Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2012
It’s not just that Jesus is a shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd. It’s not just that He’s a good shepherd, He is good in that everything that is good and pure and perfect is found in Him as the epitome of it. Whether in political leaders or sports figures people look up to or favorite teachers or people who serve in vocations that help people you will end up finding some weakness, some sin, some way in which you find that they are not in fact good in the sense that all others are judged by the standard he or she embodies. That’s not to say we shouldn’t look up to those who are good, moral, decent people. We simply must recognize that they too are sinners as we are.
Not Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd. But it’s not just that Jesus felt it necessary that we should know this. That wouldn’t be all that good, after all. By the way, I’m the Good Shepherd, just thought you should know. That smacks of arrogance. We don’t need that in our Lord. We need one who truly is good, who truly will do what it is that we need.
That’s why Jesus defines what it means that He is the Good Shepherd. The one who is pure and perfect and loving is the one who lays down His life for His sheep. We usually think of Jesus as our Good Shepherd in the description of the Twenty-third Psalm. And that’s not bad. If anything, it’s good. We know those phrases well, that He is with us, He guides us, He leads us, He protects us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil. That’s all very beautiful but Jesus is the one who defines what all that means. He lays down His life for us. That’s how we have the life in which we are able to go forward and in which we know that His goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
He is the Good Shepherd, after all. Everything that is good and pure and perfect and loving is embodied in Him. And we see that in the singular act of Him laying down His life for us. That’s more of a blessing than we can imagine because there’s no one else who will do that. It’s not just that no one else would want to, there are some who in fact would. But the problem is that no one else can. Only the one who is pure and good and holy and perfect can. If you give your life to save someone else’s that’s a noble and loving act. But Jesus isn’t trying to deliver you from being hit by a truck or rescue you from cancer. As the Shepherd He’s not trying to pull a sheep out of being stuck in the fence when it can’t get itself free.
We are sheep who have gone astray. Every one of us has gone our own way. Our straying from the pasture of our Lord’s grace and care leads us into destruction. It’s hard for people to think about this because we’re so caught up in the here and now. We’re consumed with our daily problems and stresses. We’re concerned and worried about what’s coming down the road for us financially or health-wise or with our children or with our aging parents. We struggle with coming to terms with our trials but don’t often think about what our sin and straying from God brings about for us. Maybe it’s because we can’t comprehend what that will actually be like. We know hell in an intellectual way. We know it’s really bad. But it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that our straying from our Lord brings us to hell and that it’s separation from Him forever and torment forever.
Jesus the Good Shepherd does not lay down His life for us to help us out. He does it to save us. This isn’t sheep caught in the fence, this is us under the condemnation of eternal suffering in hell. Jesus is the only one who is pure and good and loving and able to rescue us from that condemnation. That’s why He’s telling us that He is the Good Shepherd. That He lays down His life for the sheep.
Our sinfulness and our living in the fallen world is to such an extent that there are many voices out there which claim love and goodness and help and salvation. You know you have convinced yourself that you’re not really that bad despite the mistakes and even the sins you have committed. After all, even your sins, are they so bad that you deserve to be eternally separated from God and condemned to eternal torment? That voice that comes from within your heart leads you astray. If you do by the grace of God hear His Word and repent of your sins there are voices that will ring out with the message of love and peace and comfort that you’re not really that bad. Don’t make yourself out to be such a bad person because God wouldn’t make bad people, would He? God is loving, so He really wouldn’t condemn people when they’re not horrible people, would He?
You hear these voices all the time. You’d expect them from those who don’t believe in the true God. Sadly, these voices ring out boldly and constantly within the Christian Church. Jesus calls these people hired hands. They don’t truly love the sheep. They love themselves. That’s not to say that they’re not nice people. It’s not even to say that they don’t do a lot of wonderful things to help people. But they are not the Shepherd and so don’t truly love the sheep. How do we know this? Jesus says they flee when the wolf comes.
What is Jesus teaching us here? That when you’re down and out and your pastor decides to watch the Charger game instead of being there for you that he’s nothing more than a hired hand? While that’s an unloving act and needs to be repented of what Jesus is showing us is that the hired hand doesn’t truly love the sheep. The hired hand flees, he doesn’t lay down his life for the sheep. Jesus does. He is the Good Shepherd. Since no one else can do this, however, as we are all sinners and cannot take away the sin of the world, let alone our own sins, how exactly do we find those servants God has called to take care of the Flock, that is, the Holy Christian Church, and avoid those who are hired hands?
The first reading today gives us a great picture of what the hired hands in the Church do. The religious leaders were actively working to prevent the apostles from proclaiming Jesus and His death and resurrection. Guess who the faithful shepherds God called were? They were the apostles, who if it meant their life suddenly changing by being thrown in prison or being tortured or coming to a crashing end by being martyred, they would not waver in confessing before others and proclaiming to others the Gospel, Jesus’ death and resurrection for the sin of the world. Guess who the hired hands were? The religious leaders. The religious leaders were cowards. They sought their own welfare instead of truly loving God’s people. They were not out to get the apostles because they had healed a man. They were attacking Christ and trying to put an end to the apostles’ work of proclaiming the Gospel. The religious leaders were undoubtedly kind and helpful people and leaders, but they led people astray by turning them away from Jesus Christ.
The way, as the apostle John says in the Epistle reading, we ought to lay down our lives for others is by loving them in Christ. Obviously, as he also says, we should help them in their physical and temporal needs. But apart from Christ and His love and forgiveness and salvation in His death and resurrection you have not truly loved them and helped them. This is what so many hired hands in the Christian Church fail to see. When people leave the Church because they don’t want to hear the message that they are sinful and are condemned to hell, so many pastors and religious leaders will soften the message and just tell people that their life is not all that God would have it be. These people are hired hands and do not truly love God’s people. You will hear a constant refrain of voices from without and within the Christian Church that we must help people in their needs—and that is true. But if the Church fails to give to people what they truly need, the Gospel, the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of their sins, then we have done nothing more for them than what any group or organization can do, whether or not that group is Christian.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not just a good shepherd. He lays down His life for us. He knows us. In a remarkable work, He gives to us a gift in which we also know Him. I know My own and My own know Me. It isn’t just that we know that He’s God and that He saved us. It’s that we are in a relationship with Him in which He loves us purely because of His love and grace for us. It’s that we love Him in return purely out of His grace and love for us in laying down His life for us. This is why Jesus’ knowing us is not just a thing in which He’s a really good shepherd and therefore knows all of His sheep really well; as a good coach would know each player and what makes each of them tick individually. It’s that He knows us in the way the Father knows Him and He knows the Father. God the Father loves His only-begotten Son with an eternal and perfect love. It’s wholly selfless and abounding. This is how Jesus knows us and loves us. It’s the kind of love that Jesus says moved His Father to send Him, Jesus, to lay down His life for the sheep.
It’s the kind of love that moves Him to do this not just for those who are His own but for everyone, as He says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” This is love that we simply cannot love with in our self-willed and sinful nature. Those not of this fold means those people who are out there in the world and don’t see things the way we do and do things that impinge on our comfort zone. That’s why Jesus doesn’t require us to love others in order to gain His favor and to be loved by Him. It’s all by grace. It’s all in His laying down His life for us that we are able to do so for others, whether our family members or our neighbors or our co-workers or any number of people we know in our lives. You may never be called upon by God to give up your physical life for someone else but daily you are given the opportunity by Him to put yourself in the background and love others as you have been loved by your Good Shepherd. Laying down your life for others is not easy, how could it be? But it is a joy that can never be comprehended or experienced apart from the Gospel, the love of God in sending His beloved Son Jesus to lay down His life for you.
The Good Shepherd is truly good. What you need is not to get your act together or figure out how you can straighten out other people’s lives. Certainly God gives you many gifts to use to help people in any number of ways. But what a blessing it is to know that when God uses you to help people, and even more, to truly love them, that it’s Him doing the work, Him loving them, Him giving you what you need to love them by reminding you that, as He said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
Don’t rely on yourself. He’s the one who laid down His life of His own accord. He’s the one who had the authority to take it up again and rise from death. Having laid down His life for you and having risen from the grave you have new and eternal life, new and eternal opportunities to receive more and more His grace and love and to share grace and love others. Amen.