Texts: Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Some people don’t care much for the shepherd and sheep imagery of scripture. It feels so antiquated, and sometimes ends up in unctuous preciousness. We’re generations removed, most of us anyway, from actual interaction with shepherds, sheep, lambs, pastures and sheepfolds. What is a sheepfold anyway?
Besides, haven’t we evolved? Modern people, civilized and all that. We follow blogs or twitter perhaps. But shepherds? Please.
This story is not playful or precious however. It is deadly serious. Jesus had just finished giving an allegorical teaching about the threat of thieves to sheep, and the safety that sheep could find by listening to the voice of their shepherd. Yet even in those times the people listening to him had not understood. So Jesus persisted with a second attempt.
This version is no longer an allegory. It is a bold statement. “I am the good shepherd.” The good shepherd is not mythological. The good shepherd exists, bearing actual, visible qualities. Jesus is this singular being, fully intending to surrender his entire being for the world he so loves.
Jesus is no hired hand. He is not a prophet looking for prominence, nor a messianic leader for Israel’s political restoration. Jesus is not owned by the Temple’s leaders to do their bidding. He is a rabbi who teaches what God has written on his heart and woven within his Spirit.
The good shepherd’s commitment to the sheep is deeply personal and beyond selfless. A passage in the Mishna, the collected oral traditions interpreting Jewish Law, says that a shepherd is required to defend the sheep when one wolf attacks. But if two wolves attack, the shepherd is no longer considered liable for the welfare of the sheep and may retreat from danger.
Understand that in this passage of scripture, to be a hired hand is not a bad thing. It is simply to experience the ordinary limitations of being human. It is our nature to be driven by fear and the need to preserve our lives. Unlike a hired hand, Jesus’s dedication is complete. There are no conditions under which he would ever abandon his sheep.
In the same serious tone Jesus reminds his listeners that the wolf is a real threat. It seizes and possesses some sheep, some to their deaths. Wolves scatter and destroy flocks.
It is up to the listener to put real form on this brief sketch of danger. Evil is ever-present, and insidious. It is naïve to imagine that we are immune to evil or can outsmart it. And perhaps Jesus also knew that wolves prefer to work together. Evil likewise makes use of many allies to accomplish its purposes. Evil possesses people. Where evil is active, communities are torn apart, people are injured and people die.
Midway through this teaching Jesus repeats his claim, “I am the good shepherd” as if to emphasize again the importance of listening well and carefully as he continues this teaching. Jesus knows well which sheep belong to him. And in the same way the sheep who follow him know well that their shepherd Jesus is profoundly, amazingly, good. So good, that he will offer his life in order to restore theirs, over and over again if necessary.
The good shepherd’s energy is endless and boundless. The gathering up of the flock will go on as long as there are sheep who have not yet heard the shepherd’s voice. The good shepherd speaks so that all sheep would know him and through him receive holy and tender care.
This critical knowing extends to the Father as well. The Father knows Jesus as Jesus knows the Father. This is about mutual indwelling. It’s another way that Jesus is affirming his claim that, “I and the Father are one.”
Which means that Jesus’s allegiance to the Father is equaled by the Father’s allegiance to him. The Father’s love is his own love and it is the sole motive for his life both laid down and taken up. Fulfilling the command of his Father to love, is the good shepherd’s singular purpose.
Jesus gave this teaching before a mixed crowd of common people and important religious insiders. He meant it for both to hear equally. Yet the insiders failed to grasp his message, or preferred not to. This came back to haunt them after the empty tomb and resurrection.
Therefore later on, some of those same people demanded to know just what sort of power Peter had conjured up to heal a man. He’d been lame from birth, with no known remedy. Peter invoked the name of Jesus, God’s living Word, the shepherd by which all good is accomplished
What other power would it be after all? Certainly not the energy of the evil one. And the empire had no examples of healing to offer. Neither had the Temple officials. Only the good shepherd in whose holy name and by whose holy love a nameless lame lamb was healed to live a new life.
Have we any obligation to oppose the doubting energies of our own day? The good shepherd says we do. As 1 John 3:16 says, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
This week the trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd came to an end. It was an awful thing to hear witnesses break down at the memory of what they had seen and heard and their inability to intervene. It was terrible to hear about Mr. Floyd’s body opened and all his inner and outer parts cross-examined for evidence. It was heartbreaking because along with all the things George was in this world he was God’s own lamb.
As for Mr. Chauvin, he was torn asunder; his behavior, his motives, exposed by experts and by the public. Even before he had been found guilty, the life he had was over. This too should break our hearts because along with all the things Derek is in this world, he is God’s own lamb.
“Little children, let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.” Jesus is our good shepherd. Him, we follow. And as a colleague recently said, if it isn’t just a bit scary at times, then we’re probably not doing it right. So, God’s blessings to you in the Way of love.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.