April 21, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”
Jesus talks about His identity and His relationship to His disciples. The way that He gets to speaking about that relationship may not be the way that we would expect Him to. Jesus’ statement comes from a time of conflict: “The Jews gathered around [Jesus] and said to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’” Jesus is challenged to make a definitive statement about His identity: “Give us an answer. Are You the Messiah, yes or no?”
That is the setting for Jesus’ discussion about His identity and His relationship to His disciples. Faced by that challenge, Jesus speaks about what He has done and how people either receive that or not: “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name bear witness about Me, but you do not believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Jesus plainly marks the divide that stands between people. Some individuals hear what Jesus has done and said, and they believe that He is the Christ. Others hear the same, but come to the exact opposite conclusion. That’s the way it is, says Jesus.
Speaking in the Church, the focus is not on those who come to the conclusion that Jesus is not the Christ. You and I know that such individuals exist. We know them. Some are in our circles of family and friends. The division makes it difficult in some arenas: discussing issues of life, determining how to raise children, making moral decisions, and so on. These challenges exist and we live with them. This is not new in the Church, even St. Paul addresses these challenges that people in Corinth faced, including having spouses who do not believe the same.
But the major focus of the Church on this Good Shepherd Sunday is the statements that Jesus makes concerning those who are His followers. That is the definition of the Church: “the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.” The Church is the assembly of those who believe in Jesus’ identity as the Christ. They are the sheep that belong to Jesus. He says: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” When He says this, Jesus is speaking about you. He is speaking about His followers, His disciples.
Those words of Jesus define you. They define your identity. They define your relationship to Jesus. Jesus’ statement includes the very important point that you hear Jesus’ voice. How does that happen? How can you who live centuries after Jesus was walking and talking in Palestine hear His voice? The voice of Jesus is heard by having His teachings delivered to you. The voice of Jesus is heard by having His actions told to you. That is what Jesus established when He sent out His apostles into the world. It is why Jesus says about the ones He sends: “The one who hears you hears Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” As the apostles—the sent ones—went into the world, they carried the voice of Jesus’ words and works with them.
St. Paul describes that type of work in his valedictory address to the Ephesian elders: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying to both Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s what carrying the voice of Jesus’ words and works looked like in Ephesus. And the apostle tells the elders of the Church: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Paul wants them to do the same thing with that voice of Jesus, so that more may hear it.
That is the will Jesus has for you. You are His sheep. So you are meant to hear what He says. You are meant to hear that voice. But is that happening? Though Paul gives instructions to the elders, they are also applicable in part to you: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.” Paying careful attention to oneself includes taking the time to hear the voice of Jesus. It is a hazard for the elders of the Church not to do this. But the same hazard exists among you who aren’t elders. Problems arise when the hearing of Jesus’ voice isn’t happening.
It is very hard to follow someone when you don’t hear them. Think of a troop of soldiers or a marching band or a tour group. They each have a leader. That leader gives instructions. But if the soldiers, band members, or tourists cannot hear the leader giving instructions, what happens? They go off on their own ways. They try to determine what to do. And that leads into chaos of various sorts: firing on incorrect targets, playing the wrong songs, getting lost.
Similar negative results happen if the leaders of the group don’t have the correct instructions to give. The same groups can fire on incorrect targets, play the wrong songs, and get lost, if they hear leaders who don’t have the right words to give. It happens in the Church. This is what Paul warns the Ephesian elders about: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
These warnings are given to you, the Church in the present day. They are spoken to give direction to you. Your identity is what Jesus says: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Essential to that identity is the hearing of what Jesus has said and done. That is how you can follow Him. So the charge is given to you: “Listen to the record of Jesus’ words and works. Be familiar with the gospel accounts. Know what Jesus has said and done. Hear the prophetic words of the Old Testament that told of what Jesus would do. Pay attention to the apostolic words of the New Testament that speak of the results of Jesus’ acts. This is what guides you to follow in His way. That is what it means to be one of His disciples.”
But Jesus’ statement about your identity did not end with a description about what you are. It also included promises about what you receive. Recall what He said: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” This is what the Jesus who died and rose from death says to you. The promise is made, a promise rooted in His actions: “My sheep whom I know, the sheep who follow Me, receive eternal life.”
Such a promise can be made because Jesus is powerful over death, because He has overcome it. That is what the first three Sundays of Easter were telling the Church. It’s why you have heard again the records of Jesus’ tomb being found empty, the appearance of Jesus to the Eleven and their commissioning, the revelation of Jesus to the disciples along the seashore. These are the acts that demonstrate His being alive, never to die again. You have also heard the heavenly worship about those acts that Jesus performed. Praise is given to Him because He was slain but now lives.
Today, you have heard again the benefit of what those actions have accomplished. You have heard the promise of eternal life being given to Jesus’ sheep. You have details of the vision of those who receive that promise. What do those who hear Jesus’ voice, who are known by Him, who follow Him become? “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” That is the outcome for those who possess the identity of being Jesus’ sheep: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
That outcome is meant to be yours. It is given to those who hear Jesus’ voice. It is for those whom Jesus knows. It is the end of following Him. So is that the description of who you are? Do you hear His voice? Do you listen to the record of Jesus’ words and works or is that not something done very often? Does He know you? Has Jesus placed His name on you in baptism and called you His own or has that not been done? Do you follow Him? Is your life governed by the instructions that Jesus has given or do His statements about His disciples’ lives not really sound like yours?
Those questions are asked for a reason: to make you think once again about the identity that Jesus has granted to you. For in that is found the life that is meant to be yours. Not only is it meant to be in some philosophical way, it has been enacted by Jesus for you. Today in this place, you have heard the voice of Jesus. You have recalled the Divine Name that Jesus has put on you. The Good Shepherd prepares a table for you. Your souls are restored by His absolution. The promise of eternal life is given to you. And you will make the confession of faith about what you believe concerning Jesus and the identity that He has given to you.
What takes place here is rooted in what Jesus’ statement about His identity and your relationship to Him: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” His sheep believe this. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They believe in His words and works. Let that description be true for you, because you are among His sheep. Then all the statements that Jesus makes about His sheep will be fulfilled for you, especially the promise that He makes this day: “I give [My sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.