+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: John 10:1-10
Theme: Shepherds and Sheep
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Christ is a humble shepherd. Jesus was never condescending. He never spoke down to people. Jesus came down to people, to be sure! He rent the heavens and condescended into our world of sin from the realms of holiness. We call this His humiliation. He was conceived and born in human likeness, thus lowering Himself to become part of our created sphere. He had existed purely in eternity. His humiliation reached its apex when He suffered and bore the cross to the point of death. It was all selfless sacrifice because it did not benefit Him. Yet, when He extends this profound love to us He is never patronizing. This fact is quite remarkable.
Why is this relevant to our Scripture today? The claim is often made that the discourses of Jesus are composed mostly of simple stories for simple people. The inference is drawn that Jesus often “dumbed it down” to make it accessible to His disciples. Extrapolation then gives rise to the idea that God only wants us to have a simplistic faith. But the entire New Testament tells a different story. The disciples are constantly vexed, dumbfounded, and confused. Today, for example, Jesus compares His work with that of a shepherd, a common occupation in Palestine. Still, we find this detail in verse 6 of John 10, “Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what He was telling them.”
They could not understand because they were not tuned into spiritual truths. Christ spoke clearly, though it was mysterious to those blinded by sin. Christ could be very sharp with His words. He could cut to the heart. He rebuked. He exhorted. He spoke the truth candidly and frankly, as well as compassionately. But He did not condescend and He never fostered naivety. He said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”1 Certainly the Holy Scriptures are clear and there is no contradiction in them. And the message of the gospel is simple. But it still requires the Holy Spirit to understand it. And then the Holy Spirit continually teaches the believer so that faith becomes more vibrant and well-grounded. There is no graduation. There is no cessation of learning. The Holy Spirit teaches the mind and the heart, the will and the soul. It is the will of God that our faith be immovable.
God wills that we hear His voice and follow Him as our Shepherd. It’s worth reflecting on the nature and consequences of God’s will. If God does not permit something, then no plans we make will ever come to fruition. Think of Christ. Jesus was the target of homicide. Not all attempts were clandestine. More than once public stoning was initiated. All efforts were in vain. It wasn't His time. Human treachery is no match for divine purpose. We cannot bring to pass what God does not permit.
It does not mean we are puppets. You can pursue a career, change jobs, get married, have children, take a holiday, and embark upon a countless number of other things, all within the parameters God permits. And God tends to be quite magnanimous in this regard. God gives you the freedom to make such decisions. You can even express generosity and philanthropy. Yet He warns that at any moment plans can be thwarted and judgment rendered. James critiques an overly presumptuous mindset saying, “Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”2 Still, daily decisions are a privilege from the Lord and He often gives us more than one godly option. Therefore, we need nor wring our hands in anxiety about making bad decisions regarding nonessentials. Christianity is not a religion of fatalism. This is how it is in external matters.
However, dear friends, you cannot have one single, holy, selfless, godly thought, let alone do righteous things, apart from the Holy Spirit. And neither can I. We can initiate nothing truly spiritual and godly under our own power. We can't even produce an inkling or a premonition. We are born spiritually blind and dead. But the risen Saviour raises us from spiritual death and gives us abundant baptismal life. He changes your will. He brings it in tune with His will. This miracle isn’t a one-off event, but the continuing dynamic of His presence. He shepherds us. “The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. When He has brought all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.”3 Trust in the true Shepherd is based on the proven reliability the sheep continually benefit from. The Good Shepherd looks after the sheep. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”4
The task of shepherding God’s people is charged to those called to the Office of the Holy Ministry. The Greek work for shepherd is the same as the word for pastor. St Paul gives this charge to pastors of the early church, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds (pastors) of the church of God which He bought with His own blood.”5 Pastors are under shepherds of Christ, the Chief Shepherd. Christ always remains the head of the church. He is the Groom. The church is the bride. Pastors are “friends of the Bridegroom”, tending to the Bride with His word and truth, dispensing the love and forgiveness which He procured. The pastoral ministry is a vocation of service.
A flock of sheep can appear very uniform to the outside observer. One sheep looks like another and their gregarious habits make them appear even more similar in their behavior. The specialist in sheep husbandry knows differently, however. Quirks and idiosyncrasies soon become evident. The analogy fits well for individuals in the body of Christ. We share a common humanity, a common burden of original sin, a common propensity to sin some more, and a common need for the gospel. But each of us is also idiosyncratic. Some of the temptations I am prone to may be very different from the ones that trouble you. The specific way I hear the gospel and receive comfort from it is also different than the way you hear it.
It is a blessing, indeed, that God has gifted us with this individuality. The Spirit uses these nuances to equip us to serve His church and His world.
Like sheep, it is good for us to be liturgically gregarious. We gather together around word and sacrament and together participate in divine things. The Christian assembly is the place of green pastures and still waters6. It is also important that we be vocationally gregarious. That is, as we live out our faith in our vocations we do so within community. No one can serve, worship, or love God in complete isolation. St. Paul says, simply, “Love one another with brotherly affection…rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…Never be conceited.”7
We tend to associate being shepherded with that comfortable feeling of being watched over and provided for. But it involves so much more than sentimental consolation. Our Shepherd has borne the cross. He has defeated death. He has slain the dragon. He has poured out His blood which we receive in this sacramental meal. He lives never to die again. Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
Fourth Sunday of Easter
7 May, 2017
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Matthew 10:16
2 James 4:13-16
3 John 10:3-4
4 John 10:11
5 Acts 20:28
6 See Psalm 23:2
7 Romans 12:10, 15-16