Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Throughout the Easter season we are re-discovering what Jesus’ resurrection really means for us, for our life as his disciples.
And today we hear Jesus talk about shepherds, sheep and hired hands.
This is not a post-resurrection appearance, we go back in the story to way before the crucifixion. So we may have to dig a little to find where and how this story reveals the meaning of resurrection to us.
Where we are in the gospel of John is in chapter 10, which comes after chapter 9- well of course. But what happened in John chapter 9- Jesus has healed a man who was born blind. And that created a lot of controversy. People could not accept that Jesus had totally reversed the course of this man’s life. They understood that if God made him born blind, it was punishment for someone’s sin, even if they didn’t know whose, and to undo that would be to in a sense, put oneself above God.
If you were listening last week you might pick up an echo of transformation and freedom from the consequence of sin in these events. It’s a different gospel and a different part of the story but these themes run strongly through the gospels.
So, back to John 9, in a sense Jesus is accused by some religious leaders as acting out a blasphemy, putting himself in the place of God, they imply he is not acting out of God’s will but the opposite. So after we know that Jesus rose from the dead, that death could not keep him down, we know that all he said and did was indeed from God. And so we have the privilege of reading this passage from the viewpoint of knowing that Jesus is God’s very own son, that he had been divine all along. And Jesus goes on for quite a bit in chapter 10 defining what it means to be a good leader or shepherd, and what it means to not be a good leader or shepherd. Because the metaphor for being a shepherd had been around for a long, long time and it usually referred to kings and those in power. And the kings and those in power gave shape to the society as a whole.
We could hearken back to Ezekiel 34 which tells about the shepherds who are really anything but; God speaks against the leaders who have failed to care for the people but cared only for themselves. It is clear that God is against those kinds of leaders, the kind who abuse their power and take advantage of people, God is going to hold them accountable. Then the Lord promises to be the shepherd for the people instead, to rescue the scattered, to heal the injured, to strengthen the weak, but to destroy the sleek and strong.
Jesus then echoes these sentiments. There are those, he refers to them as hired hands, who don’t care about the people, who don’t look out for those who need most looking out for, but only care about getting paid. Jesus here is speaking about the very leaders who have condemned him with their words, for healing someone. For causing a positive transformation. They would have like things to stay how they were, when they could be certain of judging sin and understanding God’s ways.
Jesus the good shepherd is the opposite. Instead of wanting to hold onto something- money, certainty, even his own life, he will put his life at risk to care for the sheep. The one who lays his life down, does not put himself first, he is the one the sheep can trust, and they know him. There is a trusting relationship that sheep have with the human who has proven to be a good caregiver over a long period of time. Sheep and shepherds were all around so people listening to Jesus would have understood this easily.
And speaking of sheep, I learned something from another preacher who shared this recently, we can learn yes from our good shepherd but even some sheep behavioral tendencies. Sheep naturally flock together, staying within view of other sheep helps them feel safe since they don’t have many other natural defenses against predators. But this is what I didn’t know: sheep will tend to slowly spread out as they graze, but every now and again, a sheep on the outskirts of the group, where they would be most prone to be in danger, be it just by wandering too far or because of being more easily snatched by a predator- even if there is no real danger, a sheep on the outskirts will suddenly run toward the center of the flock. And that starts all of the sheep on the edges running toward the center, where the others who were there to begin with, make room for them and tighten up the overall group, and start over, now with different sheep probably on the edges.
Kayla Sadowy, who I am borrowing this idea from, puts it this way: “Continually existing on the outer edges of a community nurtures an ongoing sense of threat and susceptibility to real danger. When that happens, or better yet, before it ever reaches the point of chronic stress or a near-encounter with a wolf, sheep on the periphery need to be centered. This means the sheep who are acclimated to the center of the flock need to remove themselves before an endangered sheep comes pleading for its life. Those sheep so familiar with being centered can serve the flock well by volunteering to place their bodies in harm’s way, long before a threat is real. Caution must also be given so that these typically centered sheep do not mistake themselves for the Good Shepherd himself.”
So she switched it there at the end- we know this though right, we aren’t really talking about sheep. We are talking about people. God the good shepherd as described in Ezekiel, the Lord our Shepherd in the psalm, Jesus the good shepherd in John, would know this- no sheep is destined to be on the outskirts of the flock forever- it’s too much anxiety for too long. Just like the man born blind from birth, in the care of the good shepherd, is brought right back into the center of the community. Just like Jesus wants us, as his flock, to care for those who have more chronic stress or anxiety due to illness, poverty, or discrimination of any kind. And when we see our neighbor experience transformation, freedom from sin, abundant life, we rejoice, not blame and persecute.
And all of these caring actions are wrapped up in loving relationships. Jesus the good shepherd knows the sheep and we know him, just like he knows the Father. Since we believe in the Trinity, that Jesus and the Father really were one in essence, that is a close, intimate relationship. As the letter of first John also calls us, ”this is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care- how can the love of God remain in him? Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.”
If sheep, real sheep can provide a sense of belonging, mutual care, prioritizing the one who’s on edge to keep a balance in the flock, how much more should we, followers of this good shepherd, be able to do the same?
So what does this mean, beloved: as followers of the risen Christ, who we know gave his very life to show God’s love for us, as followers of Jesus who had done these life-giving, life-transforming, healing actions: we soak in first, this great love, this true care that God has for us- because too often that hasn’t been our lived experience. There are those, leaders – either spiritual or political, or just people in our lives: who abuse, who take advantage, who are out for themselves only and if there is danger they run away. Those people teach us the wrong lessons and it can take some unlearning. So we soak in this love, this true way of God revealed millennia ago, repeated in Jesus, and yes also sometimes modeled well by people in our lives.
And then, soaked up with this great love that truly cares for us, we take care not to become over-fed, over-centered sheep who leave others too long in the more dangerous position. We continually look for who we can share with, who we can provide support and security to, who needs to have that resting time in the secure center. We might think of some of our neighbors in need; we might think of immigrant communities in our midst; we might think of Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders experiencing so many hate crimes lately; we might think of some of our elderly who have been very isolated in this long pandemic time. We probably all know many people who could use some sign of care and security. Who comes to your mind today? we can live out, in actions, this great love we know, follow this commandment to love one another that 1 John reminds us of. And when we are continually looking for how we can care for those in the more precarious or stressful situation, it also opens us to be welcoming of whatever “other sheep” Jesus was talking about as well. I think I’ll talk more about that next week.
Our great shepherd laid down his life for us, has revealed that he is the one who truly cares for us and loves us in this way. By that love we are empowered to do the same, knowing that the resurrection shows Jesus was God’s chosen all along, and that there is nothing to fear, nothing to get in the way of doing just what Jesus did for us, following his example and trusting in the ways he leads us to love in action. Thanks be to God for this great love, this amazing loving community we get to be a part of, Amen.