The fourth Sunday of Easter is always a Sunday that we take time to consider Jesus the Good Shepherd. This is an image that many people quite like for Jesus. It’s one that at first glance is cuddly, fuzzy wuzzy, and nice. Who doesn’t like a sheep and a shepherd, after all? The idea of Jesus strolling along with a flock of sheep through bright green pastures, picking up lambs and carrying them on his shoulders—what’s not to like? And to be sure, that’s a good image to resonate with. God does love us with the gentle compassion of a doting caregiver, but that’s not really what the image of shepherd is about—not really at all. The truth of the matter is when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he’s drawing on a long, long historical tradition for the people of God.
Moses was a shepherd—a shepherd God called to lead his people out of slavery, to lead them through the wilderness, and ultimately to the Promised Land. David was a shepherd, a shepherd God called to the battlefield, then to the throne as the great king of Israel, beloved by God. Later the kings of Israel were associated with this history, the shepherd history of leadership, of kingship. The kings of Israel didn’t always—in fact, rarely—ruled Israel as God would’ve liked, and so the prophets often pronounced curses against them, and called them out for being bad shepherds. And so when Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, he is making a prophetic statement about himself and those who would lead the people of God away from the truth, the truth that gives life. When Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he’s also identifying himself with the kingship of God’s people, the true ruler of not only the government, but of our entire lives. And so as we today consider once again that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, don’t give up your idea of the gentle shepherd who picks up fuzzy wuzzy lambs and carries them on his shoulders, but also add to that the understanding of a mighty king who leads us and protects us against whatever it is that would seek to do us harm, both spiritually and bodily.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
As some of you know already, one of my favorite channels on TV is the Food Network. A bit ago, I was watching an episode about preparing lamb. Part of that was a little excursus on the history of sheep. Did you know that sheep were probably the very first animal to be domesticated for food, about 6000 years ago in Ancient Persia? Ancient Persia is where Iran is today, the same region where the Bible’s story of Esther takes place.
But any rate, sheep have the reputation for not being too terribly smart. A lot of that is our fault. It comes from six millennia of domestication. That really changed the sheep as an animal. They don’t have horns anymore, their ears are floppy instead of perky, and their brain capacity is diminished. The sheep isn’t a very impressive animal when compared to lions, tigers, and bears. For that matter, sheep aren’t that impressive when compared with other domesticated animals that we raise for food like cows or pigs.
So why in the world would we ever want to call ourselves sheep? Why would we want to put ourselves into the same category as a bunch of overadapted, vulnerable, stupid sheep? But that’s exactly what’s going on today…we happily say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” That line from the Bible is such a source of comfort for so many people, even people who don’t come to worship more than a few times a year know that line…“The Lord is my shepherd.” When we say that the “Lord is my shepherd,” we’re also saying “I am God’s sheep.” It really doesn’t make too much sense for us to call ourselves sheep, but that’s what we’re saying today. I think it’s worth looking a bit closer at what we’re saying when we call ourselves sheep.
In today’s gospel, Jesus draws on imagery about tending sheep. He calls himself the gate for the sheep today, but immediately in the next verse, he also calls himself the good shepherd. In short, Jesus is both our access to God, and the one who leads us to God—the gateway and the guide. We who hear his voice are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Sheep have a special relationship with their shepherd. Jesus gets at that when he says of the shepherd, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Sheep trust their shepherd. They follow him. Unlike other livestock like cattle that are herded from behind, sheep by their very nature follow the shepherd where he leads. If a shepherd tries to lead a flock of sheep from behind like a herd of cattle, they’ll get confused and try to circle around behind him and instinctively follow. A shepherd can trust that the sheep know his voice and will follow him wherever he leads.
But sometimes sheep will go astray from their shepherd, and we, relying on our own understanding and way of thinking, turn away like overadapted, vulnerable, stupid sheep from the way that Christ is leading us. Sometimes Christ is leading us in a direction that scares us or challenges us to think about the world in a way that makes us uncomfortable. One of the most difficult things, if not the most difficult thing that Christ leads us to do is to love each other. It can be very difficult to love people, especially people who are different from us. I know that sometimes even though Jesus is saying to love someone, I have a hard time for whatever reason. They’ve made me angry, or I just don’t understand them, or maybe I simply don’t like them. Whatever the case, it can be really difficult to love people. But Jesus doesn’t just ask us to love, he commands us, like a shepherd commands his sheep to go a particular way. Jesus tells us that everyone will know that we are his followers when we love each other. This is the way of righteousness, the right path that Jesus our shepherd leads us along. Loving people doesn’t only mean we stick together in our own flock, but it means we open ourselves up to welcome people who are different from us.
The world is full of competing voices telling us what to do. Popular wisdom would tell us that we need to look out for ourselves first. If we don’t, who will? Popular wisdom would have us question our self-worth, making us think less of ourselves than we ought. Surely no one could possibly like me if they truly knew my deepest secrets. Popular wisdom tells us that we need more and more and more to be truly happy. If we just buy into—literally, buy—the newest and latest craze, we’ll finally be satisfied. The world is full of competing voices telling us what to do. Yet that’s not the voice of Jesus, that’s not the voice of our shepherd. Our shepherd tells us that happiness, satisfaction isn’t found in things—but in relationships. Relationships with other people, with God, and even with ourselves. For God so loved the world, God so loved us, God so loved you that he gave up everything that it means to be God, emptied himself, and came down from heaven that you would have life—and have it abundantly, real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed. And what’s more, our shepherd, Jesus, our Lord and our God, leads us in loving the way that he commands us to love. Jesus, the Good shepherd, lays down his life for us, so that we like him, might give our lives in fervent obedient love for the sake of others and the world that God has entrusted to our care. “For just as the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells us, “so I send you.” This is the voice of our shepherd—and we follow because we are familiar with his voice.
All this isn’t necessarily easy, to be sure. We know we don’t love all people the way we should—even when we want to. But the good news for us is that God’s love for us isn’t dependent on how well we love other people. It’s not even dependent on how well we try to love other people. We love other people because loves us—not because we need to earn God’s love! Try though we might, we’ll never love people the way that Jesus loved us, but that’s okay. It’s okay because Jesus is the Good Shepherd who walks ahead of us, showing us the way, as we learn to love one another. He doesn’t lead us along pathways that are unfamiliar to him because he’s already gone ahead of us to lead the way. He’s not sending us down a pathway alone, but he’s right there alongside of us, in front of us, as the Good Shepherd leading a flock.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord —neither death, nor life, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. That’s what Easter is all about, and that’s what it means when we say we’re the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand. It means we not only follow Christ in loving one another, but it also means we follow Christ through the valley of the shadow of death into the joyous bliss of eternal life. Just as Christ leads us along right paths for his namesake, so too does he lead us from death into life—not on account of any worthiness of our own, but solely on account of his love for us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the Lord our Shepherd who lays down his life for us so that we might know and believe that God does truly love us.
Sheep may not be the most intelligent residents of the barnyard crowd, but we’re a different kind of sheep than your everyday sheep. We’re sheep who hear and believe the voice of Jesus Christ, the one who promises to be with us always, as a shepherd tending his flock of sheep. We’re sheep in Christ’s flock, a community loved deeply, so deeply that God is willing die so that we might live. We’re sheep who, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, follow our Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, into in the house of the Lord, where the goodness, love, and mercy of God Almighty shall surround us forever.
I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a pretty smart idea to me to follow that kind of shepherd wherever he leads.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.