The Good Shepherd or Good Sheep?

John 10:1-10Jesus said, “… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (Read the whole passage

Even, far away from the fields and pastures of first century palestine, far away from the shepherds and sheep that Jesus spoke of, the image resonates with us still. The promise of a shepherd who is with in the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd who searches for the lost one in the 99, the shepherd who guards the gate. Somehow we know what it is to be gathered and care for, protected and loved. Or at least we like the idea…

Shepherding hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. Then, and in many parts of the world now, tending to flocks is done in the same way. When Shepherds come to town for supplies, they put their sheep in pens, guarded by a gatekeeper. After they purchase supplies, they return to the pen and call their sheep. The sheep know their shepherd and follow him or her out to pasture again. 

Out in the wild, Shepherds will gather bushes and rocks to build temporary pens at night. In the opening, the shepherds will sleep, using their own body as gate. This way the predators must pass over them to get to the sheep.

For the disciples, shepherds should have been common place, and the image of God as Shepherd was familiar. The psalms would have been well known by most people in Jesus day. 

And somehow, despite the fact that they know the psalms and shepherds, they do not know what on earth Jesus is talking about. 

The part that the disciples don’t understand isn’t the shepherds, or the sheep gate or the sheep pen. The problem is the sheep. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to be good sheep. 

For nearly 2000 years, Christians have called God the Shepherd, have called the church the sheepfold and have called ourselves the sheep.Yet, we don’t have to look much past ourselves to know why the disciples couldn’t understand Jesus. We like the idea of a Shepherd that lovingly chases after us and cares for us. But we want to go into the pen on our terms. We want to be free to be sheep in our way. 

Like the disciples, we have resisted, or even been unable to see Jesus calling out to us. The Blind Man whom Jesus heals in the pool of Siloam does not recognize Jesus once he meets him later on. The disciples cannot imagine how 5 loves and 2 fish will feed a great crowd. Mary Magdalene cannot recognize Jesus near the empty tomb on Easter morning until Jesus calls her by name. Thomas will not believe, unless it is on his terms. 

All of these actions, washing the blind man, feeding the 5000, naming Mary, giving Thomas faith. These are the same actions that God does in the Church. This is how the Shepherd cares for the sheep in the pen. And this is what we resist. We do not want to arrive here empty, we do not want to be washed, and fed and loved. We come here, to the church, to the pen, hoping to earn our love. We want God to reward us. We want to be here on our terms. The Shepherd can stay here in the pen, and when we are ready, we will show up with our best face on… but most of the time we are out there in world and not really wanting a shepherd. We don’t want God to be a hassle in our lives. 

That is what the disciples don’t understand. That is what we don’t understand. Jesus gives us this image of the Shepherd and what the shepherd does, but there is no mention of how to be good sheep.  
And in the end, that isn’t the point. Good Shepherd Sunday is not about how to be good sheep. Today, is a reminder of who God is. Jesus is our Shepherd who calls us, who cares for us and washes us, who feeds us, and names us. 

Washes us in Baptism, and brings us to new life. 

Feeds us in the Lord’s supper, at the Lord’s table, with his own body and blood. 

Names us as his sheep who belongs to the Shepherd. 

Gathers in faith, gathers into this community, this family, this flock. 

These are the actions of God in Christ.

Here in this place, it is the shepherd who is good, not the sheep. It is the shepherd whose actions matter, not those of the sheep. Here in the church, here in this congregation, Jesus calls us home. Yes, we are sent out each week into the world. We go out to pasture to a world fraught with the danger, a world that tells us it is all about the sheep, and what sheep do. 

But in God’s church, in God’s sheepfold, Jesus reminds us again and again, that in washing, feeding, naming and calling that Jesus brings us to himself. 

Jesus’s sheep pen, Christ’s church, is not a place were we need to earn our way. It is not a place where we give of ourselves or where we offer something to God, to the Shepherd. It is a place where God gives to us. It is a place where we receive. It is place where we come to know the Shepherd by his voice. “I baptize you. I give my body for you. I forgive you. You are mine”. 

Wherever we have been scattered, or lost, whatever we cannot understand or are confused about, the voice of the Shepherd gathers us to him, brings us back into the flock. 

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

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2 thoughts on “The Good Shepherd or Good Sheep?”

  1. As you have correctly (biblically) stated, it’s the actions of the shepherd that matters, not those of the sheep. The action of the shepherd isn’t just the invitation to believe; our belief is the result of the very will of our sovereign God which we receive by the faith He has enabled us to have. It’s all about God willing us to believe before we were ever even born and maintaining the belief of those He has called to believe. There’s none of man’s sovereignty in any of the steps of in our salvation except in our sanctification and a secondary role in our perseverance in our faith. That’s what Reformed theology is all about.

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