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[a] 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.”
In the lectionary Cycle Easter is celebrated for 8 weeks and this Sunday is the fourth of those eight weeks which is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I would imagine for many of you the texts for this week you have heard before, especially the 23rd Psalm. This Psalm is often used at funerals because it brings comfort. I also believe that it is well known because people who don’t know a lot of scripture can always remember this one because they probably had to memorize it as a child in Sunday school. It is short, it is filled with images that help us visualize the verses, and by golly if it was good for me to learn then my kids should as well or grandkids and so on down the line.
David said that the Lord was his Shepherd and Jesus says to the crowd gathered during his teaching “I AM the Good Shepherd.” The gospel of John has 7 of these I AM statements. Remember what God told Moses on the side of the mountain when Moses was tending sheep? Moses had been told by God to go and free the people from their bondage in Egypt and Moses asked God who should I say sent me? And God replied, “I AM.” The imagery is all so cute look at your bulletin cover and see Jesus there cradling a sheep holding the staff for protection. We have grown to romanticize the shepherd in our 21st century thinking. In Jesus day the shepherd was not thought of as being caring and compassionate at all.
The shepherd was a person who lived away from the community of believers, many were gentiles and most had no desire for religion. They were stinky, smelly men who had little to no formal education. To be called a shepherd in Jesus day was like calling them an immigrant in a very derogatory way. In essence Jesus said, “I Am the Good Immigrant.” Now how do you feel? The image from the bulletin cover has been changed dramatically. What on earth would cause Jesus to say this to those gathered around him?
In order to understand this passage, we need to back up a bit in the gospel of John to the 9th chapter. The story of the blind man and the pool of Siloam…
Jesus then responds to the Pharisees and the others gathered in a way that everyone would have understood in Jesus’ time. “I AM the Good Shepherd” is telling the Pharisees that he is linking himself now to God by using the words I AM and also as a shepherd because they all knew the 23rd Psalm just like we do. Then Jesus adds insult to injury by talking about the hired hand versus the good shepherd. The hired hand runs away, while the good shepherd sticks around. The hired hand is a comparison to the Pharisees.
The Pharisees had been taken care of paid by the church. They had abandoned their role in taking care of the people and become sell-outs to the occupying forces or worse their own desires. They ran away when threatened or lost their purpose. But the sheep, they know the voice of the shepherd and they follow the good shepherd where he leads them.
Sheep are interesting critters and much different than cows. When herding cattle, you drive them from behind but if you try to do that to sheep they will run around behind you. Sheep need to be led from the front and they truly do listen to the voice of the leader or the shepherd. Yet there can only be one voice to lead them. If two people try and lead the sheep they will become confused and scatter.
That is why Jesus says there will be one flock and one shepherd. The problem we encounter is being good sheep. How many flocks are in this community? Do all the flocks in this community claim to follow Jesus? Do all the flocks seek to follow the best that they can? Then why are there so many flocks? The answer is simple, it’s hard to be a good sheep. First of all, we really don’t like to be told what to do and next, how to do it. When we disagree with one another we become frustrated and look for ways out. Forming authentic and holistic communities is hard work—we dole out parts of our selves in stingy bits and pieces, avoiding being vulnerable with each other. We hold back our feelings and thoughts, we are afraid to confront each other or even worse to judge each other without mercy. We hold grudges and set impossibly high standards for ourselves and each other.
When we work for the good of the gospel then our intentions can be misunderstood and rejected and we avoid commitment because we do not want to risk abuse or exploitation. We don’t trust each other. And then we wonder why people are not flocking to our churches. It brings us back to the question in verse 17 of 1 John, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” We justify our needs and our treasures and then we justify those in whom we will help. What makes one group worthier than another? Or an individual? The epistle of 1 John tries to answer the question in 18-19, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God.” Even in the 21st century our actions speak louder than words. The good shepherd will lay his life down for the sheep, but we have to learn to trust in that shepherd.
If we are to be models of Christianity then our actions must reflect love. The work of gathering the flock belong to Jesus and God—we are to provide a space where all are welcome and not judged. I know it is easier said than done. We argue amongst ourselves let alone with the other faith-based organizations in our communities. The community that John envisions is open and celebrates diversity as a gift from God. He envisions multiple churches united in their loyalty to Jesus Christ—gathering at God’s table, bringing all of who they are, and sharing in the grace and mercy available through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are all sheep among sheep in need of a new life and community offered because of the crucifixion and resurrection.
We have to surrender ourselves to the care of God’s Good Shepherd. We have to stop worrying about who is here and who is not. The number of people in worship and the cost of doing church. We are never going to be the church of the past. As the saying goes you can’t plow a straight row if you are looking behind you. We have to start looking forward and trust that what we have is exactly what God has envisioned for us.
I say this more for myself than for you because I can get very disappointed in the results and the gospel is not about results, it’s relational and centered on love. We are not called to lay down our lives for the other sheep, we are called to do everything in love for the good of our community whether within these walls, the city limits or the world. 1 John reminds us that it is the Spirit that allows this to happen when we trust in the Good Shepherd. The life of Jesus has been laid down and our response is to believe in the One, Jesus Christ the Son of God, who laid down his life and to love one another.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—Amen.