Sermon: "The Good Shepherd"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 10.31-39; John 13.31-35
Last Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, we noted John the Baptist’s exclamation upon seeing Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29; NRSV). We considered Jesus’ emphasis on how sheep follow the shepherd for they know the shepherd’s voice. We examined Jesus’ claim, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10.7-9; NRSV). Shortly thereafter, Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10.11-15; NRSV).
We also noted how the religious leaders were divided – some believed Jesus was demon possessed and out of his mind while others believed the demon possessed could never perform such miracles as opening the eyes of the blind.
The Jewish people were expecting a Messiah who wielded power and might – one who would use violence to overthrow the violence of the Roman empire. They wanted to know if Jesus were the Messiah: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10.24; NRSV). And as we observed, Jesus answered by saying:
I have told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand, The Father and I are one (John 10.25-30; NRSV).
Jesus answer was not well received; they once again took up stones to stone him. Jesus reminded them that he had performed many good works and asked for which of those works they were about to stone him. They replied that it was not for any of his works, “but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God” (John 10.33; NRSV).
Jesus presents those who would stone him with a tough question: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s son’?” (John 10.34-36; NRSV). Jesus again reminded them of his works: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10.37-38; NRSV). Upon hearing this, they tried to arrest Jesus, but he escaped.
While we have been focusing on John 10, today’s gospel reading comes from John 13. What about the intervening chapters? John 11 tells the story of Lazarus death and resuscitation. In John 12, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, Jesus’ triumphally enters Jerusalem, and Jesus recognizes that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name,” and a voice from heaven said, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again” (John 12.28; NRSV). Chapter 13 begins with the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, then telling them that one among them would betray him, the one to whom he would give a piece of bread – Judas. Upon receiving the bread from Jesus’ hand, Judas left. Here is where today’s reading picks up: “At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once’ (John 13.31-32; NRSV).
It is in this context that Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13. 34-35; NRSV).
But wait a moment – the Torah already commands us to love one another: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18; NRSV). What is different? “Just as I have loved you, so shall you love one another.” Jesus gives us the concrete example. When we love others as Jesus loves us, we honor and glorify him and the Father; the Spirit empowers us to love in this manner. The Son of Man was glorified in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Last Sunday I noted the sheepfold Jesus very likely had in mind was located adjacent to the temple, the one which held the sacrificial lambs. Sacrifice is endemic to systems rooted in violence, to systems which worship wealth, power, and prestige. We still routinely sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of war. Given the nature of world-domination systems, that is sometimes unavoidable.
But Jesus, the Lamb of God, came to show us the way of love and the power in love. Our systems of violence sacrificed Jesus the Lamb of God, on the cross. Early in life, I was taught that an angry and wrathful God demanded a sacrifice which would atone for our sins; that Jesus was the sin offering for all time. Might our notion of an angry and wrathful God stem from our basic commitment to systems of domination and violence? If this is the nature of God, why would Jesus tell us the parable of the prodigal son in which the father runs to meet the son? Nothing is demanded of the son – no sacrifice to atone for his prodigal ways. To the contrary, the father lavishes his love on the son.
Yes, Jesus was a sacrifice, the sacrificial Lamb of God, but not for the purpose of appeasing an angry and a wrathful God. I believe Jesus was the inevitable sacrifice of a domination system rooted in violence. And for the first time in the history of the world, the sacrifice refused to remain dead! Our risen Savior did not exact violence on those who crucified him – the love he displayed for them while on the cross is still evident – “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus would have us see life in a new way; would have us live life in a new manner; would have us forsake the darkness and violence of domination systems and work to usher in God’s kingdom. John tells us how, prior to the Last Supper, Jesus told the crowd: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (John 12.35-36; NRSV). After having spoken thus to the crowd, Jesus departed and hid from them. A bit later, John once again tells us how Jesus spoke of the light:
Then Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me (John 12.44-50; NRSV).
God’s radical love as revealed in Jesus Christ is the way of eternal life.
I like the contrast between our worldly systems of violence and oppression and the values inherent in the Kingdom of God. Did Jesus come to appease the wrath of an angry God, or did Jesus come to reveal fullness of life. In Christ’s agape love we find new life – life eternal. What a revelation! What a gift!