Download or listen to The Fourth Sunday of Easter, “Which Shepherd? Whose Sheep?” (John 10:1-10)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
People normally don’t like to be called “sheep.” Follow some religious or political discussion on the internet, and eventually someone will be called a sheep. That is, they will be accused of following blindly or unthinkingly some political leader, some soundbite, some news network. The people who say it want to be thought of as the opposite: thoughtful and rational decision makers. They’ve gone their own way, done it their own way and come to their own conclusions. They don’t follow anyone. The problem is, there is no such thing as originality. Someone may take conclusions further, or think more deeply about something, but no one begins with a blank slate. No one is truly and completely original. There is no real division between independent thinkers and sheep. Everyone is a sheep, because everyone has a shepherd. Everyone follows someone or something. The real question is not whether you are a sheep, but whose sheep are you? Who or what is your shepherd? It could be a thing, or a person, or, most likely yourself—you follow your own desires, your own heart. The Good Shepherd is not what we think we need; not what we think is good. The Good Shepherd is the right shepherd, the fitting shepherd, the shepherd that sheep who have all gone astray, each to his own way, needs: a shepherd who will lay down His life for the sheep. False shepherds come in not through the front door, not out in the open, but they climb in by some other way. They are thieves and robbers and they come only to steal, kill, and destroy. The Good Shepherd is also not a hired hand. The hired hand doesn’t own the sheep, so when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep. But the Good Shepherd defends the sheep; more than that, the Good Shepherd sees the wolf coming and lets Himself be devoured in place of the sheep; then He rises from death and now He is the eternal, undying Shepherd of His sheep.
And you are those sheep. You are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. You are the ones who hear His voice and follow Him because you know His voice; because you’ve heard Him over and over again. The gatekeepers are those whose vocations require them to defend the sheep of the pasture: mothers, fathers, teachers, pastors. The gatekeeper who is a servant of this Shepherd will only allow Him to speak to His sheep. He will prevent all the other false shepherds from getting their teeth into the sheep. That’s why they have to climb in by some other way, because the gatekeepers will only open to the one true and good Shepherd, Jesus. It’s true: some are carried off by strange and different teachings; but the gatekeepers will never let those teachers and teachings in the front gate. They have to sneak in because they are not of the Good Shepherd.
On the other hand, the Good Shepherd comes in and He calls His sheep by Name: He says, you are Mine, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He calls His own sheep out, and they hear His voice, and they follow Him, because they know His voice. He goes before them, and they follow. And not only is Jesus the Shepherd, but He’s also the gate. His sheep enter His flock through Him and are saved; they go in and out and they find good pasture. He nourishes them with His promises, and He gives them His own life. He is not only the Shepherd, and the gate, but He is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world, who gives life to the world through His flesh.
What does it look like to live as sheep of this Shepherd? What did it look like soon after His resurrection, after He sent the promised Holy Spirit, who gave people Jesus in their own languages at Pentecost? It’s described for us in the reading we have from Acts 2 this morning. This is what the Flock of Christ looks like: they devoted themselves—whatever else was happening, whatever else they had to do—they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. That is, the teaching of Jesus. Because they would have been false shepherds and hired hands if they had fed the flock with anything other than the words which Jesus gave to them. And this word of Jesus, their Good Shepherd, gave them true fellowship, true communion, a sharing in the same word and the same Lord. And in that unity they were devoted to the breaking of the bread, Luke’s shorthand for the Supper of Christ, in which they were fed with His Body and Blood. And they prayed as one for the needs of the Church and the world. They were devoted to these four things, and what came of that was that they had everything in common, and each shared with the others, if any had need. There is no command to have everything in common, but the point is clear: the flock of Christ could never have those within its midst who did not have their basic needs met. If someone had a need, someone else in the Church could provide for them. These five things defined the flock of Christ, called by His voice and made one by His Word. And it seems that as they lived this way, others heard the voice of the Good Shepherd. Acts 2 doesn’t tell us much about how those three thousand Christians interacted with those around them; it only tells us that the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. That is, as they devoted themselves to the Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of the Bread, and the Prayers, and as they served their brothers and sisters in need, more sheep heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, believed Him, and followed Him into salvation. He led them to good pasture, and they were satisfied.
We still, hundreds of years later, have nothing more than what those first sheep had: the Word of Jesus that has been handed down to us by the Apostles; the union with each other that that word creates; the breaking of the bread and eating the Body; the prayers for ourselves and one another; and the sharing of what God has given us with those who have some need. That’s it; that’s all the sheep have and that’s all the sheep need. We whom the Holy Spirit has baptized into Christ and saved still go in and are gathered together week after week; we still go out where our Shepherd has put us. This is the simple life of faith, though it’s not necessarily easy. We are gathered together; we hear, we eat and drink, we pray, we give. And then we go out again. And that is the firmest and most faithful testimony to Jesus as our Shepherd. When the sheep hear the voice of their Shepherd, people will know, in various ways, and they will hear, and if they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, they will enter through His blood, He will call them by Name, and they will be saved. Then they go in and out with us; they find good pasture, and the Shepherd continues to call and gather His one flock from all the false shepherds in this world.
And today, on the day when mothers are celebrated in this country, the Shepherd speaks to those the world forgets. The world would like to make this day all flowers, and balloons, and brunches. All of the things that don’t fit that picture, the world will sweep under the rug and push to the side. But not the Church. The Church knows better because she knows the voice of her shepherd, that He has come to gather the sheep from all things that steal, kill, and destroy. The Church knows that sin destroys even that first and closest relationship between mothers and children. There are children who have forgotten their mothers, and mothers who have forgotten their children. There is death and hatred and bitterness and grief, and Mothers’ Day isn’t always what Hallmark would make it. This is why the Church celebrates first the Good Shepherd, and not Mothers’ Day: because no matter how hard we try, there are some here for whom this day is not a celebration, and the Good Shepherd knows it. He calls to you, and it is for you as for all the broken in this creation, that the Shepherd has come. The lost, the straying, the injured, the broken, the vulnerable. He has come to seek the lost and the straying, bind up and heal the injured and the broken, protect the vulnerable. Come to Me all who are weary, all who labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest. It is for you I lay down My life; and it is for you I take it up again. It is your sin and the sin of others for which I died, and I forgive you and you are Mine. He gathers His scattered sheep and together we are one flock, with one Shepherd; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. And all who hear His voice will follow where He leads, out of our death, and into His life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/10/14