Lessons – St. John 10:11-16
There is an old joke of a college professor trying to prove to his class that there is no God. He says, “I am going to give God five minutes to prove Himself by knocking my off of this podium.” Nothing happens until, with about 30 seconds left, a young Marine student steps up and knocks the professor off of the podium. When the professor asks, “What did you do that for?” The Marine replies, “God was busy so He sent me!”
I tell that story because some people mistakenly think of Jesus in this way. Not as a Marine knocking people out but as a kind of substitute or stand in for God. As such it is not necessary to believe in the miracles He performed or even in His divinity for that matter. His main purpose was to show us the ways of God. He is to be seen as a great moral teacher.
This was a prominent view of the liberal Protestantism of the late 19th century and it did not disappear in the 20th or 21st centuries. Some of you will remember an Episcopal Bishop who suggested that the Church jettison doctrines that don’t fit the scientific method in order to make it more palatable to modern man. “Why have people stumble over unimportant things like the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ when what we really need to learn is how to love one another? Of course we are to love one another except for those crazy fundamentalist types who believe in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ. We would prefer those folks to go somewhere else.” And so we did.
Such thinking betrays a deep misunderstanding of the Gospel lesson today and we can use this very lesson to respond to this misunderstanding. It seems like such a lovely, pastoral text, and it is, but we must not miss the context.
In the previous chapter Jesus is battling with the Pharisees. It is really a power struggle on their part. Jesus just healed a man born blind since birth and of all things He did it on the Sabbath. Who does Jesus think He is? The Pharisees try to get the man to renounce Jesus but he refuses to do so and so they excommunicate him. Jesus hears of the excommunication and finds the man. Jesus answers the unspoken question of “who does He think He is?” by stating that He is the Good Shepherd. This sounds like a comforting statement rather than a declaration, and in one sense it is. But it is also a radical confrontational claim and here is why I say that.
Jesus’ listeners would have known and loved Psalm 23 as much as we do today. But it is important to note that Hebrew Bible uses the Divine Name at the beginning of the Psalm. So while you and I say “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” the text literally says, “YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For Jesus to call Himself the Good Shepherd is actually a claim to be the God and Shepherd of whom David wrote. It is one of seven “I AM” statements through which Jesus claims to be Divine. And just in case they miss this point by the end of the chapter Jesus will declare that He and the Father are one and the leaders will take up stones to kill Him for what they believe to be blasphemy.
Jesus IS the Good Shepherd. While it is certainly true that Jesus was a good moral teacher who calls us to love one another, He is much more than that. Notice what evidence Jesus offers to prove that He is the voice that they need to follow. How can they know that He is the Good Shepherd? Jesus says,“The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He has come to make atonement for the sins of the world. He comes to grant us forgiveness because that is what we need and that is what cannot do for ourselves. The only One who can forgive us is God.
Here is the issue as I see it. I need more than a moral example because not knowing what to do is not my problem. I’m right there with Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.” As we say in the confession, I not only do the things I am not supposed to do, I don’t do the things that I know that I am supposed to do. The problem is not with my knower its with my doer. Its not a head problem it’s a heart problem and only God knows what is truly in my heart and only God can change it. I need a Good Shepherd. We need a Good Shepherd.
But lets take this a few steps further because He provides more than forgiveness. We also need a Good Shepherd for direction in our lives. I have read that sheep have a terrible sense of direction. Every know and then you will read of story of a family dog who was able to go hundreds of miles to find his family but you will never read such a thing about sheep. They are not able to find their way home once they are lost and evidently male sheep are particularly bad at it because they will not stop and ask for directions.
We as sheep being easily lost and it has very little to do with intelligence. At one point, while doing ministry at Florida State University, I counted something like 12 cults that were active on campus. These were not slick star studded cults like Scientology, these were outrageous groups and some were even frightening. One cult was centered around a little kid from India who claimed to be god in the flesh. But he got a little older and started hitting on his secretary and became materialistic and bought a fleets of cars. His mother got angry with him and took away his divinity and gave it to his brother. (And you thought your mom was powerful!) The strangest was a “church” from New Orleans that worshipped both Jesus and Satan. They would have a “black mass” on Saturday and a “white mass” on Sunday. Now you would think that university trained people would not be susceptible to cults like these, but some of them had quite a following. Why? Because sheep have a bad sense of direction and are easily lost.
And lest you think that is just true for worldly students who are trying to figure out who they are, consider the thousands of Christians who fall for the trickery of the health and wealth preachers, or all of the wonderful folks who have fallen for the bizarre teachings of Mormonism. Did you kjnow hat one of their leaders taught that the One we worship as God is really Adam in a glorified state. He live now with many wives and with those wives has spirit children who come to earth to inhabit the bodies of Mormon Children. And yet in spite of such comic book theology, according to the US News and World Report, they are the fastest growing faith group in American History. It is projected that they will be 3 times the size of the Anglican Communion by 2080[i]. The plain truth is that sheep get lost easily.
The way not to get lost is really quite easy. The way not to get lost is to stay as close to the Shepherd as you possibly can. Then, even if you are in the strangest of strange territories, if you are with the Shepherd, by definition you are not lost.
Second, sheep need protection. They need protection from predators. Sheep don’t really have any good defensive equipment. They have no tusks or claws or canine teeth, and when they are frightened, instead of running away they herd together, which for large predators makes them an all you can eat buffet.
Being one of those crazy fundamentalist types who believes in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I choose to be consistently crazy and also believe in the powers of darkness. I think that when the Bible tells us Jesus was tempted of the devil that He truly was. While we should not go around like Flip Wilson saying “the devil made me do it,” we are wise to understand that we wrestle with principalities and powers in heavenly places. And the ONLY reason that does scare me spitless is because I have a Good Shepherd. He defeated the devil on the Mount of Temptation, He defeated him again on Mount Calvary and defeated him again when Jesus walked out of that tomb. Nothing can separate us from His love, not even principalities or powers.
Sheep also need protection from themselves. When they are heavy with fleece, and stumble and roll on their backs, they frequently are not able to get up. The English call it a “cast sheep.” One shepherd described his experience with it. “Again and again I would spend hours searching for a single sheep that was missing … As soon as I reached the cast ewe, my very first impulse was to pick it up … I would hold her erect, rubbing her limbs to restore the circulation to her legs. When the sheep started to walk again, she often stumbled, staggered and collapsed. Little by little the sheep would regain its equilibrium. It would start to walk steadily and surely. By and by it would dash away to rejoin the others, set free from its fears and frustrations, given another chance to live a little longer. All of this pageantry is conveyed to my heart and mind when I repeat the simple statement, ‘He restoreth my soul!’” (Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm).
All of us have experiences in life where we get ourselves into situations where we cannot right ourselves and we need the help of the Lord. At times the Good Shepherd helps us directly and at other times He uses priests and therapists and fellow parishioners to act as under shepherds to get us back up on our feet. Who can’t relate to the stumbling and staggering and taking time to regain our equilibrium? There is no shame in that. God has made us as we are and we are sheep who need His protection and help. We should welcome it in whatever form it comes.
Third, sheep need nourishment. As you can imagine Israel is not like Tennessee with all of its green pastures. There is a significant amount of barren wilderness in that land and so it would be very easy for a sheep to starve to death if the shepherd did not know where the pastures were. Also sheep cannot distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous plants and so the shepherd needs to guard what they eat. When you put those two factors together you see how much the sheep really do depend on the shepherd to provide their nourishment.
As Anglicans, when we think of spiritual nourishment we immediately think of Word and Sacrament. We see how dependent upon the Good Shepherd we are to provide what we need for He is the heavenly Manna that feeds us through the Scriptures and the breaking of Bread. Left to our own devices we either would starve spiritually, or we would eat the poisonous foods of the world and end up spiritually harming ourselves. We need the Shepherd to show us where and what to eat but it is our responsibility to follow where He leads.
I find it interesting that the Church in the Book of Acts met daily for Word and Sacrament. We read that daily they continued in the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. When they prayed “give us this day our daily bread”, they likely had in mind more than physical bread. They saw Word and Sacrament as spiritually essential as daily food.
So if the first Church looked to the Shepherd every day to provide spiritual food for them, it is curious to me that many today think that they need it only on occasion, only if it is convenient and only if the meal lasts an hour or less? I don’t exactly know when Christians started seeing what we are doing here today as optional but it does not match the model set for us by the early Church.
Jesus takes this analogy of sheep and Shepherd a step further. He says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This takes the relationship that we are invited to have with Christ beyond that of simply sheep and Shepherd. It is possible for a shepherd to see sheep as nothing more than a source of food and income but this statement is a picture of an intimate relationship. It is mindboggling to hear that He compares the relationship that what we are to have with Him with the kind of relationship that He has with His heavenly Father.
This movement to an intimate relationship is the same shift we can see in Psalm 23 when we get to the part of having a banquet set for us and being anointed with oil and our cup running over. In that culture guests were anointed with oil to cleanse them of the dust and dirt of their journey and it was such an honor to be invited to the banquet that their hearts overflowed.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd not only cares and provides for us but also He invites us into an intimate relationship with Him. He ministers to us and even honors us as He invites us through this Eucharist to feast at His banquet and be united with Him. This should cause our hearts to overflow. Then, as is so beautifully put in modern translations, we can say with David, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.” AMEN.