My Dear Shepherds,
I’d never thought of these words as though Paul wrote them to me personally, not only as part of a church but as a fellow pastor. When I did, I nearly wept.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… (Phil. 1:3-5)
I also thought how these could be my words to you dear shepherds who read this letter. I do thank God every time I remember you. I often try to picture you at work in a study like mine. I imagine familiar commentaries and theology books on your shelves, and your church buildings like so many I’ve been in. I’d like to ask you, So what are you preaching on now? Tell me about your congregation. What have your years there been like?
But better than that, imagine the Lord Jesus saying this to you and me, telling us how he thanks the Father for us with joy because of our long partnership with him and his church.
Our work with Christ is a “partnership in the gospel,” in the good news of forgiveness and holiness, of a born-again family, of an enduring home that will never crumble under our feet. Sometimes it is difficult to connect the dots from our mundane pastoral work to the grandeur of the gospel. Nonetheless, we approach our humble weekly worship service dressed in priestly white (whether or not we wear vestments). Our counseling and pastoral calls carry the touch of Jesus’ own compassion for the harassed and helpless. Our plodding footsteps become the beautiful feet bringing the good news. And when we go on our way, unbeknownst to us, the fragrance of Christ hangs in the air.
The phrase, “from the first day until now,” carries a unique history for each of us. Long ago, before we could imagine what we were getting into, we entered a partnership with Jesus and his people in the work of the gospel. We could each tell our own story of how we put our faith in Christ and came to serve him. We could tell one another of our first efforts to evangelize, teach a Bible class, visit a hospital room, or preach our first faltering sermon. Columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once observed, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of.” Our gospel partnership is our defining story.
I remember going on my first pastors’ retreat. After an evening session we all sat around, and the older guys started telling the kinds of stories pastors can only tell other pastors. We laughed till we were doubled over. We shook our heads to hear the sacred or surprising experiences of our colleagues. I remember thinking that night, I’m part of this company! Pastors are now my people.
I’m confident the Lord also says to you and me personally, “Rest assured; the good work I began in you I will carry on to completion till I return.” I long to see the Lord’s finished work in the people I pastored, to see their place in the beautiful Bride descending from heaven. But, like you, I also long to be complete myself, to be like Jesus. I expect that will carry over to an everlasting partnership in the gospel, not in spreading it (for that job will be complete), but in exploring and marveling over gospel treasures with one another forever.
Be ye glad!
 David Brooks, “The Sad Tales of George Santos,” 12/28/22, The New York Times