Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday) – Series B
The fourth Sunday of Easter is always given over to the imagery of the Good Shepherd. This picture appears to have been precious to the people of God for a very long time. Perhaps it was a familiar motif even when David penned those familiar words of Psalm 23 over three thousand years ago. Frequently the kings of ancient kingdoms would style themselves as a shepherd. Interestingly Amos uses that sort of shepherd to identify himself when challenged. Perhaps he was a sheep mogul of some sort, the Bill Gates of some ovine empire. NT Wright’s excellent little book, Simply Jesus, also explores this extensively as it describes the expectations of first century Christians.
Jesus of course uses this picture language to great effect in the Gospels. Some of the earliest images we have of Jesus involve this motif of the shepherd, usually carrying a lamb on his shoulders. The picture on the right is from a third century fresco in Italy. It depicts Jesus as a beardless shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
Even though we are no longer an agrarian culture for the most part, the image retains a great deal of impact for people. Who among us has the slightest idea what being a shepherd is like first hand? Yet, the image of Jesus the good shepherd is plastered on the walls of countless day cares and preschools operating in church basements. It adorns our Sunday School materials and it is name of many a Lutheran parish.
The image is really a proclamation of the Easter truth. Jesus has risen from the dead and he is not just passing time on some distant heavenly throne. He is caring for you. He is watching out for you. He loves you. That is not only a past or a future statement, but most importantly a present statement. Jesus has risen from the dead so he can take care of his sheep.
For people today this might just be a really good Sunday. In a time of all sorts of poor news from every sector it seems, this might be a most welcome ray of sunshine. Jesus rose from the dead to take care of you. Of course, that might also lead some folks to question just how good he is at this if all this garbage is taking place in our world. But the promise is not that he will keep us in the comfortable confines of the sheep pen, but that he will go with us when we walk the valley of the shadow of death. He seeks out the foolish and lost sheep, but in that time before they are found it is often pretty uncomfortable for the little lost ovine.
It should also not be forgotten that the shepherd carries that long staff, often with a crook in it. Yes, he uses it to fend off the predator who would devour the sheep, but most often it is used to pull an errant sheep back in line or even to deliver a whack where it would do the most good. The tender care of the shepherd may leave us rather tender at times. This will not be perceived as enjoyable in the midst of it, but in retrospect the sheep will consider that this too was the love of God in his or her life.
If you want a helpful and very brief read consider Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm. He offers some really interesting insights into just what it is like to be a shepherd. Not 2
being one myself, more of a gardener and cattle person by upbringing, I cannot really comment on the veracity of all his insights, but they make some really good sermonic material. I had sheep farmers in my parish in Roseburg and they said that much of this was true.
Here are some thoughts I gleaned from the book and put out there for you in past years:
1. Sheep are not dumb; they are in fact pretty smart. But they cannot see very well. So they often will not be aware that a gate is open. The shepherd will have to physically grab one of them, lift them through the gate before the flock will enter.
2. Sheep can hear quite well – able to identify the voice of a shepherd. Hence God does not say to us, “see this and live” but instead he says “hear this and live.” The preached word is a “heard” experience (pardon the pun).
3. Sheep need a fair amount of care – they need still waters and green pastures and it takes the consistent care of a shepherd to bring them to these places. Sheep will drown in running water; they will graze a pasture to the roots if left in one place consistently. They also are too indiscriminate in what they eat; a shepherd constantly has to be looking out for poisonous plants.
4. Sheep are ungulates, which mean they have multiple stomachs which are used to digest the cellulose that we cannot digest. This is a very gaseous process and a sheep that lies down improperly will be “cast” or “cast down.” This means that the gasses in their stomachs have built up in their abdomen and they literally cannot get up. They roll on their backs with their feet in the air. Such a sheep is vulnerable to predators. (If you are familiar with cattle who have the same sort of digestive system, this is called “bloating”) This means a shepherd must constantly count his sheep and be aware of how many there are (“if you have 99 and lose one” – she probably laid down wrong and is just over the knoll and cannot get up.)
There is much more that you could find. A good preacher, even if he is in a city where people have never seen a sheep will want to sound a little like a shepherd today. In fact, that is what Pastor means.
As we said earlier, to call Jesus the Good Shepherd is to make a statement about Jesus’ constant care and concern for his people. He is daily, constantly keeping an eye on us, warding us from the dangers, leading us to the healthy places, defending us from the predators.
What is Jesus doing today for us that is shepherd-like? To what can we point? Sometimes a shepherd just watches – he does not constrain the sheep’s life or force it to eat or drink. Today we will continue hear Peter address the aftermath of the healing of the lame man. Jesus still is busy caring for his wounded sheep. Do we say that Doctors, Nurses, and Antibiotics are the gifts of your shepherd? Remember that those things really did not exist when Jesus proclaimed himself a shepherd and was healing. Is the development of the medical establishment part of his shepherding? But what about when we lose our job or get really sick. Is that then a failure of the 3
Shepherd? I don’t think so, but how will we proclaim this? Great, I have Jesus here, but I am still hungry! What do we say to such a person? Clearly this is a matter of hope. We do proclaim the hope for the resurrection – the shepherding of Jesus takes a rather long view of things. At the same time, to proclaim Jesus the shepherd is to speak to his care for the suffering of his flock.
Perhaps we need to point to Lutheran Social Services, Bethesda, or another good thing that is happening. LSS is the only social agency in North America which is allowed to take unaccompanied minor refugees. The lost boys of Sudan were all sponsored/brought to the US by LSS, mostly in New England. There are many times and places when the hands and feet of God, his Christian people, are the primary means for caring for little, least, and lost people. The mentally handicapped, the homeless, the preschoolers, and many more find welcome in the churches where Jesus’ people gather. Here is the Shepherd at work, not only to me but through me.
Do we also need to point to the good that comes to me through this fellowship? Do I need to see the love we show to the grieving widow and the hungry man, the child, etc? I think that we often struggle to call our congregations places where we see the loving hands of Jesus at work. That will take some practice. Often these are not very dramatic or emotionally laden events. The little group of people who gather for coffee or to go golfing together or to camp together as a family might in fact be a great opportunity for Christ to be building up his flock. Our human tendency as a pastor is often to notice what is not happening “We have no mission to the poor!” or “We have a lousy youth group!” Our job is to proclaim what Jesus is doing! Don’t focus on the stuff which is not happening. Find the Shepherd at work!
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, merciful Father, since You have wakened from death the Shepherd of Your sheep, grant us Your Holy Spirit that when we hear the voice of our Shepherd we may know Him who calls us each by name and follow where He leads; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Almighty God, merciful Father,… notice as we did on Easter that the resurrection is actually an act of the Father in the economy of salvation. Today we notice that he has awakened the great good shepherd of the sheep. There is a purposefulness to the resurrection which is often lost on us. We properly celebrate the fact that the resurrection is really about us also rising from death on the last day and we acknowledge that our baptism ties us to the resurrected Christ right now, empowering a resurrection of our spiritual self. But there is more good news to the resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead for a purpose, because he had a job to do right now, today. That job could not be done if he lay dead in a grave.
His glorified, perforated hands are now engaged in a holy task. He cares for us. He is not simply sitting on his throne listening to the angelic chorus’ version of top forty tunes, drumming his fingers waiting for the grand finale on the last day. He is actively engaged in the shepherding of 4
his people. The Spirit he poured out mediates his presence among us and that presence is active, engaged, and potent for the salvation of His people. He hears our bleating prayers and responds to them. He calls us to safety, defends us from our foes, and leads us to verdant pastures. He provides the healing balm of Word and Sacrament, he puts us into the flock so that we can be comforted and protected by the group as well. He is not absent, but very present in our sheepish existence.
We beseech God for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can hear and recognize the voice of our shepherd as he calls us by name. We would follow him. This section of the prayer introduces another element that shows up in John. There are imposters and thieves, those who would harm the flock. They are also calling and making their presence known. Yes, like wolves they would consume and destroy, but they know that if they can get a whole flock into a box canyon the feasting can go on for days. If they just run in and grab an occasional lamb, they will incur the immediate wrath of the shepherd and the sheep will become wary. This prayer is about a discernment which is directed by the Spirit.
It also implies that we know the voice of Jesus. I have found this to be a tough thing for people, one which can needlessly lead them to doubt. After all, it has been two thousand years since Jesus walked the earth with his disciples. The generation which would have recognized Jesus voice has long passed away. But this is not about recognizing the timbre of his voice. Did Jesus speak with a deep voice or a high voice? Who knows, we will find that out. But we can still recognize the one who through various Pastors, teachers, fellow Christians, parents, and others has been nurturing and feeding us with Word, love, forgiveness, and peace. The one who comes speaking with that sweet voice is not beyond our recognition. There is something like a little alarm bell which the Spirit installs in the back of a Christian’s mind in Baptism. When the evil one comes, stalking his next victim, he will attempt to sound like the good shepherd, but we can recognize him; that alarm goes off. Mostly this is so because he is just stupid about love. He doesn’t understand it, and he always stumbles when he tries to fake that.
The preacher today will also want to ask what it means to be a sheep following Jesus. That is not an image that many will find to be flattering. We often enjoin people not to be sheep. It is perceived as a mindless and stupid thing to do, to be a sheep, following someone “blindly.” You may want to return to that opening essay above to revisit that characterization. How will we preach this in a way which values the intelligence of our people, the discernment and gifts they exercise in this following? How will we ask them to be under the shepherd, but not a shepherd who takes away their brains, but one which unleashes their minds to be in service to him? Is that not just as much a following of the Good Shepherd? I believe it is.
Acts 4:1-12 5
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
5 On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.
I love that first sentence in this text: They were “greatly annoyed.” There is a point in a preacher’s career when he realizes that because some people are glowering at him that he has done his job. This is not about making everyone happy; in fact, it often is about afflicting the comfortable. I think the issue also needs to be asked how the preaching of the Gospel today is annoying our enemies. I wonder whether world has not practiced the fine art of ignoring us. We annoy no one, we are not allowed to, or is it that we have grown too comfortable with sin and the world around us. Or have we simply acquiesced to its subtle demands and reached some sort of an accommodation with the world which is at odds with Christ? Let us keep our tax exemption and we will not be too critical. Our religion is safely kept inside the walls of our churches and the world rather likes it that way. It does not want to see us out on the streets, unless we are appropriately tolerant, then we might be welcomed into the ranks of civil society. But be aware, Jesus, his name and any sort of faithful preaching of his work, is most intolerant. It always involves that nasty question of sin, especially the idea that we all have it, it might even be the very thing that some of us love more than anything else. So society bids us, please don’t talk about that, it is just too uncomfortable.
Of course Peter’s little sermon here is a bit of a discomfort for the people of God, especially those of us who make our living being the professional Christians in a given place. Peter is hauled in front of the authorities and points out that their annoyance at the preaching is really predicated upon the good work that happened. A lame man walks today. It happened because Jesus is active and living and healing even today. That hurts. You mean it isn’t about how well I 6
conduct my ministry or what I have done well? This is not about me? What is more, Peter is given this chance to speak to those in power because on the way into church he took the time to look a beggar in the eye, love him with Christ’s love, and do something about his plight. How many times had those temple leaders walked by that man and never even noticed him? Or had they come in through their own private entrance to shield them from such unpleasantness?
The right to say annoying things to people in power comes to us after we have been caring for the sick, the hurting, the lonely, the meek, and the pestilent and scurvy people who live on the bottom of the society. It might not come to us if we are comfortably gathering at Starbucks with the folks who are like us or at least the folks we would like to be like. Jesus hung around with some pretty dicey people. The church which has devolved into a community center for middle class folks who are all alike is not going to get this opportunity or at least should not expect it.
My students, most of whom come from middle class sorts of households, are all required to engage in a service learning activity as we discuss the Lord’s demand to love the enemy, neighbor, and persecutor. We send them out into the various ministries of this community which feed the homeless, care for the sick, tutor the kid in the school with huge class sizes, etc. Most of them, a majority are in fact Christians, have never done this before. Is the Church of North America failing to care?
Peter’s sermon could not have lowered the annoyance factor. He quotes Psalm 118 and essentially tells the powerful that they blew it. They had a chance, God was here, Jesus came to them, but they rejected him and now they are on the outside of God’s great work, looking in. Salvation has been wrought, you are invited to be a part of that, but the name under heaven by which men must be saved is no longer under your control. That name is Jesus. The temple in which God comes to this world is no longer the building over which you preside, but it is Jesus and his people.
To whom do we preach today? That would be the question the preacher has to figure out. Do we preach to the people who have rejected the suffering Christ? That seems a little extreme, yet too many of our congregations only express their Christianity inside the confines of their four walls; meanwhile, a whole generation of people outside those walls is dying. We can drive by lots of suffering on our way to church and then have the audacity to complain the hymn was too hard to sing or the drummer played too loudly or the pastor’s sermon was just a tad too long. Then we get back in our cars and drive past that suffering again, to safely cocoon ourselves in our homes and workaday worlds until the next week. I don’t think Peter would have much good to say to us about that.
It is the suffering and dying, the rising and the loving Jesus we encounter in that sacrament, the Jesus whose death is for the whole world. Do we marvel at Peter’s boldness, and forget that it all started with a little compassion shown to a beggar outside the gate of the temple? Will the shepherding Christ be seen in our hands today? 7
At the end of the first paragraph Luke speaks to the exponential growth of the early church. In chapter 2 he said it was about 120 folks. Here at this point he notices a milestone – 5000+ and that only the men. I think this is not an accident. This is an echo of the feeding of the 5000 when they only counted the men. Is this Jesus the Good Shepherd showing up, feeding his flock? I think this is a deliberate allusion by Luke suggesting the presence of Christ. Am I nuts?
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
This virtually preaches itself. It is a common reading at funerals, and needs to be freed from that context too once in a while. A preacher has a complete sermon outline right here. You could simply read a verse, preach a few paragraphs, read another verse, preach a few more. Then you would have a great sermon for this Good Shepherd Sunday.
I John 3:16-24
11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death 8
into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
Many find preaching John’s first letter difficult. He oscillates between these seemingly contradictory statements. We are perfect we are not perfect, we obey His commands but if we don’t obey we have an advocate with the Father. He seems to be talking to two different people, could it be a sinner and a saint?
We are more used to the conversation he has with the sinner, but this is Easter and we need to grow into the conversation he is also having with the saint. For as people who have experienced resurrection power, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the very people that God has called us into being.
This text has a number of important intersections with this day. First of all, we know the voice of our shepherd not by its tone or its pitch, but by the love. He laid down his life for us. That love then transforms us into people who also lay down our lives for others. That is the way of Christianity. There are lots of ways to lay down one’s life, martyrdom is only one of them and a gift which is not given to all. More commonly we are called to lay down our life one dollar, one moment, one act of kindness, and/or one act of service at a time. It is a long and beautiful laying down of life which stretches over years and scores of years.
John points us to the sharing of our material things. Back to the idea that Peter and John walked into the temple that day and looked at a beggar and unlike so many did not simply walk by. I may not have the ability to heal him, but I can feed him. God’s love abides in us and opens our hearts and eyes and minds to be different sorts of people.
This living active love of God is what connects us to the truth. Notice, John does not connect us to the doctrine; although, within this letter John is very concerned with what people believe. But for John, the belief is never separated from the act. If one does not believe that Jesus came in the flesh, then the flesh becomes someone much less important. The beggar’s hunger is not really shared by the Jesus who was stressed and hungry and came to fig tree looking for fruit or who had compassion on the crowds who were gathered in the wilderness to hear him and he fed them 9
as well. But if you do believe that Jesus came in the flesh, suddenly the beggar’s hunger becomes one with the Lord’s hunger. They are the same hunger and his hunger is a holy thing, a holy need, and when I feed that hunger of the beggar, I am also feeding the hunger of my Lord.
But that paragraph condemns me. I know my heart, I have not acted in Christ’s love, not all the time. But the God who dwells in my heart is greater than my heart, and the love he has for me is not bought or sold. It is simply given and by his indwelling I have it. Too often I think that our congregations have held themselves up to an unrealistic expectation. They see Mother Teresa and wonder why they don’t love that way. But they then ignore the fact that the do love one another with a halting, sometimes broken, but genuine love which comes from God. That means God is in their hearts, and he is bigger than their hearts and the self-condemnation which they feel. That means that the past is past, and the present is real, and this moment as he presents to me yet another opportunity to love, I am able to love right now with his love, and he sets my mind and heart at ease. He has forgiven the past and he has filled the present.
And so we know that God abides in us. Not because we have done it right, but because in this moment we are empowered to do something, even a little loving deed. That is God at work in us. Reach out and hold the hand of the sinner next to you, tell your spouse you love them, give your kids a hug, feed a hungry man, comfort a grieving widow, or pray with a man going into surgery, and know the presence of God in those things. This is not you getting it right, it is God getting it right. He came into the flesh because these and all the hurts of the world are terribly important to him.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 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 is the good shepherd. This is the story which was told me at the time. It has a certain ring of truthiness, so I repeat it here. My vicarage congregation was the oldest Lutheran parish in Las Vegas. The charter members chose this Good Shepherd metaphor of the Gospel as its congregational name. Then an ALC congregation started coalescing a year or two later a little 10
north of them. They were going to call themselves “First Lutheran” which really irked the LCMS folks down at Good Shepherd, so they went and changed their name. I served at “First Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and School.” It made this Sunday really interesting because they had a beautiful stained glass window with the good shepherd motif and we could point to it and talk about the first good shepherd.
What makes a good shepherd? The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Having just come through the pathos of Holy Week with its scourging and crucifixion, this is emblazoned on the minds of our hearers and us too.
Jesus contrasts this with the other guys, the hirelings, who flee when the wolf approaches. We have something of a controversy brewing in Oregon right now. A pack of wolves in Idaho has recently crossed the river and shown up in Oregon sheep country. Scores of lambs have been slaughtered, and the rancher used a little technology to videotape the lupine perpetrators in the very act of slaughtering his lambs. This is visceral for folks out there. They exterminated wolves from eastern Oregon for this very reason. They don’t want them back. They are asking permission from the state to shoot predatory wolves who are working their vast flocks of sheep. They look over the border to Idaho and see hundreds of wolves in multiple packs and they are afraid.
Of course the environmental types, mostly found in the urban areas of western Oregon, far removed from the brutal financial realities of scraping a living off inhospitable lands east of the Cascade Mountains, are not happy with any suggestion which involves harming these noble, free ranging members of a healthy ecosystem. One of my colleagues on Concordia’s faculty is leading the charge on that, recently interviewed by the New York Times.
It is enough to make one glad that he or she is not a legislator who has to deal with this. The ranchers don’t want to flee, they would really like to protect their flock employing the firms of Winchester or Smith and Wesson. We are not afraid of the wolf in the same way that Jesus’ audience was. Perhaps the preacher needs to update his wolf metaphor. Should we describe our wolves as the things that cause us great fear? Is our predator cancer or some viral plague? Is our wolf the forces of the economy or war?
Jesus lays down his life for the flock, he puts it on the line. Death has swallowed him and choked. He knows his flock, they know him. He has become one of them in death, and they have been united to him in his resurrection. They are known this way by each other.
Jesus also has this rather enigmatic line. “I have other sheep.” Having spent a few years in ministry in Utah that line was pretty important. Mormons believe that refers to the lost tribes of Israel who migrated to North America and were in fact the Indians, especially the Mayan/Aztec sorts in Central America, but really all the Native Americans. Some time ago, I spoke to our missionary among the Native Americans in Washington. He was alright with being called “Indian” but said he was really glad that Columbus wasn’t looking for Turkey when he got lost. 11
For John’s audience the most likely allusion here is to the gentiles. By the time John is writing, most of his audience are in fact non-Jewish and the whole Jewish debate has pretty well be settled. Christianity will be predominantly a gentile group. The hardening of the Jewish position against Christians seems to have already taken place, but it was still pretty fresh. Paul wrote about it, both in terms of his hurt and his hope for a softening in Romans 9-11. That was only a few decades prior to John’s writing and his audience would have remembered when it was a living and raging fight.
Of greater importance is the way Jesus talks about his own death and how that expresses his unity with the Father and our unity with him. Jesus does not have his life taken away from him. He gives it. It is a real gift and because it is a real gift, it is also returned to him. Does that mean then that our lives, being real gifts from him are also empowered to be one with him and Father in that they can be truly given? Does this suggest that the cruciform pattern of Jesus life, the sacrifice which he has made has become the pattern of our own lives? I believe so. How does one preach that?
The Christians of long ago actually changed the posture of prayer to reflect this cruciform shape. The idea of folding our hands and bowing our heads is medieval. It says we are shutting off the senses to focus inward when we pray. The ancient Jew stood with eyes open and looking up when he prayed, his hands lifted up to heaven in a gesture of reception. Many of the Early Christians lowered the hands until they were pointed out, imitating the look of Jesus on the cross. Of course this made long prayers something of a matter of muscular stamina. Hard-bitten monks would sometimes stand in posture and recite long stretches of the psalter as a way to discipline their bodies and their spirits.
The sheep become like the shepherd in that once they are redeemed and restored, they turn around and see the rest of the flock with totally different eyes. Empowered by Christ’s work in their life they become the ones who give their own lives in service and sacrifice to others. Jesus received this charge from His Father. We receive a similar charge from Him.
1. We are sheep, we need a shepherd and without one we are fodder for the wolves. We see the refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, the people desperate for work as their unemployment benefits run out, the guy down the street losing his house, the family whose marriage and home is dissolving and behind it all we see the hungry eyes and slavering jaws of our foe.
2. We are not terribly good at hearing the mandate of our Lord to shepherd his flock either. His care for the little, least, and lost people of the world is hard to find amid our fundraisers for programs and buildings to which those little, least, and lost are rarely welcomed.
3. Because we have not engaged in the loving ministry of Christ to this world we often find ourselves marginalized. The world has long since stopped turning to us for help and comfort for its afflictions. When there are hungry people our society does not come running to us and they do not clamor to God, but to the government; when the diseases rampage, we turn to the CDC; and when the wars rage we look to our own defense. We have replaced God in our culture with man’s solutions, solutions which always eventually fail. Will the proper call to repent be silent this time, because it does not stand in awe of our willingness to sacrifice our lives for the hurting of the world?
4. All this leads to the most frightening part of it all. Do we fail in these things because God has withdrawn his Spirit from among us? Does Jesus no longer deign to dwell among us? Do our congregations fail, our ministries dwindle, and our offerings decrease because we have simply stopped being the church? Do we no longer recognize the voice of our Good Shepherd?
1. We have a shepherd. Jesus has come and contended with our predatory foes on the cross and in his resurrection proclaimed his victory. Today he has risen from the dead so that he may continue to care for us and watch over us. We have the very sort of shepherd we desperately need who spares nothing in our defense, not even his own life. There is no disease, no economic crisis, no, not even death itself which can snatch us from his loving hand.
2. Jesus does not base his love for us on our past, but on his past. Today he offers us the opportunity to look like, act like, think like, and love like his sheep. You are given the opportunity to love with his love the unlovable people in your life. It is not easy, but he loves through you. He shepherds his flock this way too.
3. This gracious work among his flawed people means that he empowers us to do great things, things which the world will stand up and notice, things which will present us with opportunities to bear a potent witness to the love of Christ to this broken world. It may not be my life, my sacrifice which is directly noticed, but someone will be the point on this, and the message of God’s love will ring out through his people.
4. The presence of Christ is not to be judged by the sins of his people. He has always been gathering a scurvy lot around himself and today is no exception. The presence of Christ is found in his grace to those people and then in the gracious acts of his people, the forgiveness spoken, the hungry fed, as we are forgiven and fed today, we also can be his gospel people for the world around us. He is here, right now, to do something about our lack and our selfishness. He is here to change all that with his love.
Sermon Ideas 13
1. Living for Other People (Epistle – That the Holy Spirit of God would lead the hearer to love the neighbor in deed and in truth.)
John was preaching to a specific problem: the people in this community were trying to make Jesus fit into the worldly understanding and picture of what a God might do. They simply could not buy into the idea that God had really taken on the flesh of humanity, owned it as his own. It was surely a spiritual thing, pure and holy, not a truly fleshly thing, something which involved all the unpleasantness of the flesh, the sorts of things which we don’t talk about in polite company.
But John, as we noticed the first week of this series, had touched, seen, heard, and experienced this Word and Life in the flesh. He had been in that upper room when Thomas read the scars of Jesus like a blind man reading braille. He had dined with Jesus on the shore of Galilee at breakfast on fish and bread. Jesus did not put on the cloak of humanity only to take it off again. The resurrected Christ was still in the flesh. He had touched it. Jesus was and is human.
John today points us to one of the serious implications of Jesus in the flesh. He has taken suffering to himself. We saw that in Good Friday and we have seen it in other Gospel stories as well. Jesus grows weary, he hungers, he thirsts, he is anxious, and of course he dies. The ancient church father, Gregory of Nazianus, once said that whatever was not taken up by Jesus has not been healed/saved, but that which has been united to God has been healed/saved. Jesus took up our infirmities (Is. 53).
This means for John that we see the infirmities of our neighbors, the weakness and the sickness, the dying and the suffering, as something connected to Christ. It is not just something that we will leave behind when we go to heaven. Jesus is fully human in heaven today. He has taken up humanity. That suffering of our neighbor is connected to Jesus right now. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that even a cup of cold water given to a little one in his name is given to Jesus.
Herein lies the great motive for the many things that Christians have done throughout the centuries and continue to do today. The preacher will want to talk about some of those things that are happening in this parish and community. Don’t make the mistake of saying this has to be something dramatic and grand. The hand on the shoulder of a hurting person is not a small thing, as Jesus noted the simple cup of cold water. Look to the little acts of kindness that undoubtedly abound in the middle of your congregation even today.
John tells us that those who believe in Jesus name and love, however halting and imperfect that love may be, have someone dwelling in their hearts who is greater than all the self-recrimination we may be feeling for the many times we have failed. That one of course is the Jesus whose name we confess and whose love lives within us. He sets our conscience at ease and he is the one who empowers our love for this moment. 14
It is easy for us to point to all the times we have failed to love. No life can say it has always loved. Yet John speaks of confidence and the reassurance of the heart. It is the God who has taken up residence in the lives of his people who is greater than even our own condemnation. He knows us, knows us better than we ourselves know us. But he has not stepped away from us in disgust. He has united himself to us in the physicality of the sacrament, pouring his blood and his body into our mouths so that we have become the vessels of a heavenly treasure, a treasure that spills out into our neighbors’ lives.
Jesus is in the flesh, you see, the real flesh of humanity. He has united himself with every leper, cancer patient, starving child, and lonely widow. All of them. He has taken up suffering, deep human suffering to himself for he would heal it all. This compassionate Christ has come to us, yes to heal and help us, but also, through us to heal and help those around us. For he has taken that suffering as well.
- 2. I am the Good Shepherd (Psalm and Gospel: That the Spirit of God would move the hearer to believe and trust that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead so he can shepherd him/her. a. It would not be hard to feel like a lost, even an abandoned, sheep today. Sheep are rather helpless before their problems, many of which the create themselves. The markets are in turmoil, trade wars are being talked about, the Middle East seems about to erupt, and much more. The world looks more and more dangerous.
- b. Where is Jesus? Is he up in heaven listening to Angelic choirs sing while I perish here below in a meaningless few decades that mean nothing to the eternity which I am promised, but which hurt so much right now?
- c. Jesus is up there, but he is God, remember, he is right here too. He quite honestly makes time. He can live every moment six billion times, just so he can spend this moment with you. He knows hunger, weariness, poverty, and want. He knows sickness and disease, he walked the roads of Palestine and he cares that you suffer. His own death on a cross is his solution, and today he lives and reigns to take care of you.
This sermon is for the congregation which is in need of comfort this day. The next sermon is the challenge, this is the comfort.
We have too often subscribed to the real absence of Christ in our lives and this world. It is born of a subtle and widespread idea that this is the physical world and God is a spiritual being and he is not really all that concerned about the material problems we face. This is simply wrong. Jesus was born in a manger and shed real live red blood on a rude cross in Jerusalem because he hates pain, he loathes death, and he agonizes over our sorrow and problems. Hunger sickens him. While our juvenile minds would like him to 15
create an enormous stash of bread somewhere which would allow all the hungry people to be fed, we have to count on his wisdom here. This really is the best way to do this, and oddly he has included us in the solution. (I wish he had waved his omnipotent little finger and taken care of this for me.)
Jesus has risen from the dead to deal with the real issues of this world. Yes, he leads and guides his precious people to heaven. It is what good shepherds do, they bring their flock home. But through that flock, that is you and me, he is also present in this world addressing its real problems of hunger and loneliness and fear. All along the way he is right beside us, beating back enemies we don’t even know are lurking out there, because he walks beside us. He keeps us moving, he takes us though hard mountain passes and deep dark valleys sometimes. It is a long way and there are lots of strays to round up. But we have his promise. He goes with us wherever we may be, the very ends of the earth.
- 3. Built on the Ministry of Christ (Acts and Epistle: That the Spirit of God would move the hearer to heed the invitation and appropriately engage in Christ’s shepherding work, eagerly anticipating and joyfully expecting Christ to give their lives genuine significance and substance.) a. We proclaim Christ the Good Shepherd today, for the thousandth time, and the World yawns at us. They are not exactly breaking down the doors to get in here and get a piece of this, are they?
- b. There is a simple truth to all this. The Churches of North America too often are little more than spiritual health clubs for the saved to find folks just like themselves. But Christ has called us to be instruments of his shepherding work.
- c. Today the Shepherd of the entire world’s sheep comes to us and invites us to be part of his shepherding task. He has billions he wants to love and we are the hands and feet, the eyes and the faces he will use to love a few of them in this town, and perhaps around the world.
- d. He would make your life truly significant, a life which is the hottest ticket in town, because your life has become a conduit of his grace and love.
This sermon is really for the congregation which is complacent or which itself might be sensing the wolf of decline and demographic reality is at the door. We are shrinking and getting older. One does not have to be brilliant to see that if this continues, before not too many years we will no longer be a congregation. But one doesn’t even have to be there yet. Sometimes we are just disengaged, apathetic.
The Church is found within these four walls, but it is here so that it can go out those doors with us to a world which hurts and dies. We are frustrated that the world is ignoring us. We have such a good message, but the world is not able to make the connection between the good news we have to offer and the hurt they are feeling right now. We are 16
like the man who teaches courses on pruning rhododendrons to the starving. Someday their children might care about how to prune a rhododendron, right now they need to eat. If our message of salvation is to be heard, we have to see the beggars like Peter did, we have to listen to John’s exhortation to see our material wealth as an opportunity for Christ’s love to show up in our lives and theirs. We cannot be the hireling who thinks first of his own safety and life and thus abandons the sheep. We are called to be the beloved of the Lord, imitating him in his sacrifice, laying down our lives for the fellow man who is ravaged by the wolves.
This is a terribly tall order for us. This is why the Church always starts inside these four walls, in places where God’s Spirit is bestowed, where sins are forgiven, where faith is nurtured and fed. As John says in our Epistle lesson, God is in our hearts and he is bigger than the condemnation therein and bigger than our weakness. But as comfortable and nice as this time together is, this is not for us alone; it is for this world around us as well. They will care what we say when they know we care. Christ the Good Shepherd turns today to you his flock and bids you come to the front, lead this broken world, serve with his love, see your time and treasure not as your own, but as moments and things for which he died and rose and now occasions for his love to be heard, felt, and seen.
This is not a bad way to live. In fact, it is a pretty good way to live. You will see it too, as He flows through you, and to you he will bring the lost and the hungry, the hurting and the sinners, so that through he may heal and feed, find and forgive. This is exciting.
Many will struggle with this because they have identified the kingdom of God with their own congregation – they see it only institutionally. God’s kingdom may not be exactly the same as the growth of my parish. God’s kingdom comes in strange ways. One has to be open to that. It might not be the growth of this parish. It might simply be a harvest we must wait for the last day to see. This takes faith – he will take care of the institution. You have to trust him on that one. You have to take interest in the people whom he loves. Let him worry about the church.