Scripture Readings: Acts 4:5–12 | Psalm 23 | 1 John 3:16–24 | John 10:11–18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Today the Scripture readings offer this comforting image to contemplate: that Jesus Christ the Son of God is truly our Good Shepherd. That in the Risen Lord, the Living God continues to guide and guard His people, drawing them into His own abundant life. It is an image of God found all throughout the Old Testament, perhaps most commonly known in Psalm 23, which we recited together this morning. In many ways, this image reflects a common experience of God’s people… those moments when we recognize the LORD’s mercy and power at work: providing exactly what we need, protecting us from harm, and making His presence known in ways that fill us with peace. In these times, along with the Psalmist, it’s good for us to give thanks and rejoice… to take joy in our Good Shepherd, who leads us into life.
But there are also times in the lives of everyone, even God’s people, where instead of feeling secure, we feel lost and vulnerable… unsure of what to do, or how we will ever be able to carry on. And so there is this tension at work all through our lives: there are times we feel well tended to, and times we feel we’re walking in the valley of death’s shadow. But in the midst of this tension, we also find an invitation… a way being opened for us to receive far more than we might expect.
Our Scripture readings this morning offer us two parallel stories which help to bring this invitation to light for us today. One story is a moment from the life of Jesus our Lord, revealing His merciful purpose and mission to seek and save the lost, and the second is from the life of two of Christ’s earliest followers, who were led by the Holy Spirit to share in the work of their Good Shepherd.
In the Gospel of John we heard Jesus describing Himself with this image, painting a vivid portrait of what He had come to do… knowing His own ‘sheep’ intimately, binding them together in one united flock, and loving them to the point of laying His own life down for them. It is a powerful, and beautiful picture of holy love in action, drawing on all sorts of biblical ways of speaking of God’s care for His people.
But Jesus is doing more here than simply offering a poetic picture of His ministry… He’s driving home the difference between what He was doing… bringing the blessed kingdom of God into this broken world… and what the other leaders and guides of God’s people were really up to. In short, He’s not just calling Himself the Good Shepherd … He’s also calling out all the “Bad Shepherds” as well.
Our reading today from John’s Gospel, comes from Chapter 10. But the reason Jesus says what He says here starts back in Chapter 9. John Chapter 9 is a powerful story of a life completely transformed… full of both surprising joy, as well as painful rejection. The story begins when Jesus and His disciples meet a man one day who we could call one of the lost “sheep” of Israel: he was a Jewish man, who had been born completely blind. By birth he was part of the chosen covenant people of Israel, yet because of his blindness he was cut off from the life of his community. We don’t have time today to look at this part of Christ’s story in detail, but I just want to highlight a few of the points that stand out for us this morning:
First off, as I have already said, the man had been blind from birth. He had never known a time when the world was not in darkness. The disciples saw this man and took note of his suffering, and in line with the assumptions of many (in their day, and our own) thought that the man’s misfortune was the result of someone’s sin… they thought that someone either the man himself, or his parents, must have done something horrible to deserve a life without sight. But Jesus doesn’t assign blame to anyone for the man’s suffering… instead He points to what God His heavenly Father had sent Him to do: In John Chapter 9:3-5 it says, “Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Then Jesus spat in the dirt, made some mud, put it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go and wash them. And when he had done what Jesus said, the man received his sight. Surely this was God’s kingdom breaking out into the world… offering life and light to one who had never known them before.
Yet as John Chapter 9 plays out, we find that not everyone sees it this way: the Pharisees, a devout and influential group within the wider Jewish community, who saw it as their calling to pursue the purity of God’s people, began to interrogate the man about what had happened to him… looking for ways to discredit Jesus, whom they saw as a false shepherd… someone who was leading God’s people away from faithfulness to the LORD and His holy commandments. I’ll leave it to you to read the rest of John chapter 9 this week, but ultimately, the healed man, under a lot of pressure, refuses to turn his back on the one who had restored him. As a result, he is rejected by these powerful Pharisees, gets kicked out of their synagogue, and so is cut off again from his neighbours. He had received his sight, but in the end we find him, once again, alone in the darkness.
But that is where we’re told, the Good Shepherd finds this lost sheep, rejected by all around him, but precious in God’s sight. Jesus hears all that had happened, and then He searches for that man, finds him, and invites the man… to trust Him. Christ seeks him out, and draws him into a community of faith… into a new life brought about by the mercy and power of God. The Pharisees, who had assumed for themselves the role of guiding God’s people… of tending His flock, proved that they didn’t actually care about the man, or about God’s kingdom at work in their midst, but only about themselves. About preserving their own influence, positions, and power. They refused to believe the miracle, to place their trust in Jesus… who then responds by saying these words to them, and to all:
“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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)
Faced with what just happened to their fellow Jew who had received his sight, Christ calls out the Pharisees, and all those who were claiming to care for God’s children, but who were really only taking care of themselves. But unlike the hirelings who left the sheep to fend for themselves, Jesus is the Good Shepherd we can truly depend upon. He’s is not interested in using us, but in rescuing us… loving us to the point of laying down His life on the cross… and rising again to share with us His own abundant life.
In the centuries since these stories took place, there have been plenty of examples of people claiming to care for God’s people, but who were only acting like hirelings… or worse, Bad Shepherds… that is, caring mostly about their own position and power. Today some easy targets come quickly to mind: like those who preach the so-called Prosperity Gospel… the dangerous lie that following Jesus means we should always be happy and healthy… especially if we give our money to fund their private ministries. Perhaps we can also call to mind some Christian leaders, from every corner, who seem far more caught up with preserving their own influence and rules, than they are in building up the lives of their sisters and brothers in the Lord.
As easy, and tempting, as it is to point out the failures of others, in all honesty, this passage rings loudly in my own ears. As your pastor, your shepherd, caring for you in service to our Lord, Christ’s words here remind me of the high calling it is to tend to God’s children, and they also remind me of the many ways that I have fallen short… when I’ve acted more like a hireling, looking out for my own interests, instead of practicing the self-giving love of our Good Shepherd. Especially this year, when so many are feeling lost, afraid, vulnerable, and scattered, there are many ways I have missed the mark among our St. Luke’s family. But setting aside for the moment at least, my role as your priest and pastor, this is the calling of all who would follow Jesus Christ: the call to care for one another in our common life… to take our part in Christ’s ongoing mission of mercy and love. As the author of 1 John puts it: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us— and we ought to lay down our lives for one another… Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:16,18). A Christians, we can all reflect on how we’re to live out this self-giving love, and what might need to change in us if this love is to carry us forward.
But the Good News for us today is not about how good we are… you and I have not been left alone, either to fix ourselves up, or to wallow in regret… the Good News is our Good Shepherd’s here. Jesus, our Risen Saviour is here.
In all the moments we find ourselves in darkness, He is here. In all of our times of tragedy, Jesus is here. In all of the pits we’ve dug for ourselves, Jesus is here. The Good Shepherd has come for us, has laid down His life for us, not to heap on shame, or reject us, but to draw us all into His flock. To gather us all together into God’s family, the Church, where we can all grow together in the ways of His holy love. Where we can all find forgiveness, lasting hope, and God’s new life, even when we find ourselves in the valley of death’s shadow… and where we are empowered to share in Christ’s own mission of mercy.
The invitation we’re given today, in the midst of life’s joys and sorrows, asks us to keep on placing our trust in Jesus, our Good Shepherd. To believe that he is with us even when we feel cut off and alone… that he will never abandon us, but will bring us safely home.
Which leads us at last to our second story, from Acts Chapter 4, where two of Christ’s Apostle’s St. Peter & St. John give us a powerful picture of what it means to trust in our Good Shepherd.
Last week we heard how Peter & John had performed a miracle in Jesus’s name: healing a fellow Israelite who was unable to walk from birth… echoing loudly the act of mercy they had seen Jesus perform with the man born blind, which we have just discussed… an act revealing Christ’s love, and God’s good kingdom breaking in. But now, instead of the healed man being hauled before the ‘Bad Shepherds’, this time it’s the disciples who are being confronted and questioned… not by the Pharisees this time, but by the High Priestly family, including those who had led the way for Jesus Himself to be crucified. These were the people who were the official “shepherds” of Israel at the time… and again, they show their true colours by how they respond to this wonderful sign. They sense a threat to their own positions and influence, and they panic. They threaten St. Peter & St. John, and pressure them to stop teaching and speaking in Jesus’ name.
But St. Peter speaks out and refuses to back down, reminding them that the one they rejected and crucified, God raised from the dead, and that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). St. Peter trusted that Jesus the Risen Lord would not abandon him, even as he faced the possibility of his own suffering and death. And as the story goes on, because of this miracle and the Apostle’s faithful witness, another 5,000 people placed their trust in Jesus as well, and joined the growing flock of the newborn Christian Church.
We know of course, that the story of these Apostles goes on from here, and that they would face many times of suffering, persecution, and even death because of their commitment to sharing the Good News of Jesus, the Risen Lord. But through it all, their Good Shepherd remained with them always, and through their witness and work people from nations all over the earth have been drawn into the one flock of Christ, including you and I.
Along with them, we are invited to trust in this Good Shepherd: when we sense His abundant life bursting in like the men who were born blind and unable to walk, yet who were made suddenly whole… or when we are under pressure, like the man in John Chapter 9, or St. Peter and St. John… or when we feel overwhelmed by the tragedies of life, or by our own failures. Through it all, Jesus Christ, God’s Good Shepherd who loved us and laid down His life for us, remains with us, and we can trust Him to lead us into God’s own life forever.
So today, may we take comfort in His constant mercy and care. May we be empowered by His Spirit of love to look after one another, and to stay true to Him, when we too are under pressure. And may we follow Him and share in His mission to seek and save the lost, that all the world might become one flock, under Christ, the one true Good Shepherd. Amen.