Sermon: “The Good Shepherd”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10
The past two Sundays we have focused on the hope found in Jesus Christ. Last Sunday we considered the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who were joined by Jesus, although they did not recognize him. After relating the events that had transpired in Jerusalem, they ended their account by saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24.19-21; NRSV). They recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their hopes were realigned. We also noted these words from the epistle of 1 Peter: “Through him (Jesus) you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (1 Peter 1.17-21; NRSV). Through our belief in Jesus, our hopes are realigned – we no longer focus solely on the short-term hopes of this world.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus relates two parables and makes two claims: First, the parable of the shepherd after which Jesus states, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11; NRSV; excluded from the reading). Second, the parable of the sheep gate after which Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10.7; NRSV).
If we take the reading in and of itself, if we do not investigate the context, we miss something. John 9 recounts how, on the sabbath, Jesus healed the man who was born blind. The Pharisees were up in arms! They proceeded to question the man, and the man’s parents, whose sight had been restored. They said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner!” to which he replied, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9.24-25; NRSV). The Pharisees reviled him, saying he was a disciple of Jesus, whereas, they were disciples of Moses, and God had surely spoken to Moses, but they had no idea where Jesus had come from. Note the healed man’s response: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9.30-33; NRSV). What a powerful testimony! The blind man was the recipient of God’s grace and he did not hesitate to proclaim that fact. This was too much for the pharisees, who then said, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us” (John 9. 34; NRSV)? The pharisees then drove him out.
But that is not the end of the story.
Having heard the man had been driven out, Jesus sought him out. Let’s listen to their conversation: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him” (John 9.35-38; NRSV). Note that he worshiped Jesus. The blind man very likely had longed for sight, yet he did not ask for it. Jesus showed him mercy so that “God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9.3; NRSV). Through the grace of God, the blind man was given more than that for which he could reasonably hope.
Jesus further stated, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9.39; NRSV). The account of the healing of the blind man closes with these words, “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains’” (John 9.40-41; NRSV). The Pharisees claimed to see, yet what they saw was Moses and the Law. They failed to see who Jesus was; they failed to see that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. All of this serves as the background, the context, to the parables of the good shepherd and the sheep gate.
Notice Jesus’ lead into these parables: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (John 10.1; NRSV). Jesus’ words were directed toward the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders – they addressed the whole legal and sacrificial system.
Jesus then set forth the characteristics of a good shepherd – at night, he leads the sheep into the sheepfold for protection and safety; in the morning, he calls his sheep by name and leads them out to pasture. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and will follow only his voice; they will not respond to the voice of a stranger. The shepherd enters by the gate opened by the gatekeeper.
As those who heard failed to understand, Jesus then turned to the parable of the gate and proclaimed: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.7-10; NRSV). Many false prophets and messiahs (thieves and bandits) preceded Jesus’ ministry.
How is it that Jesus can be both the good shepherd and the sheep-gate? There may or may not have been an actual gate. In the absence of such a gate, the shepherd would simply lie down in the opening. The sheep would not climb over him. If predators were to gain entrance, they would have to do so. The shepherd may even sacrifice his own life for the sake of the sheep. The good shepherd and the sheep-gate could, and often were, one and the same.
So how does all of this relate to us? How does it speak to our situation? Let’s begin by noting that John’s gospel contains many references to sheep and the good shepherd. Remember John the Baptist’s statement upon seeing Jesus when he was baptizing, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” followed the next day by “Look, here is the lamb of God” (John 1.29, 36; NRSV) which led two of John’s disciples to follow Jesus John’s gospel, and the book of Revelation (also written by John) are filled with the imagery and symbolism of the Lamb of God.
The Church is the sheepfold. Remember Jesus’ post-resurrection responses to Peter’s three avowals – one for each denial – that he loved Jesus more than these: “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep” (John 21.15-17; NRSV). Jesus, our Good Shepherd, leads us into Church where we are safe and secure, where the lambs and the sheep can be fed and tended; where we can rest and worship the lamb of God in community. Here we find fellowship with other Christians, we are nurtured in God’s word, and equipped for service. After the solace of rest and security, Jesus calls us “forth into the world in the name of Christ; we are called to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord … rejoicing in the power of the Spirit” (BCP, p.366). Jesus is the sheep-gate, the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for us that we might find life and have it abundantly.
But as the epistle of 1 Peter tells us, this may mean that we come to “endure pain while suffering unjustly” remembering that Christ suffered for us, that he left us an example, so that we should follow in his steps (2.19-21). The epistle further tells us that Christ did not return abuse for abuse, that he did not threaten when he suffered, but entrusted himself to God; he bore our sins that we might live for righteousness. In writing to the exiles of the Diaspora, the author of the epistle reminds them of these things for this reason: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2.23-25; NRSV).
And the psalmist reminds us that the Lord is our Shepherd, that although we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we should fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd walks with us, and we are to find comfort in his rod and staff, implements used to ward off the wild beasts and to rescue us from thickets and other perils. There is comfort in knowing the Lord is our Shepherd. In him we find hope eternal. Amen