Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Latin, the Sunday is named Miserecordias Domini, the merciful heart of the Lord Sunday. No other image captures the merciful heart of the Lord more than that of the Good Shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus said. It’s one of the seven I AM sayings in John. And with those words, Jesus commits His merciful heart to His work of mercy, to lay down His life for the sheep.
As tender and wonderful as the image is, it’s also completely out of our realm of experience. We are so far removed from the 1st century Palestinian shepherd that we completely miss most of what Jesus is saying. Our image is the corporate sheep ranch, which is pretty much every sheep for itself. Jesus’ image is the Palestinian shepherd who knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He gives each a name and they recognize his voice and they follow wherever he leads. Perhaps the closest comparison we have is our pets, the way we love our dogs and cats.
In this morning’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus compares himself to the false shepherds, the wolves in sheep’s clothing who come to steal the sheep. They are the ones who sneak, who climb over fences, who look for ways to trick the sheep. Jesus was referring to the false teachers of his day, and of our day, who would preach anything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
I could stand here and list of a bunch of them. You know them by the TV shows and their books. But I’m not going to give them that sort of attention. Suffice it to say this: The narrow door that leads to the sheep and that leads the sheep into green pasture is nothing else than the door of Jesus’ cross, His death and resurrection. Whoever does not preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the sinner is not a shepherd but a thief and a robber. Bear that in mind when you read religious books or watch religious programming on television. The voice of the Good Shepherd is the voice of the Crucified and Risen One, the One who bore your sins in His body on the tree, the One who is the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul, the One whose wounds are your healing, life, and salvation.
You have here an image of the church. One that Luther used in the Smalcald articles when he said that even a seven year old child knows what the church is, namely sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. That was the early church at Pentecost that gathered to hear the apostles’ teaching, to commune in the breaking of the bread that is the Body of their Shepherd, and join in the prayers. The weekly, and in some places, daily, liturgy of the church was where the baptized sheep heard the voice of their Good Shepherd Jesus. They saw themselves as a little flock who were gathered by their Good Shepherd who would care for them, protect them, and lead them through the dark valley of Death to Resurrection and eternal life.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is also the door of the sheep. Don’t think of a wooden door on hinges here. Think rather of a pen with an opening in which the shepherd himself lies down to sleep at night so that you literally get to the sheep over the shepherd’s dead body. That’s how bound the shepherd is to his sheep in this image. He literally lays down his life for them. He lays down in the entrance so that that the only way in and out is through him. “No one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus said. There is only one door that leads to the Father’s green pasture of eternal life, and the way is through the narrow door of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One death for the life of the world. One resurrection that brings life from the dead to all. There is no other way, no other door, no other shepherd than Jesus the Good Shepherd.
The world rails against this, and our old Adam doesn’t much care for it either. And the devil, who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, would love to get you away from Jesus’ death and resurrection and on to something else, something more uplifting, more religious, more anything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The world rails against the exclusivity of Jesus. Why only Him? What makes Him the only religious leader worth following? Don’t others have truths that are just as valuable, just as helpful? The Buddha, Mohammed, even Moses. He was God’s spokesman in the Old Testament. What makes Jesus so exclusive, the only Shepherd of humanity, the only way to the Father, the only way to eternal life?
It’s as simple as this: He is the One who died and rose again. No other religion has the audacity to claim it as a fact of history. Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. That sets Him apart from all others who came before or after. He is the Shepherd, sent by the Father, to seek and to save lost humanity. He’s the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness to seek and to save the one who is lost. That one is humanity, the fallen race of Adam, you. He came to seek you when you weren’t seeking Him. He came to find you when you didn’t realize you were lost. He came to save you when you didn’t even think you needed to be saved.
Our sinful self, the old Adam, doesn’t care much for this business of sheep and shepherd. He wants to be autonomous, independent, self-made and self-actualized. The Good Shepherd image reminds us that we are sheep who need the care of God, who live by the Word, who left on our own would drink from every polluted puddle, nibble on every poisonous weed, stray far from the fold and get picked off by the wolves waiting to devour us. The shepherd/sheep metaphor is a blow to the ego. Who really wants to be a sheep? That may well be why the disciples didn’t understand this figure of speech when Jesus first spoke it. It only makes sense in light of His death and resurrection. Only then do you realize what you are up against and how you really can’t save yourself. It takes the death and resurrection of the Son of God in the flesh to rescue you. This is not something you can do for yourselves.
We expend so much of our religious energies on what we need to be doing for God, while Jesus expends His energies seeking and saving us. That’s one of the main points of the shepherd/sheep metaphor and why the old Adam in us hates it so much. Once you get past all the cuddly cuteness of it, you realize how utterly and completely dependent sheep are on their shepherd. Without their shepherd, the sheep will die or be easy pickings for the thieves and the wolves. Without Jesus, we’re hopelessly lost and condemned.
He must lead us to the quiet waters of Baptism. He must restore our souls and put us upright because we have fallen and we can’t get up. He must lead us in the path of righteousness, in the way of His death and resurrection. He must go before us through the darkness of Death and the Grave to show us that we need not fear any evil when we face our own dark hour because Jesus has gone before us and He is with us. The rod and staff of His Word comfort us. He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies – Sin, Death, devil, and the Law – His own Body and Blood, the gifts of His sacrifice. He anoints our heads with the oil of gladness and forgiveness. Our cup runs over with His goodness and mercy. That’s what life under the care of the Good Shepherd is like. When the Lord is your Shepherd, you lack nothing.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Of all the sayings and promises of Jesus, this one may be the most misunderstood and misused. Prosperity preachers use it to say that Jesus will make you healthy and wealthy if you name it and claim it. But all they do is fleece the sheep in the name of the Good Shepherd. This isn’t about having an abundance of things or an abundance of happiness in this life. It’s about having life in abundance. Life overflowing. Life beyond this life that embraces all of this life. Life in spite of suffering, sin, and death. Life that defies death rather than deny it. Life that embraces suffering the way Peter says, “When you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”
Where the Shepherd goes, there also go His sheep. Sheep and shepherd always are together. To follow Jesus is not to take a privileged detour around the hardships of life but to go through them together with Jesus. Jesus isn’t the way around suffering and death but the only way through suffering and death that leads to resurrection and life. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
That’s having life abundantly. The kind of life that Jesus gives is the kind of life that can’t be lost, that can’t be taken away, that can’t be diminished. It’s the “take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife” kind of life that goes through the valley of the shadow of death with confidence because Jesus the Good Shepherd has gone there ahead of us and He is with us every suffering step of the way.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And you do, baptized into Jesus as the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.
In the Name of Good Shepherd Jesus,