Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday 25 April, 2021, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Texts for this Sunday: Acts 4.5-12; Ps 23; 1 John 3.16-24; Jn 10.11-18
The service can be viewed here:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (Jn 3.16)
Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the choice of the scripture readings, and it invites us to draw strength from the powerful image of Jesus as a shepherd. In describing himself as a shepherd, Jesus was drawing an image that was much beloved in the Jewish culture of his day. It wasn’t just that sheep and shepherds were part of the landscape and fabric of that society, they were also embedded in it’s theology. King David before him had been a shepherd before he ruled Israel, and the prophet Isaiah spoke of how God would come to rescue “his flock” Israel “like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isa 40.11). The figure of the shepherd was a powerful image of God’s protection and guardianship, a mantle of leadership that Jesus was consciously assuming to show himself as the promised Messiah.
We all have own ideas of what a shepherd is, even if we know nothing about farm life. These ideas range from the cute and cuddly – the little lamb held in loving arms – to the fierce and protective guardian of the flock. The latter idea animates the recent film Greyhound (https://youtu.be/vfgtAh2UP-s), where Tom Hanks portrays a Navy captain guarding his convoy of helpless merchant ships from a menacing “wolf pack” of enemy submarines. The film was based on the C.S. Forster novel The Good Shepherd, a title which was perhaps too religious for the studio, but the idea of the shepherd, vigilant, fierce, self-sacrificing, and protective, is on full display in the film.
Frankly, I find it more interesting and more inspiring to think about shepherds than about sheep. I know that sheep are stupid, helpless, dirty, and vulnerable, and I know that’s me, I know that’s the state of my soul, I get it. That’s why I know I need Jesus, because I understand that I need a guardian to keep me from wandering away and getting jumped by whatever spiritual wolves are out there. Jesus has the qualities a shepherd should have – brave, compassionate and fiercely dedicated to his charges, and always on the lookout for the lost and helpless – because that’s who this gospel story is about, the lost and helpless.
Because the gospel reading is often read in worship out of context, we often miss or forget the wider context. Why is it that Jesus here is talking about good shepherds? It’s because he’s talking t bad ones. Jesus is actually speaking here to the Pharisees who he’s been sparring all through chapter nine of John’s gospel. That controversy began when Jesus met the man “blind from birth” and healed him.
This miracle triggers a long debate between the man and the leaders in charge of the synagogue he belongs to. Was this really a miracle, if he really was blind, and if Jesus really did heal him, then is Jesus from God? If so, how can Jesus be from God since he healed the man on the sabbath and is therefore, according to the Pharisees, a sinner? The man insists that Jesus must be from God, because otherwise, as he states reasonably, “he could do nothing” (Jn 9.33),and for that the Pharisees kick him out of the synagogue and deprive him of his community.
People like this outcast man is whom Jesus is speaking of when he tells the Pharisees that “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (Jn 10.16). In other words, this is what a good shepherd does. He finds the strays and the lost, and gathers them together into his safekeeping – such a powerful and concrete image of God’s grace! These lost sheep, like the formerly blind man, will recognize the shepherd’s voice because they recognize the one who loves them and cares for them. Surely this is where faith begins, not in the intellectual acceptance of theological propositions or dogmas, but in the grateful recognition that we have received love and grace that can only come from God. The Pharisees, who are locked in a defensive and suspicious crouch, are unable and unwilling to see Jesus for who he is.
“The hired hand does not care for the sheep”, Jesus says. So there can be bad shepherds, like the Pharisees, but can there also be bad sheep? I suppose the sheep safely in the fold might say, “Hey, we’re safe, we’ve got it figured out, we’re in the right place, the shepherd clearly loves us best”, but that would be self-congratulatory, even Pharisee thinking. In reality, there are just two kinds of sheep, lost sheep and found sheep.
“I once was lost, but now am found” says the hymn, or in the prophet Isaiah’s words, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Is 53.6), and we still would be lost without Jesus. Which is all a poetic way of saying that churches are just a place for lost and found sheep, and there’s always room for more. In another place, Jesus tells the disciples that just one lost sheep out of ninety-nine is too many for God: “the will of your Father in heaven [is] that not one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18.12-14). None of us are here because we’re better than others. That’s not grace. We’re just here because the shepherd’s already found us, and is now off looking for others.
Here’s a final thought which I hope is encouraging. Jesus says that the sheep need their shepherd because otherwise “the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (Jn 10.12). A year into Covid, we all feel a bit like a scattered flock. Our churches are closed, we’re scattered across the internet, and while we still hear the shepherd’s voice, sometimes that voice seems pretty faint and distorted during a Zoom call. Not everyone comes to Zoom church. A lot of God’s people are somewhere out there, managing Covid as best they can. We don’t always know how they’re doing.
This pandemic time, we need our good shepherd more than ever. We need to remember that Jesus didn’t stop until he found the man who was exiled from his synagogue. We need to trust that Jesus, fierce, protective, keen-eyed, is out there looking out for us and for others. The Lord’s our shepherd. We shall fear no evil. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, we’re thankful for you, our good and faithful shepherd, who watches over us and cares for us. Give us the faith to trust in your care, especially when fears and loneliness threaten to overwhelm us. Give us your compassion, so that we may also remember and reach out to those with whom we’ve lost touch. Give us gratitude to welcome those you bring to our fold, to join us, who were lost and now are found. Amen.