The Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Rev. George Pejakovich
John 10:11-18

ON THIS SUNDAY, THIRTY YEARS AGO, I WAS THE CHAPLAIN FOR A WOMAN’S RETREAT IN GERMANY, AND I PREACHED ON THIS GOSPEL. I SAID, WHILE WE CLERGY ARE OFTEN REFERRED TO AS SHEPHERDS, I REALLY THOUGHT OF US AS MORE LIKE SHEEP DOGS: WE KEEP OUR EYES ON THE SHEPHERD AND WATCH THE SHEPHERD FOR DIRECTIONS AS TO WHERE HE WANTS THE FLOCK TO GO. THE NEXT DAY I LOADED A GROUP OF WOMEN IN MY VW BUS TO TAKE THEM TO SALZBURG, WHERE I HAD BEEN A FEW TIMES. AS WE STOOD IN THE CROWDED STREET, THEY DECIDED THEY WANTED TO GO TO MOZART’S BIRTHPLACE. SINCE I KNEW WHERE IT WAS, I SAID, “FOLLOW ME,” AND STARTED WALKING. IN A FEW STEPS I HEARD BEHIND ME THE SOUND OF EIGHT WOMEN GOING “BAA, BAA, BAA.” THE PEOPLE OF SALZBURG GOT A GOOD LAUGH AT THE SIGHT OF A RED FACED SHEPHERD LEADING HIS FLOCK.

YOU MIGHT ASK WHY, AS WE HAVE BEEN HEARING ABOUT THE POST RESURRECTION APPEARANCES OF JESUS TO HIS DISCIPLES, WE SUDDENLY TURN BACK THE CLOCK TO THIS SETTING BEFORE THE CRUCIFIXION AND RESURRECTION. IT HAS LONG BEEN THE TRADITION OF THE CHURCH TO HEAR THIS GOSPEL PASSAGE ON THIS SUNDAY; TO THE POINT THAT TODAY IS REFERRED TO AS SHEPHERDING SUNDAY. ONE OF THE EARLIEST AND ALMOST UNIVERSAL DEPICTIONS OF JESUS IS THE VERY FAMILIAR ONE OF HIM AS THE GOOD SHEPHERD WITH THE LAMB DRAPED OVER HIS SHOULDERS. IT IS A VERY SWEET AND COMFORTING IMAGE, WHICH I AM CERTAIN YOU HAVE SEEN IN SUNDAY SCHOOL AND ELSEWHERE. THE CONTEXT OF THIS GOSPEL PASSAGE IS, HOWEVER, ANYTHING BUT COMFORTING AND SWEET FOR THOSE TO WHOM JESUS ADDRESSES. JESUS IS NOT ADDRESSING HIS DISCIPLES, BUT IS, IN FACT, DIRECTING HIS WORDS TO THE PHARISEES AND SADDUCEES WHO WERE CHALLENGING HIS RIGHT TO TEACH AND TO PREACH. HIS WORDS ARE A RESPONSE TO HIS CRITICS, AND A CONDEMNATION OF THEIR BEHAVIOR. THEY ARE ALSO A CLEAR STATEMENT OF JESUS’ COMMITMENT TO THE WILL OF HIS FATHER.

WHEN HE BEGINS BY SAYING, “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD,” ALL SORTS OF ALARM BELLS MUST HAVE GONE OFF IN THE MINDS OF THE PHARISEES AND SADDUCEES. NO RIGHTEOUS JEW WOULD SAY, “I AM,” BECAUSE IT IS THE NAME BY WHICH GOD CALLS HIMSELF. THEY WOULD SAY SOMETHING LIKE, “THIS ONE IS,” OR SOME OTHER CIRCUMLOCUTION. JESUS’ USE OF “I AM,” EQUATES HIMSELF WITH GOD IN THE EARS OF HIS LISTENERS, AND THEN HE INCREASES THE ALARM BY CALLING HIMSELF THE GOOD SHEPHERD. THE KINGS AND PROPHETS WERE KNOWN AS THE SHEPHERDS OF ISRAEL, UNDER GOD, SO JESUS CLAIMS THE MANTEL OF BOTH PROPHET AND KING. THE WORD HE USES FOR “GOOD” IS NOT JUST A COMPARISON OF QUALITY, BUT HAS OVERTONES OF MORAL SUPERIORITY. IN ONE SENTENCE, JESUS SHOCKS HIS ENEMIES AS THEY HEAR, “I AM ONE WITH GOD THE RIGHTEOUS PROPHET AND KING OF ISRAEL.”

HE THEN CONTRASTS HIS COMMITMENT TO HIS SHEEP WITH THAT OF THOSE WHO WERE SUPPOSED TO CARE FOR THEM. HE IS WILLING TO LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS SHEEP, WHILE THEY ARE NO MORE THAN HIRED HANDS. THEY DO WHAT THEY DO OUT OF THEIR PURSUIT OF MONEY OR A COMFORTABLE LIFE; HE IS WILLING TO CARE FOR AND PROTECT HIS SHEEP WITH HIS OWN LIFE. THIS IS WHY HIS FATHER LOVES HIM, BECAUSE HE IS WILLING TO CALL HIS FLOCK TOGETHER AND DEFEND AND PROTECT THEM EVEN UNTO DEATH AND BEYOND.

THE INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP HE DESCRIBES BETWEEN HE AND HIS SHEEP IS AN ECHO OF HIS INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS FATHER IN HEAVEN. AS HE HEARS HIS FATHER’S VOICE, SO TOO DO HIS SHEEP HEAR HIS VOICE; AS HE KNOWS HIS FATHER, SO TOO DO HIS SHEEP KNOW HIM. THIS INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP IS NOT AND WILL NOT BE JUST WITH THOSE HE HAS ALREADY CALLED TO HIM, BUT THERE WILL BE MORE AND MORE CALLED INTO HIS SHEEPFOLD, AND, THROUGH HIM, THEY WILL ALL BECOME ONE FLOCK.

THE WORD FOR SHEEP IS THE SAME FOR ONE OR A THOUSAND; THERE IS ONE WORD FOR THE SINGULAR AND THE PLURAL BECAUSE SHEEP DO NOT LIVE EXCEPT AS A PART OF A FLOCK. SO TOO IS THERE NO SUCH THING AS A SOLITARY CHRISTIAN. IF WE HAVE HEARD THE CALL OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, WE ARE A PART OF HIS FLOCK, UNDER HIS WATCHFUL CARE, FOLLOWING HIS LEAD, AND LIVING IN THE MIDST OF OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE SAME INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP HE HAS WITH HIS FATHER.

THIS IS WHY WE KNOW HE IS TRULY THE GOOD SHEPHERD; IF HE WASN’T HE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD, TO COME BACK TO THOSE WHO DESERTED HIM TO HEAL THEM, TO RECONCILE THEM, TO FORM THEM INTO A COMMUNITY CALLED THE CHURCH. THE GOOD SHEPHERD HAS THE POWER TO LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP AND THE POWER TO TAKE IT UP AGAIN. THE GOOD SHEPHERD HAS THE POWER TO FILL HIS SHEEP WITH THE GIFT OF GOD’S HOLY SPIRIT, AND CONTINUE TO LEAD, COMFORT, AND COMMISSION HIS SHEEP JUST AS HE DID WHEN HE WALKED AMONG THEM. AS LUTHER WROTE, “THE DISTINGUISHING MARK OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH IS THAT IT HAS ONE SHEPHERD, JESUS CHRIST.”

THIS IS WHY WE GATHER TOGETHER IN WORSHIP, WHY WE EAT TOGETHER THE FOOD HE PROVIDES FOR US, WHY WE HUDDLE TOGETHER IN TIMES OF STRESS AND JOY, WHY WE STRIVE TO LIVE IN THE LOVE WITH WHICH HE FIRST LOVED US, AND WHY WE CALL OTHERS TO HEAR HIS VOICE THAT THEY MIGHT BECOME A PART OF THE ONE GREAT FLOCK OF JESUS. THE GOOD SHEPHERD LEADS HIS FLOCK STILL, LEADING US AWAY FROM DESPAIR, PRIDE, COMPLACENCY, AND SIN; ALL OF WHICH STEM FROM OUR FEAR OF DEATH. HE HAS LAID DOWN HIS LIFE, AND HE HAS TAKEN IT UP AGAIN, AND IN SO DOING HAS LED HIS FLOCK TO THE VICTORY OF THE RESURRECTION, TO THE GREEN PASTURES WHERE WE FEED IN HIS PRESENCE, TO THE LIFE GIVING STILL WATERS OF HEAVEN, AND TO THE BLESSEDNESS OF DWELLING IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.
AMEN

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