Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; First John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
“Know that the Lord He is God; it is He that has made us and not we ourselves; we are His flock and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).
Ever since we moved into this building last June, I’ve been looking forward to our first Good Shepherd Sunday here. You can guess the reason: it’s that incredibly beautiful window that depicts our loving, living Savior as the Good Shepherd, as our Good Shepherd, as the one Who knows His sheep and can call them by name.
Those of us who were blessed with the privilege of growing up in Christian homes learned the 23rd Psalm by heart from childhood, and many of us had some picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on our walls. Even though there were absolutely no sheep or shepherds in Buffalo, New York when I was growing up, I had a very clear picture of what shepherding looks like. Further, I even imagined that I knew what it felt like, especially as a child.
When we get older, the image begins to shift, due in no small measure to the fact that we’ve heard the 23rd Psalm at nearly every funeral we’ve ever attended until it begins to speak more resonantly about walking the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil, because God our Shepherd is with us. In the process many of us may lose that warm-fuzzy childhood sense of Who the Good Shepherd really is and what His care for us truly means on a day-to-day basis. It’s not reserved for the last days of our lives.
The story of Jesus’ birth starts out with a scene full of sheep and shepherds. You can imagine what a powerful experience it was to stand on the edge of the hill in Bethlehem at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, peering down many feet below and seeing a large flock of sheep being led around by their shepherd, right where “there were shepherds abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). And virtually everywhere our motorcoach went through Israel we would see similar scenes. Many of the shepherds caring for these flocks were just young boys, children who should have been in school at the time. But they knew how to care for their flocks.
No one needs to go to the Holy Land to know what it means to have a Shepherd Who is also the Guardian of our souls. The Apostle Peter, who knew more about fishing than shepherding, penned this comfort-filled verse: “You were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (I Peter 2:25).
Do you know what the original Greek word was that Peter used for “Guardian?” It’s the word “episcopos,” which is the NT word for “bishop.” Jesus is our Bishop as well as our Shepherd. Yes, we have a wonderful and godly Bishop in our diocese who leads us with a heart that seeks God’s perfect will for us. We’re in his care as priests and we in turn are his representatives in our parishes. But Jesus Himself is our true Bishop, our Archbishop, Who cares not only for our general well-being: He is the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls! If there’s a more beautiful and comforting thought than that in all of Scripture, I may have missed it.
Every Bishop and every priest is said to be responsible for the care of souls. But only Jesus our Great High Priest knows every soul well enough to give the sort of care for which every soul yearns. And that care is what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel reading. He says, 11 “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. 14 I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
Here Jesus was speaking of His special relationship to the Jewish people of His day. But this is among the very first times that Jesus clearly states the extension of His care, His shepherding, beyond the house of Israel. He adds, 16“I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.”
This is yet another of the most beautiful expressions in the entire Bible. Yes, it contains two iterations of one of my favorite Biblical words: one. It was the heart’s desire of Jesus that all believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, would be one. In Ephesians, Paul states that there is but “one God and Father of us all, Who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). Here in John 10 Jesus adds that He is the Source of our unity, the unity we have with “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Then, in His High Priestly intercessory prayer in John 17, Jesus asks the Father “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (John 17:21).
There are two other things Jesus adds in these verses that form the foundation of all that He is saying. I want us to look at these in reverse order. The second thing Jesus says is this:
“I lay down My life for the sheep. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
These words remind me immediately of Paul’s statement in Romans 5 (6-8):
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
I’m also reminded of the words of a great gospel hymn: “The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.” There are many things in our lives of faith that cannot be put into words. And that’s precisely the point that Jesus is making: where words leave off, actions begin. It’s not enough for us to read and hear that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. What should stir us to the depths of our souls is the fact that Jesus loved us so much as to lay down His life willingly, of His own volition, for us and for our salvation. When we embrace that incomparable demonstration of divine love by faith, we are made His own forever. What Jesus has done for us should call us to a committed response, a deeper, more intense life of faith, obedience and discipleship. It’s not our response to what some preacher or a Sunday School teacher or a parent, friend or spouse has told us. It’s our response to the greatest demonstration of love in all eternity.
That brings us to the other incomparable thing that Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I know My own and My own know Me” (v. 14). Those words should come to us as the source of our assurance that we are His. As we say in another gospel hymn (with which we’ll close this morning’s service), “In a love that cannot cease, I am His and He is mine.”
Do you have that rock-solid assurance? This is not just Jesus-rhetoric: this is His Word, the truth of Him Who is the Word. He knows His own and we know Him. He holds out to each of us the offer of that assurance, our salvation. If you lack it, now is the time to search deeply within - while the opportunity is still present to you. There is no greater consolation than this in a world filled with uncertainty, change, darkness and hostility. Over and above all that, Jesus the Good Shepherd wants us to be assured that He knows us and that we know Him. This is personal, intimate and eternal. This is the key for us to experience what God promises in the 23rd Psalm: “I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus says that He knows us by name (vs. 3). Here Jesus is taking on Himself God’s promise in Isaiah 43: “For I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are Mine.” Then, in words that remind us yet again of the 23rd Psalm, God adds, “When you walk through the waters, I’ll be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you.” That promise of God through Isaiah is fulfilled for us in His Son, our Good Shepherd, our Redeemer, who loved us so much that He gave His own life for us.
What’s required of us in return? Two things, two steps, a first step and a follow-up step. The first step is a eucharistic one: it amounts to saying “thank you,” and saying by a simple act of faith, “I will accept and receive what Jesus has done for me as my Good Shepherd and my Redeemer.” You need to allow that acceptance to inform you and change you every time you come to this table to receive His Body and Blood.
The second step is to recognize that a further response is demanded to a love as great as His, an incomparable love, a love that embraces each one of us individually, that knows us and calls us by name. Christian faith is not a half-way thing. There was nothing half-way about Jesus laying down His life for His sheep. In today’s epistle, John writes, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” As Peter wrote, the love of Jesus continues to make itself known to those who know Him through His ongoing work as the Shepherd and Guardian, the care-giver, of our souls. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen