This Sunday is typically “Good Shepherd” Sunday. The Gospel text comes from John 10. The key verse of that being “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The first reading assigned in from the end of Acts. And why it is paired up with the Gospel reading is because it is the answer to the natural question: How do the sheep hear the voice? This sermon meditates on the answer based on Paul’s “good-bye” message to the Ephesian Elders.
This sermon attempts to us John’s Good Shepherd passage as an icon, an image through which we can see reality. The reality in this case is who the Good Shepherd is which is pictured clearly. It also includes the images of others on the Spiritual field – wolves and hired hands. It is in the comparison that the full goodness of the Shepherd is clear.
What is the good shepherd? Can we understand it alone, or only is comparison to other things? The Good Shepherd is Jesus himself, but does it have more than romantic meaning for us today?
This sermon obviously answers yes. But it does so through the contrasts that Jesus develops. The Good Shepherd is contrasted both with The Hired Hand and with the Wolves. The contrast with the hired hand is something that Jesus alone fulfills. Christ’s alone are the sheep. The contrast with the wolves is where we have more skin in the game if you would. The wolves do two things: seize and separate. The Good shepherd: lays down his life and gathers. We can give in to the wolves plan, or we can follow the shepherd.
And when we follow the shepherd, we are incorporated into the shepherd. We put down our lives, to take them up for eternity.
There are certain biblical images that are ingrained in our heads just from cultural osmosis. Even at this late date, the Good Shepherd is one of those images in the larger culture. I feel okay saying that because even Hollywood called a CIA movie staring Matt Damon The Good Shepherd recently. The movie didn’t do so hot and I can’t recommend it, but they expected the Biblical allusion to have enough currency to use the name. But what I am always amazed at when the lectionary throws up one of these common images (one portion of John 10 with shepherd images is always on Easter 4) is that the common gloss on the text is at best half the story. In the case of the Good Shepherd we jump straight to Calvary. In theologically squishy places the Good Shepherd is the perfect image to pitch Jesus the great teacher or a Unitarian all loving spirit. But the text itself is intensely Trinitarian as it is about the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son is the Good Shepherd and not the hired man because he shares the love of the father for these sinful oblivious sheep.
But the metaphor goes beyond that gospel image. Love is defined as aligning yourself with the Father’s commands. Love is defined as putting yourself between the sheep and the wolves. It is defined contrary to the hired man who does what it natural. When you see the good shepherd, when you comprehend in a meaningful way the gospel, at that point you are no longer a sheep. You have a choice – hired man or good shepherd. It is the first real choice in your life, and it is also one that the sheep are oblivious to. Don’t expect applause. Except from Father and Son. This sermon attempts to proclaim that love of the Good Shepherd and give it some form of what it really looks like in the Christian life.
These are both parables of prodigal grace and repentance. Dogmatically this is one of those areas where you are forced to nod your head yes to a couple of things in contradiction. It is all grace. The shepherd calls and carries home. If so, then why repent? State of grace, oh happy condition, sin as a please and still have remission. But it is grace. Repentance is the first step of the Kingdom. If that is the case, then why do I need grace? I just do the work of repentance. But that requires grace. Aquinas had it all worked out. Unfortunately Aquinas was out of favor intellectually when Luther came around. But that is neither here nor there.
My take is that these texts set in their context are suppose to be funny. They are absurd in a way that illuminates both our lost condition and the prodigal nature of grace. You have to get the joke, you have to accept the premise of grace, for the rest to make sense. But once you accept he premise it is one of those “oh, crap” moments. I was lost, but now I’m found. Grace comes with a hidden imperative. Home is that way. Go joyfully.
The world is full of voices. In the past week we’ve heard from some of the more gruesome. What Jesus says in the text today is “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” He also says bluntly that those who don’t believe (because they haven’t accepted/heard the testimony) are not his sheep.
What the Gospel according to John sets up is the duality of voices. The voice of Christ is the call to life, and the call to life is the call to repentance and a life transformed by the Spirit. All the other voices, whatever their form, are voices of the world leading to death, voices breathing threats and murder. And there is no blending of these voices, just a division. Either we follow the voice of the shepherd, or we follow other voices. Either we believe, and nothing will snatch us out of the Father’s hand, or we join the voices contra Christ. There is no middle ground. And if this week has done anything it has shown the foolishness of dialog with those voices of the world. Voices not based in the life of Christ yield bad fruit.
The jumping off point for this sermon was Jesus’ statements on being the good shepherd. The way John writes about it, in modern terminology, Jesus is defining his job requirements. If you want to be the Good Shepherd this is what is required: intimate knowledge of the sheep and laying down your life for them. And Jesus truly is the Good, in all its philosophical meaning (closer to model), Shepherd. And Jesus fulfilled and continues to fulfill that vocation: Cross, Sending of the Spirit, Sacraments. He knows his people so intimately that his Spirit resides in them. He gave up his life for them and continues to supply his body and blood. All the eternally important stuff, the defeat of Satan, the world and even our sinful nature has been accomplished by the Goodness of Christ.
What does that mean for us? Well, we also have been called to a variety of vocations: Son, daughter, husband, wife, employer, employee, elder, trustee, councilman, maybe even banker and politician. Being in Christ we are called to be a good one. In the Lutheran tradition, vocation is a large concept. We all have our vocations. What is in front of us is our vocation. And it is rooted in how our Lord carried his vocation. Our life flows from the Christology, it flows from Christ himself.
The text for this upcoming week is the good shepherd in John 10, so everyone who wants to sing/hear those hymns, this is your week.
Basil of Seleucia, 5th century Bishop part of the Council of Constantinople which finished the Nicene Creed, makes a comment about the text – “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep and so seeks to win their love.”
With all do respect to a 5th century father, but first on a practical level, does that make sense? Isn’t this a world where sacrifice actually calls you out as weak, the one least likely to receive reciprocating love? Isn’t saying something like that painting Jesus as the ultimate loser boyfriend? You know, the one who only gets the girl in a Hollywood movie, because being true to life doesn’t create warm fuzzies?
Far from any transaction or the sentimental pastoral (meaning of the fields) notions of innocence isn’t the point of the passage – “I am the good [i.e. the true and the beautiful (i.e. the ideal holder)] of the office of shepherd”. It’s a crappy part of the job that the wolves try and eat the sheep and the shepherd protects. That is why there are so many bad shepherds. And this has more application outside of the church than inside although the most egregious tales of bad shepherds are inside because echoing Obi Wan to Annakin – “you knew better”. But Jesus is the good shepherd. He does his job. And because he does it – the wolves of world have been defeated. While we were still running from the scene.