclusion, I would like to tell you a story about a friend of mine who (literally) lives next door to the church. He not only lives next door to the church, but he attends services every Sunday, and has done so for more than 20 years. He not only attends the church, but he also plays the organ and is involved in various groups and committees. As you can see, we’re not talking about a peripheral member.
My friend and his wife are well advanced in years and have experienced some significant health challenges, resulting in at least half a dozen trips to hospital by ambulance in the past 12 months. During this time, the minister of the church (who lives in the manse on the other side of the church), has not been to visit them once, and to my knowledge, has not even tried to contact them by phone. I find that absolutely staggering. I said to my friend on one occasion (pointing to the manse), “What does that bloke do with his time?” My friend just shrugged and said, “Who knows?”
I guess the moral of the story is that you’d be better off dead than to live next door to the church! At least then, the minister might show up at your funeral!
In sharp contrast, Jesus said that the Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep (John 10.11). Like the Samaritan in the parable, he actively seeks the broken and the destitute, and at great personal cost, takes care of them. And that friends, is the essence of true Christian ministry.