May 3, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said]: “I am the good shepherd. I know My own and my own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
The shepherd is tied to his sheep. He has a relationship to them: the sheep are his, and he belongs to them. His identity as a shepherd is determined by having sheep. So Jesus describes Himself to His disciples. Jesus calls Himself a shepherd, and not just any sort of shepherd, but the Good Shepherd. He states that He has a flock, and that His interest is in the flock’s welfare, for so Jesus is tied to His sheep.
That is what you heard from John’s Gospel on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, which we call Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus wants His followers to know that He is concerned about them that their welfare is His top priority. But this concern about the sheep’s welfare is more than an earthly concern. Rather, Jesus is determined to bring His followers life for eternity and to protect them from losing it to those who desire nothing other than to harm them. Jesus’ concern stems from His identity as the Good Shepherd.
Listen again to what Jesus says about a shepherd’s connection to and concern for his sheep: “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Jesus makes a point from discussing the negative: a hired hand does not care for the sheep under his watch, since his identity and interest are not tied up with them. A hired hand is defined by his wages; he is an employee who happens to have sheep to tend. But when his interest is threatened, when his life is in jeopardy because of a wolf, the hired hand is willing to abandon the sheep.
But this is not so for a shepherd. If the flock is scattered and killed, then his both his identity and interest are lost. Every sheep killed by the wolves damages the shepherd’s assets. He becomes poorer one lamb at a time. But this harm is compounded by the fact that one cannot be a shepherd without sheep. The wolves scatter the flock and devour the stragglers they can catch. By this, the wolves begin to destroy the shepherd’s identity, as his flock is lost.
So Jesus says He will not have His followers lost. For Jesus’ identity is caught up with them: “I am the good shepherd. I know My own and my own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” Jesus differentiates Himself from hired hands: He is more than a leader who happens to have followers; He has been given a duty more than supervision. Instead, Jesus’ interest is in the welfare of His sheep, His people.
Jesus says: “I lay down My life for the sheep.” He does so, because it is in His interest. The sheep benefit from having their shepherd defend them from wolves, even to the point of his death. But in this case, Jesus says that He, the Good Shepherd, also benefits from this: “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. This charge I have received from My Father.” Jesus indicates that He receives His Father’s love because He lays down His life and takes it up again for the benefit of His followers. By so doing, Jesus remains their shepherd and His sheep’s welfare is preserved.
This extended metaphor that Jesus uses helps you, His sheep, to understand His death and resurrection. It explains why Jesus underwent His suffering and why the Father glorified Him by raising Him from the grave. The work that Jesus did by His dying and rising was to keep His sheep from destruction. By taking upon Himself the pains of death, enduring the assaults of Satan, even suffering the forsaking of His Father, Jesus makes it possible for humans not to experience any of this. Jesus’ sheep will be saved, and the attempts of Satan and his allies to harm them will be thwarted.
This is the charge that Jesus received from His Father, as He said. It is a charge that Jesus fulfills. He does not leave anything undone. Just as the Lord God revealed in the Scriptures, Jesus does what is prophesied of the Messiah. Salvation is given to the Lord God’s people. Their welfare is Jesus’ interest. By delivering them through His sacrificial death, Jesus becomes their shepherd, even their Good Shepherd. So Jesus has a people which are connected to Him, and by their existence, Jesus has His identity as Redeemer.
This is what has been accomplished for you. For you are the sheep that Jesus speaks of. He has laid down His life for you, and He has taken it up again. You belong to Him, as Jesus has established a relationship with you. Jesus’ words describe this fact: “I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me. . . . I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice.” Jesus calls you His own. His identity is being your Good Shepherd. His sheep listen to His voice. So you do, as you hear His teaching, hear His claims about His identity and work, and believe it.
Because you are Jesus’ own, His flock, His identity is wrapped up in your following Him. He is your Good Shepherd. And not only is Jesus’ identity connected to your following Him; because you are His sheep, your welfare is His interest. The caring that the Good Shepherd has for His sheep is not a one-time concern. It goes beyond Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Rather, it is ongoing. The Good Shepherd continues to tend for His sheep, warding off the dangers that the wolf, Satan, brings.
The ongoing protection of the sheep is what Jesus brings to you through His appointed means. His voice that you listen to is given through the Church’s proclamation—the reading and teaching of the Scriptures. Like the shepherd in David’s psalm, Jesus leads you to “the still waters” of Holy Baptism, making you His sheep through that act, but also returning you to the holiness given there, so that you sins are cleansed. Through His Spirit, you are led and guided through life, being instructed how to walk “the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.” The Good Shepherd ensures that you are fed and nourished, as “He prepares a table before [you] in the presence of [your] enemies,” even in this world’s wilderness.
The ongoing care that Jesus makes certain is because He cares for you, His sheep. Just as much as you are bound to Him as His disciples, so Jesus is bound to you as your Lord. You are His own, so your welfare is His interest. You are His own, so you are part of His identity as the Good Shepherd. Jesus is tied to you, and you are tied to Jesus.
That is the relationship that Jesus describes in John’s Gospel, the theme of this Sunday. You are not sheep that happen to be under His supervision, so that Jesus may earn wages. He is not a hired hand with the bothersome duty of herding another’s sheep. No, He is your shepherd, so that life may be yours, the very life that He laid down for you, showing His love beyond all measure. He is your shepherd, so that your eternal welfare may be secured. By His dying, Jesus has destroyed death. By His rising again, Jesus has opened the way to everlasting life. And as Jesus fulfilled the charge given by His Father, you may share in His glory, so that “[you] shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.