Deacon Ben Remmert
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, John 10:22-30
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This 4th Sunday of Easter has traditionally been referred to as “Shepherd Sunday,” derived from the fact that our lessons, particularly the Psalm and the Gospel, make use of this imagery. And throughout the history of the church, there has been a tendency to romanticize this image of Jesus as the good shepherd. Just think of all the stained-glass windows and artwork depicting Jesus tenderly caring for his sheep. If you can not think of any art, google Good Shepherd and you will have so many wonderful images of Jesus.
But according to Neil Elliott, in his commentary on this morning’s lessons, our fondness of this imagery may reveal that we don’t really know much about sheep and shepherds. He states, and I quote, “Sheep are not known for marked intelligence or good disposition, and they tend to smell. People who spend a lot of time around sheep often resent being compared to them. “Calling someone a “sheep” is rarely meant as compliment. And woe to the pastor – literally the shepherd – who tries to force the metaphor by implying that the people put into his or her care must be as docile as sheep!” (New Proclamation, Year C, 2004, Fortress Press).
Well, I certainly am not going to take that position. Quite frankly, one of the major strengths of our congregation is the fact that we have many members who are in leadership roles and have contributed greatly to the ministry of Christ’s church and the community. And I thank you for that fact!
Nevertheless, the imagery of sheep and shepherds abounds throughout both the Old and New Testament, including our Gospel lesson for this morning. And so, let us turn to this text, in order that we might discern God’s word for us today.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus was walking in the temple at Jerusalem. And we can assume that by this time, his reputation as a great teacher and prophet, his ability to perform miracles and healings, had spread throughout the region. It is not clear how much time has passed between this discussion and the discourse that begins in our Gospel, which takes place at the time of the festival of the Dedication (Hanukkah). Some gather around him and ask Jesus to put an end to the debate concerning his identity once and for all: “Don’t keep us in suspense. If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus responds to their question with a three-part answer. First, he tells them, “I have told you, but you do not believe. Even the things that I have done in my Father’s name, testify to me, but you do not believe.”
This first part of Jesus’ answer points to the very heart of communication between us human beings. If Jesus would have answered their question directly, by stating, “Yes, I am the Christ,” I could imagine that some of them might have reacted and responded by saying, “Really?” or “Your kidding?”
If we do not believe and trust in the person with whom we are engaged in conversation, we are not likely to take their word as truth. And this is particularly so, in situations in which what is being asserted is new or of great significance. For example, a young child standing on the edge of a swimming pool is more likely to believe the words, “Go ahead and jump, I’ll catch you,” if they are spoken by a parent, rather than a stranger.
The second part of Jesus’ answer gives us the reason that the persons who cornered Jesus that day, would not believe and trust in him. Jesus said, “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and they believe and follow what I say. I give them eternal life… No one will take them from me…What my Father has given me, no one can snatch from me.
These persons would not believe Jesus, because they did not have a relationship with him. Oh, they may have heard the stories that circulated about him – what he had taught, the persons whom he had healed and miraculously fed – all of which raised curiosity about whether he might be the Christ. They may have known a lot about Jesus, but they did not know Jesus!
Before Lindsay and I first met, a couple of friends that we had in common shared with me a lot of things about Lindsay, and why they thought that she might be a good person for me to date. And I feel sure that they shared a lot of things about me, with her.
Then one day, our friends invited us to come together over a board game night. And I think that Lindsay would agree with me, that when we met each other that day, it was not love at first sight. I’m sure that didn’t make for a good first impression. That first day we met seemed awkward. Yet believing what my friends had told me about Lindsay, I asked her for a date. But several things happened in our separate lives over the next several months, that enabled each of us to deal with some past experiences, and to grow as individuals and as a couple. And my life has been blest ever since.
I believe that this is what Jesus is saying in this second part of his answer to those who wanted to know his identity. It is one thing to hear and read the stories about Jesus, but if you really want to know him and who he is, we need to know him by having a relationship with Jesus. And much like all relationships, we must communicate, to talk, and listen. We hear our Lord’s voice, through the reading of Scripture, daily devotions, and regular participation in our church community. And we need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance, to open hearts and minds to his presence among us, so that we will know his voice when he calls over the many voices that call for our attention.
And there are many different voices in the world that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge, or a higher level of morality.
By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to God. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel about having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” He says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others (John 13:34-35).
Finally, the third part of Jesus’ answer clearly attests to his identity. Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” It is a very bold claim that Jesus makes in this statement. One that, if we were to read the next few verses, led the group to pick up stones to hurl at Jesus for blasphemy. And yet for those of us who are Christ’s sheep, who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and through the power of God’s Spirit have come to realize the presence of Christ in our lives, it is not blasphemy, but sheer grace.
And because of knowing Christ, our lives are changed forever. For to know the Good Shepherd, to know that he gave his life to protect us and save us from the consequence of our sin and the power of death, empowers us to be a witness to his risen presence in our lives. As Luther said many times, we are not justified by our good works, but our faith in God leads us to proclaim through our lives that we know Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
For to be a sheep of Jesus’ fold, is not really a sentimental image, but a call to witness to whom we belong. To be a sheep of his fold means more than simply feeling secure in our own lives, both here and in the life to come, but through the power of God’s Spirit, to take up our own cross and proclaim his voice to those around us. Thus, do not be timid, but be assertive in your proclamation of the Gospel. Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Amen.