Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them…. read the whole passage
Today marks the half-way point of the seven week season of Easter and the fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday. We hear images of the Good Shepherd on the 4th Sunday.
And in some respects this Sunday represents a departure from the urgency and immediacy of Easter that we have been hearing for the first 3 weeks of Easter. We first heard the story of the women at the tomb fleeing in fear and telling no one. We followed it up the next week by going back to the day of the resurrection and the fearful disciples hiding out as Jesus appeared in their midst, and how Thomas missed the whole thing. And then last week, we again returned to the day of the resurrection as Jesus appeared to the disciples, this time according to Luke, where they thought he was a ghost.
Three weeks of immediate urgent experiences of the resurrection.
Honestly…today can be a bit of a let down.
While these words are familiar and much beloved… I serve a church named Good Shepherd after all… they don’t seem to carry that same earthiness of the resurrection stories that we have been hearing. Jesus giving one of his wordy speeches found in John’s gospel isn’t as exciting as appearing to the disciples who think he is a ghost.
Yet these familiar words about Good Shepherds are not really about the hard and unheralded job of being a sheep tender, and Jesus isn’t really talking about the job of tending sheep out in a literal field.
We have a habit of taking this good shepherd passage out of context… we name churches, we make idyllic pastoral art work of Shepherd Jesus, we compose sanguine hymns about “The King of Love my Shepherd is” all clinging to the sweet and cuddly of image of Jesus gently caring for little lambs (the lambs are us by the way).
The image makes us feel good, Jesus the Shepherd is like a warm blanket we can wrap around ourselves to keep our faith warm and comfortable.
And to be certain, there are times in our lives when we need that image of the good shepherd loving and caring for us.
But this passage is a little more complex than we tend to make it.
This monologue delivered by Jesus doesn’t happen in isolation, nor are these words intended to provide comfort to the disciples or the crowds following Jesus. Rather, we have to go back to a story that we usually hear during Lent – the story of the blind man. Jesus heals a man born blind and moves on. Then the blind man’s community question his healing and declare that he is still a sinner and eventually send him away. Jesus finds him again, reveals that it is Jesus, the Messiah, who has healed him and then says that it is the religious leaders who are blind.
Nearby pharisees overhear and challenge Jesus.
And this speech about the Good Shepherd is what results.
So imagine Jesus, with a man whose blindness has been healed yet has been sent away by the religious leaders of his community, standing in the bustling streets just outside the synagogue. And there is Jesus and the pharisees are arguing about sin, arguing about the responsibility of leaders to tend and care for God’s people. And Jesus says this,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand sees the wolf coming and runs away…”
These words of Jesus take on a very different meaning and character.
They are fiery and bold. They are words that condemn rather than comfort.
They condemn the leadership of the pharisees. The religious leaders of God’s chosen people who have been given the responsibility of making God’s love and mercy and forgiveness accessible to all. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day had turned this responsibility into a commodity, into a withholding. They withheld righteousness for the privileged few, only for those who could afford its great cost, only for those who could afford to keep the law of Moses. They had turned their call to serve, into selfish ambition and benefit.
They had let their self-concern, their desire to seek their own benefit, get in the way of this task given to them by God.
And Jesus was calling them on it.
Of course this tension and conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is what eventually leads to the cross, but by the end of this particular speech about the Good Shepherd those listening in were divided into two camps. Those who thought Jesus was nuts, and those who thought he might have a point.
And while the church has been guilty of the same kind of letting our own selfishness get in the way of our call to make God’s mercy accessible -remember Martin Luther’s central issue in the reformation and the sale of indulgences – we probably find ourselves somewhere the middle those two groups of listeners.
Somedays we probably think that Jesus and his habit of turning everything we think makes sense upside down is infuriating.
And other days we can see that Jesus has a point.
And we know we have the same habit of letting ourselves get in our own way as the pharisees do. We know that we can make things more about ourselves and what we want or fear or desire or detest or prefer or abhor. We know that we get in our own way when it comes to our relationships with others, with our families and friends, with our work and vocations, and of course, even here at church.
We cannot help it, we are human. We get in the way of God’s calling to share God’s mercy with God’s people. We make things about ourselves and we know it.
Yet, as Jesus calls out the the pharisees for their selfishness, for self-centredness, he also proclaims something else.
Something deeply tied to this resurrection season that we are in. For you see on Good Shepherd Sunday, half way through the season of Easter we pivot from the urgency of the resurrection to trying to figure out with the rest of the church, just what we are to do next.
And heard in context, this Good Shepherd speech of Jesus’ retains some of that resurrection urgency.
As Jesus calls out the pharisees for getting in their own way of proclaiming God’s mercy for the world, Jesus also declares that God is doing what we cannot.
The Good Shepherd is laying down his life for the self.
Jesus is laying down the self – God’s self – for the sake of the world.
Human beings just cannot get out of our own way.
So God does what we cannot do, and gives up self.
God gives up God-like power and God-like control, in order to give us mercy. In order that we may be shown forgiveness. In order that we can hear good news in our dying world.
God gives it all up for our sake.
And Jesus know that this will take him to the cross. That selfish humanity will kill God in order to take God’s place.
But as we have been hearing for the past three weeks, God’s selfless act incarnation, of coming in flesh to live and be among us combine with God’s triumph over death on the cross…
That leads also to empty tombs.
To empty tombs that frighten Mary Magdalene and the other women who loved Jesus.
To resurrection appearances in locked rooms that remind Thomas that the one he loves lives.
To resurrection callings to make us witnesses of all that we have seen and heard.
And the empty tomb leads us to the Good Shepherd.
To the Good Shepherd who lays down his life, his self for our sake.
To the Good Shepherd who gives up the self for the sake of the world, for our sake.
So that God’s love and mercy is given to us in the Word of God that hear.
So that God can clothe us with forgiveness, life and salvation in the waters of baptism.
So that God can give us God’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, so that we can be shed our selfishness and become God’s Body the Church.
The Good Shepherd does what we cannot.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for us in order that we might have new life.
Life given by the resurrected Christ, who is shepherding us into this new resurrection reality.
And so today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded that this is not about being sheep and God being our heavenly shepherd.
But rather, that the Good Shepherd Christ is leading us, the Body of Christ, into a new resurrection world in order that we become Easter people.