The Rev'd Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Episcopal Church
RCL Year B (Easter 4) - May 15, 2011
1 John 3:16-24
Today we get to leave those post resurrection appearances of Jesus for a minute… You know, those wonderful accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection, showing himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread, and revealing himself as he opens the scripture to them and eats with them.
Today we get to focus on something a little different… In today’s gospel reading, here in the middle of our celebration of the resurrection we get to learn a bit more about who Jesus is. But, like so many other bible references, theses images today seem a little strange to us and they are not very easy to understand. We don’t quite understand why Jesus refers to himself as “The Good Shepherd.”
Jesus says that He is “The Good Shepherd,” the model shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any “sheep ranches” here in Towson. Driving around Towson, I see lots of buildings and shopping malls… and even yesterday I saw the exit for the zoo off the beltway, but no sheep ranches.
So, we’ve got to stop a minute and understand… the folks that Jesus was talking to understood what a “good” shepherd was, and how important their function is to the raising of sheep. Jesus uses the image of “shepherd” as a metaphor – a metaphor to explain who he is… By saying that he is the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus says that he is THE faithful leader, guardian, protector, healer, and loving guide of his people - US… his sheep.
Over the years, it seems that we have romanticized the image of shepherd a bit… When we think of “shepherd,” we think more of a young man (maybe in the Christmas play) with a some kind of towel on his head… standing out in the field with a crooked pole watching over a group of animals that are grazing in the grass.
But, people who know what shepherds are, know they are much more than that. Shepherds had to be tough and courageous, a bit rough around the edges, out on the fringes of refined society… they are the “other” folks, who were not always accepted… More like the kind of people that are considered the “outcasts of society” – the ones that Jesus makes it a point to be with, to eat with, and to teach.
And Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd, I know my own, and my own know me.” We are Jesus’ own. We are the sheep of his pasture… wait a minute – yes – I said sheep. We are sheep - but don’t misunderstand Jesus’ metaphor… He is not calling us simple mindless animals that eat grass all day and stand around and go baaaa…
There is a distinct difference between sheep and any other pasture animal. Sheep are interesting communal creatures… they will stay huddled together in a flock. Unlike cattle that can be rounded up and herded together from behind and pushed in a direction, sheep need to be led from the front… I understand that if you try to herd sheep and prod and push sheep from behind to try to get them to go anywhere, then they will scurry around and get behind the shepherd. Sheep need to be led… Led by a Good Shepherd.
So, sheep are not “dumb” animals. They know their shepherd, and they will listen to their shepherd’s voice as he calls them by name. You could have 3 or 4 different flocks together in a sheepfold, as is common in sheep country, all grazing on the same pasture, comingled, and when the shepherd calls them, they will follow his voice… and go where he leads them, because they trust the Good Shepherd to lead them to good pasture, and keep them safe from danger.
But there are many voices vying for the sheep’s attention. Voices that try to endanger us, the sheep. There are voices of this world today that want to lead us sheep astray. You have probably heard them – or something like them… voices like self reliance, self sufficiency, greed, and idolatry. Voices that try to make us think that we don’t need each other or a good shepherd… voices of this world that try to break up the harmony of our flock and make us start judging one another.
Being timid animals, sheep are vulnerable and are not able to protect themselves, they need the shepherd’s protection… Protection from the wolves, and other predators that may be after them. But if the sheep are as true to the shepherd, as the Good Shepherd Jesus is to the sheep, then they will listen to the Shepherd and follow where he leads, and He will look after them.
But often, at times, we aren’t good sheep. We are stubborn and we don’t go where the Good Shepherd leads. We like to think that we have it all figured out ourselves, and we like to separate ourselves from the other sheep the sheep that aren’t like us, rather than stay with the one flock, under the control of the Good Shepherd.
There are many who are out there that try to be the shepherd and lead the sheep where they think they need to go. Leading them to places that aren’t good for the sheep… Places of danger… There are even ministers out there who think that they are shepherds, possibly trying to scare the sheep into staying with a flock… Telling them that they are the only ones who know the way to the greener pastures.
As your priest, I will be the first to tell you that I am NOT a shepherd, and I will never claim to be a shepherd – Some of you have probably been taught that a minister is some sort of shepherd… I don’t think that it is the proper representation… it really shouldn’t work like that.
I am more of a sheep among the sheep of God, always trying to point the way and show the other sheep who the One true “Good Shepherd” is. It is important that I always follow the Good Shepherd too, following where the Good Shepherd leads.
I heard someone say once that the priest is more of a sheep dog, helping the Good Shepherd keep the sheep in line, and helping protect the sheep against the evil wolves of this world… but we need to remember also that even the sheep dog follows where the “Good Shepherd” leads.
In this passage, Jesus is that only ONE True Good Shepherd, protecting, guiding, loving and caring for the sheep that are His - us. Never forsaking us, always faithful to us, nourishing us, giving us hope, and saving us from ourselves. Jesus isn’t any ordinary shepherd, he is the “model shepherd” (the “Good Shepherd”) that embodies strength and power, sympathy, kindness, and mercy.
Jesus uses a figure of speech… a metaphor that the people of the ancient world in the middle east would understand – but they don’t get it either. With the shepherd / sheep imagery, he tries to teach them how to live in right relationship with Him and with each other. And here we are, gathered today 2000 years later, learning from this passage that we are his people and the sheep of his pasture…
Let us seek the Good Shepherd’s guidance and only His guidance and protection as we dare to follow where our Good Shepherd (Jesus) leads. Amen!