Acts 4:5-12+Psalm 23+1 John 3:16-24+John 10:11-18
In some ways, coming to Good Shepherd Sunday on the 4th Sunday of Easter each year creates a bit of scriptural whiplash. Up to now, we have been hearing about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women and the remaining eleven disciples, but this foray back to the 10th Chapter of John takes place much earlier – before the entry into Jerusalem, before the raising of Lazarus, before the tensions reached fever pitch.
So, why this bucolic story about sheep now, today, three weeks after Easter?
I think the connection has to do with the fear which seeing the risen Jesus provokes in his followers. Luke and John both have him saying, “Peace be with you,” because they were anything but at peace in those days after the empty tomb. They had every reason to believe that the Romans and the religious authorities were keeping an eye on them to make sure that they did not try to continue the work Jesus had begun that threatened the empire and threatened the temple system.
Back here in this part of John’s gospel, Jesus is setting them up to be able to withstand what is coming. In the previous chapter, we read about the healing of a man who had been born blind. The Pharisees do not believe this could be so and question the man’s parents to find out if he had really been blind (like they would fake something like that), and they question the man not once, but twice. And these religious authorities just can’t believe that this Jesus could make a little mud and rub it on a blind man’s eyes and, voila!, he can see. They were not happy about this and confront Jesus who leaves them even more frustrated.
The very next thing Jesus does is to go off on this discourse about sheep. First, he says he is the gate for the sheep. Then he says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11) and goes on to describe what that looks like:
- He’s not like a hired hand who has no skin in the game and so will leave the sheep to fend for themselves;
- He knows the sheep, and they know him.
- He will give his life for the sheep.
- There are plenty of other sheep who will also be brought into the flock.
On the one hand, he is ridiculing the religious leaders, in effect comparing them to hired hands. They claim to have compassion for the blind, but when a blind man is healed, they not only refuse to rejoice in it, they refuse to even believe it and are furious with the one who did the healing. The voice with which they speak is not the voice that the sheep can recognize because it does not feel safe. But Jesus? Jesus will lay down his life. Jesus will bring all the sheep into the fold.
It is hard for us, here in 21st century urban life, to fully grasp the kinds of imagery Jesus conjures when he tells stories. Fishing and farming and animal husbandry are not the kinds of things most of us spend our time doing. I mean, whose he calling a sheep anyway? We don’t stand around munching on grass and resting a bit and then munching on more grass. What do these sheep have to do with us??!
Well, think back to that most beloved of psalms, number 23, where it says (in the familiar King James version)
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
This shepherd is one who loves us fully, who provides us with an abundance, and with whom we need not fear, no matter what.
It is this assurance of presence, that we do not need to be afraid, that the Good Shepherd represents. After the resurrection, everyone is afraid, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and so we are reminded of the promises of this Good Shepherd.
Even today, many live their lives in fear. Black families fear the phone call that a loved one has died a violent death. Latino families fear that they will be separated from their children if they try to enter this country. Transgender people fear random acts of violence. Asian-Americans fear ethnic hate-filled violence. Even those of us here, gathered for worship, have fears. Fears of the pandemic and the changes and challenges it has presented. Fears of inadequacy and failure. Fears of measuring up, of being able to do right by our kids. This fear leads to anxiety and depression and it leads us to insulate and isolate ourselves from the outside.
And what does Jesus say? I will lay down my life to protect you. Everyone is invited. Nobody will be left out.
The real challenge for us is that this is our work, too. We are the body of Christ. We are the ones who carry out the ministry of the Church in this time and place. Are we like hired hands who go home and lock our doors when the going gets tough, or are we the ones who stand at the gate and guard God’s beloved people with our lives? This message is not as peaceful and comforting as it might at first seem when you look at it this way. And this might be why the disciples continued to hide behind closed doors, at least for a while. They, too, were being asked to lay down their lives.
Our world needs more people who are willing to live without fear, even in the valley of the shadow of death. People like Darnella Frazier whose video of George Floyd’s murder meant that there could be no cover-up, who refused to turn away, pleading with the police to let Floyd breathe. People who intervene when hate is being spewed at someone who doesn’t look like “one of us.” People like my friend Kristen from Charlottesville who makes frequent trips to the US-Mexico border to provide legal services to unaccompanied children. And if all of that sounds too daunting, the world also needs good shepherds who pick up groceries for their neighbor or help schedule a vaccine appointment for someone who can’t do so.
Jesus our Good Shepherd is showing us the way to abundant life. It never comes in living for ourselves alone but in looking out for each other, no matter what. This pandemic may have reinforced that for us, isolated as we have been, that we continue to reach out, longing to be together, to be in community, loving our neighbors as we have been so generously loved.