Blessed be the Tie that Binds: How I Want our Pastorate to be Remembered (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)
A Sermon Preached before Church of the Redeemer (Presbyterian Church in America), Monroe, North Carolina: The Final Sermon in the Interim Pastorate (February 2016-February 2017)
Michael A. Milton, M.Div., M.P.A., Ph.D.
The James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism, Erskine Theological Seminary; President, D. James Kennedy Institute for Reformed Leadership
18 February 2017
Scripture (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 ESV)
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.”
Shared experience changes our lives. Shared experience with a miracle fuses our lives together forever—binds us to each other. After the Clint Eastwood-produced film, Sully, the audience learns that many of the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 (courageously and expertly commanded by Captain Chesley Sullenberger) who survived the extraordinary Hudson River landing, come together for reunions. It is more like “they seek each other out.” Though passengers have little else in common, they have the shared experience of that remarkable and unforgettable winter day on January 15, 2009, when an ordinary NYC-Charlotte flight ended in the crowded maritime traffic on the icy waters beneath the NYC skyline. I’m not sure you could give me enough frequent flyer miles to trade places with any of them! But they are now in a very exclusive club! That shared experience, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” binds their lives together for the rest of their days. This is the nature of shared experienced plus wonder. It fuses. It unites. It binds. There is a sacred mystery in its core that is best understood in silence and awe.
I recall a seminarian telling me of his plans. He spoke confidently, “I will go help this little church out in the country that has called me for a year or two and then my plan is to leave and go work on my doctorate and prepare to teach.” I listened as my student described his well-thought-out career map. I let him take the line as far as he could before I started to reel in just a bit. “Well, that’s a pretty tight plan, Son.” He was proud of himself and replied, even offering me an axiom for my own good, just as he was getting up from the guest chair in my study, “Yeah,” he inhaled his own authority, “You got to plan today to succeed tomorrow.” “Yes, you sure do,” I agreed. “But,” I looked out of the window of my study just as he turned his back to me to exit my office. My isolated conjunction carried just enough mystery about what would come after to make him pause in the doorway. “But, what?” he said, still smiling, but now a smile tainted with curiosity. “But,” I continued, “what about the People?” “What people would that be, Dr. Milton?” I turned from staring out the window to looking into my student, with as much fatherly countenance as I could conjure.
“The People you will serve as pastor, they will be changed by you and you will be changed by them and you both will be changed by God. A pastorate is more than a job. It is more than a stop-over in your career path.”
He paused in my doorway. I left him with a thought,
“The shared experience of God’s Word, Christ’s presence, and the Spirit’s mysterious movement in your midst, will bind your hearts together forever. Maybe, you should include one more variable to your plan: remember the hymn? ‘Blessed be the Tie that Binds.’”
He looked out to the same window, maybe to see the mystery I saw. But, he quickly returned his eyes back to mine. “Well, I guess we will see.” “Yes,” I said. And he was gone.
The pastoral bond is revealed throughout the Bible in many places. In 1 Thessalonians, one of my favorite places in all the Bible, the relationship is revealed in narrative form. St. Paul writes to the Church at Thessaloniki. In his epistle, he reveals that he had desired to come to them, but had been hindered by Satan. In deep, passionate and pastoral language, Paul, the “Apostle of the Heart Set Free” gives his vision for his entire ministry. And in doing so reveals God’s plan for growing strong believers.
We all know that the Great Commission of Jesus Christ involves proclaiming the gospel, baptizing the nations of peoples into the kingdom of God, and teaching them whatsoever Jesus commanded. This great discipleship undertaking requires, of necessity and by design, a shepherding relationship. This is outlined, for instance, in John, as Jesus commissions Peter as a Christian shepherd to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). The picture is further filled in through St. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians as he describes the work of a pastor to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12-16). Yet, in order for this to happen, there must be a special relationship formed and nurtured, one that is not easily broken. This truth underlies 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20.
Thus, God’s plan for Christian growth requires a unique relationship between a Christian shepherd and Christian flock.
What are the dynamics of this “pastor-parish” or Pastor-People relationship? This is our concern today as we not only reflect on the text, but apply it to our time together and as you prepare for your permanent pastor. So, let us consider three dynamics in this Pastor-People relationship from 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20.
The first dynamic about the Pastor-People relationship is this:
I. Pastor and People are bound together by common love. (17)
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.”
Notice the intense passionate language of the Apostle. He longed to be with his people. Paul’s remarkable pastoral ministry is too often overlooked because of his peerless missionary ministry. Yet, who can read this verse and question the compelling pastoral impulse—his vital love for these people. And there is the expectation in the letter that the pastoral love would be reciprocated.
Remember the old television show, Cheers? The tag line for the show, “Everybody knows your name.” The famous Boston bar was a place of community, acceptance, and was even therapeutic. I have heard people describe the Church in the same way. Is this vivacious environment and relationship the reason for St. Paul’s longing to be with the Thessalonians?
Or, could it more rightly be, according to Scripture, that St. Paul desired to return to the congregation at the Thessalonica because the Holy Spirit had fused Paul’s life to theirs through wonder. Jesus Christ had called the apostle Paul and that vocation become intertwined with the lives of the Thessalonians. No longer could the apostle Paul separate his vocation from the lives of the congregation of that city in Greece. In the same way, the Thessalonians received Paul, were impacted in a visceral and spiritual way through the Holy Spirit working through the fatherly love of Paul. Read the verses just before our text for this morning:
“For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
And we also thank God constantly[d] for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men[e] but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2: 11-13 ESV).
Clearly, the binding agent between Pastor and people is not community nor likability nor good times, but rather something that is wondrous, something miraculous: Someone who is working in them and through them: The Holy Spirit. The means of binding pastor and people is through the God-appointed pastoral offices of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. And, so, the relationship is like no other relationship. It cannot be like a relationship with your dentist or with your attorney, as important as both of those professional relationships are in this world. The Holy Spirit is at work in your life and the minister of the gospel is ministering the sacred emblems of heaven to your soul. But you must remember, that you, the congregation, are the living manifestation of the call of Jesus Christ in a pastor’s life. That’s what you have been to me for this year. I think that you will stand out as a very special congregation in my heart for the rest of my life, because I wasn’t expecting you. You came to me at a time after very serious illness, when the possibility of ever shepherding the flock of Christ was in serious question. You must know, then, according to the word of the Lord, the pastoral bond that has developed is not because of your good looks and wonderful behavior—though there is much there to be commended—it is, rather, that as I look out at you, as I baptize you and your children, as I confirm your children in the “faith once delivered,” as I minister the Sacrament of the Lord supper, and as I minister the Word of God in private counseling, I see Jesus Christ in you. I see His call to me in you. And it is good. And I can never be the same again. I wouldn’t want to be.
There is another dynamic at work here that we must all be aware of. We have seen it. But, we might have chalked it up as something other than what it is:
II. Pastor and People are targeted together by diabolical hatred. (18)
“. . . we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.”
This is a hard reality that, nevertheless, we must face. We need to talk about it.
St. Paul declares that his deep desire to return to the People at Thessalonica was hindered by Satan. Indeed, in Acts 17:1-9, we do see how Paul’s preaching in that city was stopped by the city authorities who had been alerted by certain Jewish leaders who wanted Paul out. Through a conspiracy of civil authorities, and religious evil-doers, Paul and Silas were banished. Yet, there has never been an earthly power—no beast from the earth, no devil from Hell—that has permanently hindered the work of the Gospel. To the contrary, Jesus Christ uses the diabolical plans of Hell to advance His Kingdom. The Devil and his hellish horde of demons must have snickered with a menacing sound that echoed through the charred ruins of Hell at the sight of God the Son on the cross, crucified by His own creation. But their laughing returned to wailing within three days as the Christ arose from the dead! The very thing that sought to destroy God’s Plan of Salvation became the fuse that ignited the charge! The explosion of Good News shot beams of brilliant light into all directions around the earth. The celestial orb once cast in darkness, became lit, in faraway islands to great continents, with the news of Jesus the Redeemer of Mankind.
I shall never forget a time when I served on a commission of a presbytery investigating a break in pastoral relations in a certain church (in a state far away from here). The condition in the parish had deteriorated to the place where families were divided, membership was dropping, and Sundays had become the hardest day of the week for all involved. After hearing all sides, the presbytery commission made what I have continued to believe was not only a wise, but a thoroughly Biblical and most effective response. A congregational meeting was called. The Chairman of the Commission went to the pulpit to speak. The other commissioners sat in folding chairs behind him, in the chancel; an act of sober solidarity. The sides were visibly divided by the center aisle in the church. The chairman spoke,
“We have reviewed the charges and counter-charges of both sides of this very sad situation. We understand how misunderstandings can breed regrettable statements of party to another. It is a ball of twine with no indication where the string begins and ends. We couldn’t figure the whole thing out because, frankly, I’m not sure you all can figure it out. I wonder if any two of you could agree on what started this whole mess. All I can say is the devil has had quite a great day here.”
A commissioner behind the folksy speaker coughed, a prompt to just stick to the script. The chairman picked up on the guttural que, paused, flipped through his notes, re gathered himself, and continued.
“We aim to look to the Lord to rid the congregation of the devil and his fallen angels, as well as to heal the Body of Christ, by ordering that Holy Communion by administered as frequently as possible, weekly, or at least once per month. We order that a guest minister be brought in to preach on the love of Jesus for sinners for six weeks. And we order that if you are to remain in this fellowship of Churches you will return to regular weekly prayer meetings.”
The genius of the ruling was that the discipline was based on a diagnosis that was altogether spiritual, and a treatment, with a very confident prognosis, that was altogether grounded in the means of grace: Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. Their lives would be fused by the Spirit. The devil would be driven out by the presence of the risen Christ in that church and in the hearts of those people. Did it work? Yes. The church is not only there today, but remains a beacon of light for the Gospel, sending missionaries and pastors, and evangelizing around the globe and around the corner.
I thank God that our time together was marked by the beauty of Christ’s love. We had plenty of work to do to prepare for the coming of a new pastor. I do not have to be a prophet to predict that the devil will seek to cause division. Remember the way to cast out the devil is with the presence of Jesus. Stay sweet and broken, together, as pastor and people, at the foot of the cross.
III. Pastor and People are united together for a common destiny. (19-20)
“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.”
Paul, then, grounds his vision for his pastoral ministry in a glorious future event. His ministry is not about how many parishioners are on the roll. His ministry is not about how large or how ornate the church building is. His ministry is about “souls safe in the arms of Jesus when He comes again.”
I have taken this verse as my own pastoral vision. And so I say to you: my vision for my time with you is very simple. I pray that through our time together, through the Word of God preached, through the Holy Communion shared, through the baptisms, and the professions of faith, and the teaching of the Word of God privately and publicly, in the pastoral study, and from house to house, the pastorate will lead to souls saved and lives transformed. And I pray this will be not only for you and your children, but through the power of the Gospel and the promises of the Almighty, the spiritual transformation will extend through the generations until that wondrous day when the sky is rent in twain and Jesus our Lord appears with the Archangel Michael and all the heavenly host, as well as with all those who have gone before. Then, on that day, my ministry in this one-year transition will have been completed: when there are generations of souls safe in the arms of our Savior and Lord.
The relationship between pastor and people is often overlooked or observed in terms of human organizational behavior. This is regrettable and it is most certainly wrong. The relationship is altogether grounded in God. The pastor, as we see in 1 Thessalonians, is to be a father to the people, not in an authoritarian sense, for Christ forbid that. But, as Paul shows, he should be a father in his loving relationship, in his care for the saints, and in his wise and faithful provision for spiritual needs. He has no other authority than spiritual. Always remember that. But within that there are unique dynamics that we have observed in this place in God’s Word:
- Bound by common love.
- Targeted by diabolical hatred.
- United in a common destiny.
How strong is this bond? It was in the pleasant market town of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, that Reverend John Fawcett (1740-1817) ministered. He was not only well-loved by his parishioners, but well-respected as a preacher of the Word. In 1769, Wainsgate Baptist Church was experiencing extraordinary growth. A historian has written,
“The place became too small to accommodate the stated hearers, some of whom came regularly many miles every Lord’s Day. A gallery was erected and several other improvements made in the interior of the place of worship.”
Carters Lane Baptist Church, later to become New Park Baptist Church, where Charles Haddon Spurgeon would preach, was held, in Fawcett’s day, by John Gill. Gill was a monumental figure in the late 1700s. Upon his death, the congregation there called Reverend John Fawcett to be the pastor. John Fawcett had filled the pulpit in those recent days during the lingering illness of the famous Pastor John Gill. Fawcett sensed the burden of the call. And he accepted the call to London. On the day of his departure, the wagon was loaded with their household goods from the manse. Mrs. Fawcett was heaving tears. A great gathering of the congregation surrounded the wagon and they, too, were weeping. The scene must have been traumatic upon the pastor and the people. Believing that the Lord’s Spirit was moving upon him through the pitiful scene, Fawcett ordered the wagon unloaded. The pastor remained. John Fawcett would go on to found a Pastor’s School in the markets of the Yorkshire dales, a seminary, for that area of England. He would not only train a new generation of pastors, but would published commentaries for the laymen. But, his greatest legacy would be a single hymn that was inspired by the love of pastor and people in that tender scene when he almost departed. The hymn has become part of the corpus of Christian hymnody and was reported to me recently that an underground church in China sang it not too long ago:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
Yes, we will meet again. We will meet again in our community. We will meet again in the coffee shops and community events around our city. But our greatest meeting will be a meeting in the air, when Christ Jesus comes again.
Our hearts are knit together by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace: Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. My role has been to be a father to you for only a short time so that you may receive one who will love you with the Word and with the Sacraments for a longer time, we pray. But, I shall always brag about my time with you. But, my bragging, if you will, is you. Your love, your strength, and your steadfastness. In fact, the only place I know where one brags about someone other than the Lord Himself is the pastor who can brag about the beauty of the Body of Christ in His care:
For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
And now I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace and to the power of all His promises, which are always “Yes and Amen” through Jesus Christ our Lord. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 John Fawcett, An Account of the Life, Ministry, and Writings of the Late Rev. John Fawcett [by J. Fawcett] (Lond.: 1818).
 John Gill, A Collection of Sermons and Tracts… To Which Are Prefixed, Memoirs of the Life, Writing, and Character of the Author (London: G. Keith, 1773).
 C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994).
Anderson, Matthew Lee. “Reading the Hymns: Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture (blog), May 29, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2017. https://mereorthodoxy.com/reading-the-hymns-blest-be-the-tie-that-binds/.
Fawcett, John. An Account of the Life, Ministry, and Writings of the Late Rev. John Fawcett, D.D.: Who Was Minister of the Gospel Fifty-four Years, First at Wainsgate, and Afterwards at Hebdenbridge, in the Parish of Halifax; Comprehending Many Particulars Relative to the Revival and Progress of Religion in Yorkshire and Lancashire ; and Illustrated by Copious Extracts from the Diary of the Deceased, from His Extensive Correspondence, and Other Documents .. London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Paternoster Row, 1818.
Fawcett, John. Hymns: Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship, and Private Devotion. By John Fawcett. Leeds: Printed by G. Wright and Son, for the Author, 1782.
Gill, John. A Collection of Sermons and Tracts … To Which Are Prefixed, Memoirs of the Life, Writing, and Character of the Author. London: G. Keith, 1773.
The Hymnbook. Richmond: Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1955.
“John Fawcett.” Hymnary.org. Accessed February 18, 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20150526153615/http://www.hymnary.org/person/Fawcett_John1740.
Milton, Michael. The Secret Life of a Pastor: (and Other Intimate Letters on Ministry). Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2015.
Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Spurgeon, C. H. The New Park Street Pulpit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994.
Thornton, Martin. Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.