“ I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing 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 And I have other sheep that are not of 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 that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-16)
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.”
Jesus is the good shepherd. He is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
Good Shepherd Sunday, it is one of my favorite. It’s hard to miss the love Jesus portrays in the readings, the gospel is abundant like green grass in spring nourishing newborn lambs. Have you seen them? There isn’t much that is more heartwarming than seeing a little lamb frolicking in a pasture. Though yesterday I saw to kid goats butting heads in pasture and laughed too. It’s amazing but they will be almost full grown in short time as they eat all that green grass that is growing on our hill sides and all those may flowers we anxiously wait for amid these April showers.
But all those romantic and Idyll notions of shepherding are almost deceiving when it comes to these words of Jesus. Taking care of sheep wasn’t an easy thing in his day. It hadn’t changed much from the days of his father David, who steeled his temperament to become a warrior and rule as king while still a shepherd in his father Jesse’s employ. David hints at what it was like to be a shepherd. You were outside in heat and in cold because you couldn’t leave the sheep alone. There were bears, wolves and lions at the prowl, and it was the shepherd’s duty to fend them off. David tells us he killed bears and lions with his hands. He was lucky to have a sling, or even a spear with him, normally a staff. You slept outside, and sucked up the cold. All so you could protect those sheep. And after a storm when the sheep were frightened and scattered you walked to fine them, up and down hill sides, pulling them from bushes, and out from among rocks, always wary of snakes that could bite at any second. Every day you risked your life and tried it against nature, and so at any day a shepherd could end up giving his life for his sheep.
But a hired hand was not so faithful. They didn’t own the sheep. It wasn’t their investment. They had no real skin in the game, and were not willing to lose their skin in it. A shepherd invested his life in the sheep. Only when they were fed out, when the young lambs had grown to the right weight and sent to market did the shepherd get paid. These sheep were his. His investment, his freedom, and his livelihood, he was willing to gamble his life on them, because he already had when he purchased them. Without his sheep he was nothing, he would work for someone else, he would be dependent on others. I’ve seen the whole Old Testament actually analyzed for this showing a contrast from the shepherd’s ethic of freedom and the farmer’s ethic of civilization, from Cain and Abel on ward as nothing but this ethic. Civilization not being able to deal with freedom, Cain the farmer had to kill Abel the shepherd. Now, it will happen again. Civilization will not know what to do with the freedom from law that Christ proclaims, it will kill the shepherd who will die for his sheep that they might live.
Jesus is no hired hand. He lays down his life for his sheep. He is the good shepherd. He knows his sheep. He spares no expense to take care of his sheep.
The sheep don’t always make it easy on him. They are sheep, they hardly know any better. You and I. The only reason we remain in the flock is we keep hearing his gentle voice calling through the wilderness, and we are drawn to him. We know he shows us where to find water for our parched souls, and where to find nourishing food for our famished spirits. We run after a storm of disagreement in the church. We find ourselves left bruised and broken by the stampede. Jesus comes and picks us up. Sets us down under a tree. Sings to us to pass the time. His voice sooths our souls, and calms the pain. We find ourselves hanging off a cliff face, when we got a little too brave in this world. Perhaps we wandered off in search of food elsewhere, perhaps not even aware of what we were doing. So often we aren’t. We think we are just trying to make ends meet. Just trying to make our way. And then we wake up, sore, hungry, and broken. And then there is Jesus following us, picking us up and bringing us back. And as frustrated as he must be, he seems always so patient, kind, and humble.
This is the gospel. That Jesus is the good shepherd that doesn’t give up on his sheep. He calls them, he finds them and he gathers them together. He wants them together. This is why he created his church, put undershepherds there trained to call with his voice that is the forgiveness of sins, to water the sheep in baptism, to feed the sheep with his word and with his sacrament. There together in the flock they find what they need. But only there where these things are present. Only there where Christ is calling with the forgiveness of sins, only there where Christ is sanctifying with the sanctifying waters of baptism, only there where he feeds the sheep with his very own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, only there is the church, and the church ceases to be church only when it loses these things, when it loses focus on the gospel and turns to law.
It is by the law that false shepherds lead the sheep. Where the sheep are preached at the expense of Jesus. Where the sheep are told they sanctify themselves and grow, not by eating the green pasture grass and basking in the love of the shepherd, but by doing good works so the shepherd will love them. A false shepherd only loves the sheep that abide by his rules, judges them according to his own standards, and when the sheep wander he doesn’t bother to look, when a sheep gets in trouble he says, “I told you so.” A false shepherd operates with conditional love. But the true shepherd loves you because you are his sheep. He knows who you are and when you wander he follows after. He comes to find you to pick you up and carry you, because he knows you, not a superficial knowledge of you, but an intimate knowledge. He knows your quirks, he knows your sin, he knows the way you think. He knows you better than you know yourself. And he loves you in spite of it all. He knows you in spite of all that you know and despise about yourself, or suspect that he must despise you for. And he calls you with his voice, simply saying come, your sins are forgiven. He lifts you up and he carries you, and he laughs with a warm smile as he watches you basking in the warmth of his love, and eating in his pasture. Because he laid down his life for you, He just did it, because you belonged to him, and he would not let the devil, the world, or death or sin, or any other snake, bear, wolf or lion steal it from you.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your heats and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.