April 25, 2021 Fourth Sunday of Easter The text is John 10:11-18.
[Jesus said:] 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd”, and he lays out in very specific terms just what that means for God’s people. References to flocks of sheep and their shepherds appear quite often in Scripture. And this is likely because it is best to speak to people about deep religious truths in terms of what they find most familiar in their daily lives. The three main occupations in biblical times were fisherman, farmer, and shepherd. The words “fish” or “fisherman” appear in Scripture 17 times; “farm”, “field”, or “farmer”, 31 times.
But, far and away, the most often referenced occupation is that of shepherd. Allusions to “shepherd” or “sheep” are found 76 times in the Bible. Thus, when Jesus speaks in allegories or metaphors that reference shepherds and their flocks, his listeners are quite familiar with the profession and what it entails. Probably though, the role of the shepherd and his responsibilities to his flock are not quite so apparent to us. In Jesus time one might act as the hands-on sheepherder for the lambs that someone owned; the option was to allow your flock to graze with other groups of sheep under the direction of a third-party employee. Jesus notes the difference between the “good shepherd” who assumes beloved responsibility for his flock versus the “hired hand” who isn’t necessarily personally invested in the well-being of the sheep he oversees. To him, the welfare of the flock he guards might not be paramount; he may only be in it for the money. It’s his job, and very likely not his life’s mission. Jesus, the “good shepherd” is willing to give up his life for his flock, his sheep, us.
The shepherd who truly cares for the sheep of his flock knows them by the names he has given them and they will answer to his voice. This was a necessity during the grazing season when a shepherd would find himself in the hills and the wilds, far from the town and the sheepfold. And when several flocks would gather at a stream to drink, a good shepherd would be able to collect his own sheep by calling to them. They would recognize his voice and come to him, separated from the larger group that had gathered at the watering spot. Thus, the flock would now be reunited as one, ready to be returned to the sheepfold. Jesus assures his audience that he knows his followers intimately as his own and that his own know him, just as completely as the Father knows Jesus and he knows the Father. The sheep hear their Master’s voice, and they run to him in confidence and trust that they will be cared for.
This entire concept of shepherd and flock as Jesus relates, is the first time in the Easter season that we read of Christ’s ministry and mission. Up until now, our readings have focused on the resurrection itself, as well as the appearances Jesus made to the women and the disciples. But with this proclamation of Jesus as the “good shepherd” and the metaphor concerning his relationship with humankind, we delve into the very first instance of “Christology”.
This is the term given to the study and understanding of the person, nature, work, and role of Jesus Christ. And, as the liturgical year progresses, we will continue in this vein of coming to a richer awareness of Jesus’ nature as we read again his own “I am” statements, the witness of the gospel writers, and Paul’s letters. But this morning we are called to focus on this initial announcement from Jesus that he has come to serve God’s people as their “good shepherd”; whose purpose is to secure for us all abundant life in this world and eternal life in the next.
So, let us dive a little more deeply into the intent and the meaning of the “good shepherd” metaphor, considering it from Jesus’ point of view. He las laid down his life in the crucifixion; he has taken it up again by his resurrection. Jesus has an intimate two-way relationship with God the Father; God loves Jesus and Jesus loves God. He follows God’s commands. He knows each of those who have been called to be his followers; from the first disciples, down through the passage of time to include us. He calls out to us; we recognize his voice and we “flock” to him in trust.
So, whether we examine the sheep and shepherd parable as an allegorical story or we focus on the actual relationships that Jesus makes clear he is speaking about, we ultimately draw a very specific set of conclusions from both. Christ has come by the command of the Father to care for God’s people, and through his work we are forgiven and saved. This knowledge is meant to give us comfort, peace, joy, and hope. But, like Paul Harvey used to say, “and now, the rest of the story”. And this is the part that tends to make some people a little uncomfortable. In verse 16, Jesus announces, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd “. And when the discomfort has been known to arise is when the “sheep” assume that they have any say in whom the “shepherd” chooses to call into the fold. This particular verse has been known to be used by some to proclaim exclusivity; and that’s when the trouble begins. The “good shepherd” decides which sheep he will call to answer to his voice; and let’s be honest, here are those who have historically been unhappy with Christ’s choices. Let’s start with those he is addressing this morning.
The explanation of the shepherd and the sheep is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who have scolded him for restoring sight to the man who was blind from birth. Not only was Jesus healing people in the name of God, he had the nerve to perform this miracle on the Sabbath! So, right from the very beginning, we read that the religious leaders of the day were determined that nothing and no one were going to upset the status quo of Judaic Law. They believed it was their determination who should be healed, and under what circumstances. And the world has been in the business of deciding who’s in and who’s out of the fold ever since. There are approximately 4,200 separate religions in the world, and pretty much all of them are confident that they have the answer. It’s estimated that within these there are 2.4 billion Christians. Now, here’s some numbers that I found mind-boggling; ranging from the major mainline Christian groups down to denominations that may have only a few adherents, there may be as many as 35,000 different groups that identify as followers of Jesus Christ. That’s 35,000 different Christian belief systems. And each of these individual “flocks”, I’m pretty sure would proclaim that they have a handle on who Jesus is referring to when he speaks about those he intends to bring into the fold.
But it is certainly not up to the sheep, Jesus makes that very clear when he states that he must summon those others that are not yet part of God’s family. Those of us who already answer to the Master’s voice must also remember that it is only by the action of the Holy Spirit that we have been called to be included in Christ’s flock. While others may feel they bear some responsibility for choosing which lost sheep are to be invited into Jesus’ fold, our understanding of the “good shepherd’s” message compels us to simply accept and affirm any and all who are sent to us. When we reach out beyond our walls we are letting the world know that we are responding to the commands of our shepherd to be his “hired hands”, to welcome those he has chosen to dwell among us. The “Closet”, food donations, homeless care kits, and backpacks; these are the expressions of the thankfulness we feel in response to our inclusion in Christ’s fold. Our job is to proclaim the message of hope that the shepherd promises, through our witness, our actions, our servanthood.
Jesus, not us will determine who is found worthy to hear him call out their names. And whether they answer is also the Master’s concern, not ours. All we need do is be sure the gate to the sheepfold remains open to whomever hears the call to pass through it, and that we be sure we don’t stand in the way. Jesus may call out to others to bring them into the fold, and these new sheep may not look, believe, or act in exactly the ways that we might expect. And, if that’s the case, the entire flock will benefit; our fold will be enriched. Fresh voices, different ways of looking at things, unique ideas and perspectives; let’s be sure that our hearts remain open to all and that we are ready to welcome any the “good shepherd” calls to be part of our flock.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, Jesus has proclaimed his mission to being all the world into his fold. It is the will of Christ that there be “one flock, one shepherd”. We ask that you guide and inspire us to be among those who actively reach out to the ones Jesus is calling; and that within this fold they too may hear the voice of the Master. And we pray these things in the name of the risen Jesus, the One who is the “good shepherd”. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.