Following the Good Shepherd
In our Gospel Lesson Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd.” This is one of the most common images for Jesus in the world. You can see one example of a stained glass window on this theme pictured in the insert to your bulletin. There is another such window (though a different one) at First Baptist Church of Eau Claire, where I was a small boy. There’s another at the Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Baptist Church where we worshiped for many years. It struck me that I have been followed by the Good Shepherd for much of my life, but it also struck me that it really ought to be the other way round, and that what I (and we) should be doing is following the Good Shepherd.
Jesus (and John who told the story) as well as his hearers and readers would have shared a common background in the many “shepherd passages” in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Especially prominent there would be Ezekiel chapter 34 and Psalm 23. Here are words from the Ezekiel passage:
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks…I will rescue them…I will bring them out…I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses…and I will feed them with good pasture…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will help them lie down…I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. (from 34:11-16)
Or, Psalm 23:
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he refreshes my very life.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
The first thing that Jesus’ Bible affirmed, and that Jesus and his hearers (and John’s readers) would have known, was that Israel’s God was the Good Shepherd. That means that when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he was claiming an identification with God in a very special way. God is the one who had, through the millennia, led Israel, and led them every day in the right paths, the fruitful paths, the paths that truly arrive somewhere worth being. The 23rd Psalm says that the simplest reason why God does that is because God has a name, a reputation, for being the kind of a shepherd that does this kind of work. And Jesus says, “I’m that kind of shepherd, too”
Jesus did not say “I am a shepherd,” (just any old kind) but, first, “I am the shepherd,” the one you know about from the Bible. More fully he said “I am the good shepherd.” As a Hebrew, when Jesus used the word “good” he would have been thinking of the Hebrew word tob (or, more probably, its Aramaic equivalent tab, which would mean “appropriate to its purpose,” or “competent.” A good shepherd, in this sense, did things appropriate to the best practices of shepherds. In addition, the Greek word that John chose here (kalos) is but one of several Greek words that might be translated as “good” in English. This word would mean more than good in the sense “I’m a good shepherd who does (morally) good things.” The word that John used includes the connotation of “attractive” or even “beautiful.” Jesus is the kind of shepherd that makes competence and goodness attractive to others. Archbishop William Temple once wrote, “It is possible to be morally upright repulsively.” and many of us know such people. They make goodness nauseating. Not so Jesus. He made goodness attractive. Jesus is the model shepherd, the ideal shepherd. The Good Shepherd.
Furthermore, Jesus is the good shepherd. It is not just a “hat” he tries on or a role he assumes from time to time. It is not something he does as a “job,” it is who he is. He does what good shepherds do because he is one. That’s the difference between a shepherd and a hired-hand. The latter does it for money, power, or position. It’s in the “job description.” Shepherds do it because doing it is who they are. They also care for the flock for different reasons, and with different intensity. The hired-hand cares for the flock, as I said, as a matter of a role and for what they get out of it. The flock is not theirs. If one is lost, someone else has to replace it. The shepherd’s flock is part of who the shepherd is. I sometimes tell my students in training for ministry that this applies to ministers as well (and to good teachers, too).
Then, three times in this short passage Jesus says, “I lay down my life.” Twice he adds, “on behalf of (or for the benefit of) sheep.” This way of speaking is not simply a reference to the death of Jesus that’s coming in our story (it would be that, of course, but there’s more to all this). The idiom really speaks of an attitude that values the community of sheep enough to take the risk of life and limb on their behalf. A better translation might be that “the Good Shepherd lays his life on the line.” This text does not say that the Good Shepherd lays his life on the line (whether it leads to death or not), in exchange for the flock or as a substitute for even one sheep. It says that the Good Shepherd steps up on behalf of, or for the benefit of, the sheep. The shepherd takes risks that the flock’s life may benefit and be better. That protective, caring, tending, nurturing attitude for the good, the benefit of the flock (and even a single sheep) is at the core of the identity of God of the Bible, and at the core of Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd. How many times I have said to you that I the one thing I hope you learn from me and remember is that God isn’t an ogre in the clouds who nitpicks and waits for us to make a mistake so as to pounce on us and send us off to perdition for eternity. God is like Jesus the Good Shepherd. OK, so that’s who the God we serve as Christians is.
Now, this draws us on to what we are to do about the fact that this is our God. On the Sundays we have our quarterly meetings, I usually try to say something about the kind of community God is calling us to be here in our time and place. The Epistle Lesson this morning is crucial to understanding that. The lesson comes from the First Epistle of John, which, if it isn’t from exactly the same author as the Gospel (and no one knows this), is from someone in the same community as that in and for which the Gospel of John was written.
The words of this brief lesson start this way: “We know love by this…” The next words are: “That he (Jesus) laid down his life on our behalf” (these are the very same words as in our Gospel, and I have no doubt a reference to it). They go on with this, “and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of one another.” This passage moves from how the shepherd does what is the good and right thing to how those of us who model this Good Shepherd do. It’s such a common biblical principle: God’s people share God’s values and imitate God’s actions. On meeting Sundays, when I preach about our community of faith, I quite often emphasize the mission we have to the world – to love and care for real people in it. And that’s true, but before we get to that, we need to be a certain kind of community within ourselves for one another. Our Epistle text today addresses that piece of our mission (our “inside mission”).
To go back, briefly, to our Gospel Lesson about the Good Shepherd, the story just a little before our Lesson was about a Sabbath Day when Jesus healed a man who had been born without the gift of sight. When he showed the leaders of the man’s own community of faith that the most wonderful thing had happened – he could see! – instead of meeting their brother with great joy, their response was suspicion that Jesus had actually worked on the Sabbath to heal him, and that was against the rules. The leaders of this community of faith were zealous in cross-examining any who might have had a role in this horrid breach of the rules. The man who had been healed thought that they were missing the important thing – he could see! But, because this man could not see that orthodox rule-keeping was more important than his physical sight in his community (better to be blind and pure after all), they ended up throwing him out.
Back in our Epistle Lesson, the author raised the question that could have been directed to the leaders of that synagogue that had tossed out the blind man: “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 help?” Short answer, “It doesn’t.”
We must follow the Good Shepherd. Our God cares and tends, so must we. The Epistle Lesson concludes this way: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Our love for others is not just about the words we use. Of course, what we say is important, but, you know the old saying, “your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word you say.” It’s not a matter of advertising or marketing, it’s about living up – and loving up – to the name of the Good Shepherd. Joyce Dannhoff, the celebration of whose long and faithful life was in this very room yesterday, said to her children on a tape she made back in the early 1990’s (when she was unsure of her health), that if someone wants to know what my faith is, they will see it in what I do. And we could. Who could say more about us than that. If we are a community that is suspicious of one another and picks on one another and worries whether the other is pure enough, then how does God’s love abide in us? And the kind of community we are is a choice.
Again, in the words of 1 John 3: “We know love by this…” By an attitude that puts ourselves on the line for others and behaviour that is loving and caring. As I say, this is a choice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think we do this, here and now, as a community of faith, and it is my prayer that, as we follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we may continue to make the same choice as to what kind of a community of faith we intend to be. Let us remember who we are and whose we are.
In the 4th chapter of this same letter, we find the last word:
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us. (verses 11-12)
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.