Good Shepherd Sunday
April 3, 2016
“The Good Shepherd and His Sheep”
St. John 10:11-16
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” St. John 10: 11-16
Jesus talks to us about himself. He talks to us about his church. The Bible talks about the relationship between Jesus and his church in a number of ways. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. Jesus is the head and the church is his body. Jesus is the cornerstone and the church is the temple. Jesus is the king and the church is the kingdom. Every one of these pictures pictures something important about this precious relationship that we call the mystical union: the relationship between Christ and his Christians. The most beloved of all the metaphors is probably the picture Jesus uses in today’s Gospel Lesson: Jesus is the shepherd and the church is his sheep.
Martin Luther could state profound biblical truth in simple language. Here is what he wrote and what we Lutherans confess about the church in the Smalcald Articles:
The plural for sheep is sheep. That’s a handy way for us to remember that when you add up all the sheep you end up with only one flock of sheep. There are not many different flocks with many different shepherds. There is, as Jesus said, one flock and one shepherd, just as there is one bridegroom and one bride, one head and one body, one cornerstone and one temple, one king and one kingdom. This is what we confess: “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church.”
Thomas said that he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw him with his own eyes and touched him with his own hands. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Likewise, many today refuse to believe in the unity of the church unless they can see it with their own eyes. They see division between the various visible church bodies as well as division within congregations and they conclude from what they see that what Jesus said, “There will be one flock and one shepherd” is not true. So they come up with ways to make it true. They try to manufacture a visible unity for the church.
But just as Jesus is hidden from view, so is the unity of his church on earth. We don’t see the church’s unity. We go by faith; not by sight. Jesus says: “And they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Christ’s voice is what unites us as one. The unity of the church is based on the unifying power of God’s word. God’s word unites. It unites us in the knowledge of God. Jesus says, “I know my sheep and am known by my own.” This knowledge is hidden from our sight. Nobody can look into another’s heart to see what is there. Since the unity we Christians enjoy is a unity of faith, it is, by its very nature, invisible. As the Bible says, “The Lord knows those who are his.” (2 Timothy 2:19)
Faith is invisible. The knowledge of Christ is invisible. Christ has removed himself from our sight and has chosen to speak to us through his word. We find our Christian unity by hearing and confessing together the same pure and unadulterated word of God. We don’t insist on agreeing on every human opinion. Human beings can err. We don’t find our Christian unity by agreeing on matters not taught in the Bible. Christians find their Christian unity by accepting the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures as God’s revealed truth. The unity of the church is hidden. The truth of the gospel is clear. Our unity is expressed in our agreement with the pure teaching of the gospel.
The reason the church is one is because all Christians listen to the same voice and trust in the same Jesus. Jesus unites the church as one. Her unity is not like that of a political party where there must be a bit of give and take concerning the party’s political philosophy. The church is united in the truth of God’s word, not in a negotiated agreement to combine the pure doctrine with false doctrine.
St. Paul warns us in Romans 16:17 to note those who cause divisions in the church contrary to the doctrine we have learned and avoid them. False teaching causes divisions in the church. The devil is the author of all false teaching. He is like a wolf. He scatters the flock. Confessing the truth does not cause divisions. Condemning false doctrine wherever it is taught does not cause divisions. Jesus died on the cross rather than to deny the truth he came to proclaim. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus doesn’t run away from the wolf. He fights him to the death. He never compromises on the truth. That would leave the sheep helpless before the attack of the hungry wolf.
The hireling works for pay. He’s not going to warn the flock against false teaching unless there’s something in it for him. There usually isn’t. To identify and condemn false doctrine will often upset folks who have close friends or relatives who belong to churches that teach the false teaching that is being condemned. To condemn popular sins and popular errors makes people angry. But this is the ministry of Christ, the good shepherd. He isn’t afraid of the truth. Those who serve as his ministers cannot be afraid of the truth, either. Love for the sheep requires courage to face the attacks of the wolf.
Jesus compares the devil to a wolf because a wolf is a predator and a sheep is his prey. The devil seeks someone to devour. It goes all the way back to the beginning. He is a liar and the father of lies, as Jesus said. He attacks sheep by attacking the true faith. Jesus says,
Jesus joins his knowledge of his sheep and his sheep’s knowledge of him to his knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of him. Then, right after talking about this sacred knowledge within the Godhead and between God and us, he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” We know God where he lays down his life for us.
The sheep follow the shepherd’s voice. He lays down his life for them. They won’t follow the voice of a stranger. They won’t follow the hired man who runs away at the sign of danger. They follow him who faces the wolf. It was in laying down his life for the sheep that Jesus confronted the rage of the wolf. The devil’s control over us is where we sin. He manipulates that sin against us to control our souls. But where the good shepherd lays down his life for us is where all sin is taken away. We are forgiven by God. This strips the devil of his power. We know God because our sin has been washed away. Knowing God is our best defense against the devil. We see God in the person and suffering of his Son. We know God and are known by God where Jesus sheds his blood for us.
It shouldn’t surprise us that of all of the diabolical lies the wolf raises against the faith of the sheep, his most deadly are his attacks on Jesus. He has sent heretics to attack the person of Christ, denying who he is, that he is true God and true man. He has sent false teachers to deny what Jesus did, claiming that he didn’t really pay his life as a ransom to the justice of God, setting us free by bearing the punishment of our sins on the cross. He has sent false prophets to deny the fruit of what Jesus did, claiming that we are not justified by God and forgiven of all our sins solely through faith in Christ, but that our good deeds contribute something to our salvation. He has sent errorists that deny the means of grace, turning the gospel into a new law, claiming that baptism is just a symbolic washing that doesn’t give us forgiveness and salvation and teaching that the Lord’s Supper is just bread and wine and not the very body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.
The sheep of the good shepherd listen to the voice of their shepherd. When they hear the wolf coming they run away from him. The unity of the church is not maintained by doctrinal compromise. It is maintained by the truth. The truth is what unites the sheep with the shepherd and joins them together as one. The church may be hidden from sight, but God’s truth is crystal clear.
The relationship of the church to Christ can be expressed in many ways. The reason the picture of the shepherd and his sheep is so loved may be because it so beautifully expresses our dependence on Christ. Sheep depend on their shepherd. But it’s more than dependence. It’s stubborn insistence on hearing the voice of the shepherd. We think that a dog is smarter than a sheep because just one dog can keep dozens of sheep in line. Maybe he is. But if I were a bad man and wanted to lure your dog into danger, I could hold out some good smelling food and say, “Here, boy!” and he just might come. I doubt your sheep would. It’s not just dependence. It’s a healthy dose of suspicion to go along with it.
We like to be open minded. This relatively new century has brought unbelievable advancement in many areas: better technology, better medical procedures, better food preparation, better ways of making cars, drilling for oil, farming, doing all sorts of things. We are open to all sorts of new ideas.
But the gospel of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep does not change. The sheep are wary of anything new. It is as the Bible says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” But while the gospel does not change, it is always new. Every time we hear the voice of our shepherd that pronounces us forgiven of all our sins just as surely as he lay down his life for us and took it up again, we are renewed. We are set free, washed clean, and made holy. The church is holy and we belong to it. We are holy. That’s what we want to be. So like a stubborn sheep that won’t listen to the voice of the stranger, we insist on nothing less than the pure gospel and Jesus faithfully provides it.
Rolf D. Preus