Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”… (read the whole passage)
Today, is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each fourth Sunday in the season of Easter, Christians around the world and through time celebrate Jesus as our Shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is the middle Sunday of Easter connecting those first resurrection accounts to Jesus preparing his disciples for the beginning of the church. And as such, our focus today shifts from the resurrection accounts that we have been hearing for the past 3 weeks to the Gospel of John and to Jesus’ sayings regarding the Good Shepherd.
A shepherd can be a bit of an odd image for Jesus to use to describe God’s relationship with the community of believers. For us, Shepherds conjure up images of idyllic meadow scenes. We imagine that male model in a robe version Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. You don’t even have to look around here much to find that kind of image.
Yet, for the people hearing Jesus’ speak, shepherds were more complicated image. One the one hand, King David the greatest king of Israel, had been a shepherd and so the image applied, from then on, to the kings of Israel. But being a shepherd in Jesus day was not an ideal career path. Shepherds lived out in the fields with their sheep. They were dirty, smelly, and uncivilized. They were mysterious nomads who only came into towns and villages on occasion. Shepherd were something between beggars and gang members. So it is odd that Jesus would choose that image, and odder still that he wouldn’t immediately tie it to the kingly side of the image.
Instead, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, not the shepherd who sends his sheep to war demanding they lay down their lives for king and country.
Yet, along side the Good Shepherd, it is the contrasting figures that Jesus’ hearers would have known. The Good Shepherd who is willing to die for his sheep stands against the bad shepherd, who is willing to sacrifice the weak sheep for the flock. The Good Shepherd stands against the hired man who cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble. The Good Shepherd stands between the sheep and wolves, the wolves who are out to kill the sheep.
Jesus’ audience lived in a world full of bad shepherds, hired men and wolves. Their world was dangerous and threatening. A Good Shepherd, a Good leader, a Good King was a rare blessing to sheep flocks and nations alike.
We too know what it is like to be sheep and to have bad shepherds, hired men and wolves around us. We know it in our families, our workplaces, our communities, our political leaders, our churches. In fact, we know the bad shepherds, hired men and wolves so well, that we find it hard to imagine or to identify Good Shepherds at all. We find it hard to trust that our Shepherds are Good, and often we are waiting for a Good Shepherd to reveal themselves as a bad one.
Good Shepherd Sunday is a certainly a day to talk about the shepherd-like qualities of God. To name the ways in which God cares for, loves and looks after us. Yet, the point of the day may just as much be the sheep as it is the shepherd. But not that solitary sheep safe and comfortable in the arms of the shepherd, like those paintings on the walls of so many churches would suggest. No, it is the flocks, the way that sheep are a group that is truly significant.
While bad shepherds, hired men and wolves are dangers for flocks, often it can be other sheep who might pose just as much risk. Sheep, individually can be intelligent, caring, delightful animals. It is when sheep are in groups that they have problems.
Sheep flocks are poor decisions makers, they are jumpy herd animals, easily tricked by predators. Sheep flocks will stand and let predators hunt them down out of fear. Sheep flocks will run from the one wolf nipping at their heals, into the mouths of the waiting pack in the other direction. Sheep will follow a leader off a cliff because they are taught from an early age to follow no matter what.
Sound familiar? Like how people act in groups.
And so often, because we have experienced the dangers before, because many churches and faithful people have been sacrificed by bad shepherds, abandoned by hired men, eaten up by hungry wolves. Because we know what it is like to stand and do nothing in the face of danger when no sheep wants to be the first to act, because we know what it is like to run from a small problem only to be faced with a much bigger one, because we know what it is like to follow our panic off a cliff… because we know these things — we have real trust issues.
We have been hurt as sheep, and we find it hard to trust. We find it hard to risk ourselves. And sometimes we even sabotage our shepherds and our flocks so that the bad thing that we know is bound to come is at least something in our control.
Despite our trust issues, Jesus says a curious thing today about sheep and shepherds.
“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.“
It is curious, because throughout the gospels it is pretty clear that the disciples, the crowds, the pharisees and scribes, the temple priests, the Romans… none of them really know who Jesus is. None of them really understand what Jesus is doing.
In fact, if the sheep really knew the shepherd… we wouldn’t be celebrating the season of Easter right now. We wouldn’t be celebrating Easter because the sheep wouldn’t have put the shepherd to death on Good Friday.
If Good Shepherd Sunday is really just as much about being a good flock as it is about Jesus being a Good Shepherd, there is a disconnect. Because human beings are not usually good sheep.
But Jesus knows that. That is why when Jesus starts talking about the Good Shepherd he doesn’t begin by saying that the sheep know the shepherd.
Jesus starts by saying this,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not a King to rule over the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not an uninvested caregiver like a hired man. The Good Shepherd is willing to not only stand between the wolves and the sheep… The Good Shepherd is willing to stand between sheep and sheep, even when that leads him to a cross.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is willing to die for his sheep… is willing to die for us. And only a few weeks ago we told that story. We heard that Jesus did in fact die and it wasn’t the wolves that killed him… it was the sheep, it was us.
For us, that just doesn’t add up. A Good Shepherd who dies? Wouldn’t a good shepherd just make the problems go away? Wouldn’t a Good Shepherd keep the sheep away from the dangers?
Well, not if the sheep are the problem.
Jesus’ doesn’t make the problems go away. Jesus faces them head on. Jesus faces us head on.
Jesus faces our sheep problems right along side us. Jesus faces them by becoming a sheep along with us.
Jesus confronts our sheep problems, our trust issues with Shepherds, by becoming part of flocks.
Jesus the Good Sheep has come to lay down his life for the sheep, with the sheep. Jesus the Good Sheep comes to show us a new way to be sheep, a way of trust, forgiveness and grace. Jesus shows us to the other side.
Even in a dangerous world. Even if we are expecting the worst and treat Jesus like a bad shepherd, even if we turn into wolves and want him dead. Even if we have trust issues… Jesus comes to lay down his life for us. Jesus comes to give himself to us. Jesus comes to wash, to forgive us, to feed us, to go out into the dangerous world with us. Jesus comes not take the dangers away, but to face them with us. To show us to the other side. To show us that even when there is a cross, what follows is an empty tomb.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the Good Shepherd also rises again on the third day. And the Good Shepherd, the Good Sheep rises so that we will know what is it is like to rise too. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep because he has been through life and death with us, and we will know the Good Shepherd when we rise to new life.