Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon
April 22, 2007
St. John 10:11
“I am the good
shepherd. The good shepherd
gives his life for the sheep.”
On Easter Sunday Jesus rose from
the dead. That evening he
appeared to his disciples and gave to them the keys of the kingdom of
heaven that he had promised. He
said to them, “Whosever sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whosever
sins you retain, they are retained.”
The office of the keys is the authority that Jesus gave to the
Church and only to the Church to forgive the sins of penitent sinners
and to retain the sins of impenitent sinners as long as they do not
repent. This office or
power belongs to the entire Church.
It doesn’t belong only to certain members of the Church.
It is the authority to preach the gospel and administer the
sacraments. Through the
gospel and the sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is
given to us. It is through
the gospel that the Holy Spirit establishes faith in our hearts.
He leads us to trust in Christ and the blood he shed on the cross
for us. Without the Holy
Spirit nobody can become a Christian.
It is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit keeps us in the
Christian faith until we die.
The office of the keys is a
Church power. It doesn’t
belong to the State. The
State can imprison criminals, wage just wars, and provide for civil
justice. But it can’t
forgive a single sin of a single sinner.
The Church alone has this authority.
The authority of the State is severely limited by sin.
After all, you cannot change human nature simply by dropping
bombs or putting criminals in jail.
After the murder of thirty two people at Virginia Tech at the
hands of a psychopathic killer, the talking heads on TV are busy trying
to figure out how to stop such a thing from happening in the future.
The answer is obvious. You
cannot stop it. No human
power can change hearts. No
human power can prevent crime.
But the Church has a power that
can and does change hearts. Think
of Peter. He denied his
Lord three times. Afterwards,
he was filled with remorse. He
went out and shed bitter tears. But,
as the hymnist so rightly says,
my zeal no respite know
Then Jesus died for the sin of
the world and rose from the dead. After
he had appeared to the eleven disciples to give them the power of the
keys he came specifically to Peter.
Three times Peter had denied him.
Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him.
Three times Peter said that he did.
Three times Jesus asked Peter to feed his sheep.
Jesus forgave Peter.
Then he sent Peter out to be a pastor in his church, that is, to
preach his gospel and administer his sacraments, for this is how
Christ’s sheep are fed. Many
claim that Peter was the first pope and that Jesus’ call to Peter to
feed his sheep was Jesus placing Peter into the office of the papacy.
But this is not true. The
papacy was an historical development that took several centuries to
form. Jesus was not calling
Peter to be a pope. He was
calling him to be a pastor. And
that’s all Peter ever was or wanted to be.
He was the first among equals, for all pastors are equal.
The reason is simple. They
all have the same authority: the authority of God’s word.
The power of the keys may be described in various ways but it’s
always the same thing. It
is the authority to forgive and retain sins.
It is the authority to preach the gospel and administer the
sacraments. Jesus gave this authority to the Church.
This is why God calls pastors through the Church.
Not only has Jesus given to the Church the power of the keys, he
has also given to the Church the pastoral office so that the keys might
be exercised for the benefit of his sheep.
Jesus sent out the original pastors directly as recorded in the
Gospels. He has sent
subsequent pastors through the Church.
Peter, like all other pastors,
was an undershepherd of the good shepherd.
The word “pastor” is another word for “shepherd.”
Jesus is the good pastor. All
other pastors are under the authority of Jesus Christ.
They are called by God, through the Church, to feed the sheep
that belong to Christ. They
are to feed Christ’s sheep. The
sheep belong to Christ. They
don’t belong to the pastor. They
are to feed Christ’s sheep by preaching to them everything that God
wants them to teach and nothing but what God wants them to teach.
This is the food by which the good shepherd, through his
undershepherds, cares for his flock.
Listen to what St. Paul said to the pastors in the Church at
Ephesus as recorded by St. Luke in Acts 20:27-28.
I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among
which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of
God which He purchased with His own blood.
The pastoral office is a divine
institution. Jesus Christ,
the good pastor, established it. There
are some who falsely teach that Jesus didn’t actually establish any
specific office in his Church but that he simply gave the gospel and the
sacraments to the Church and left it up to her to form whatever
ministerial offices she chose. They teach that the pastoral office is an historical
development that is not specifically established by God.
They teach that whenever anyone – whether a pastor or not –
teaches God’s word “on behalf of the believers” this person has a
divine call into the public ministry of the word.
But this is not what the Bible
teaches. The Bible teaches
that Jesus Christ himself formed and fashioned the pastoral office for
the purpose of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments so
that his sheep would be fed with his holy word.
Christ’s words are life. They
bestow life. They sustain life.
The good shepherd gives his life
for the sheep and to the sheep. First
he gives his life for the sheep. Then
he gives his life to the sheep. He
gives his life for the sheep when he dies for them.
As we sing in that beautiful Lenten hymn: “What punishment so
strange is suffered yonder; the shepherd dies for sheep that loved to
wander.” His death for
the sheep occurs once and only once.
Good Friday cannot be repeated.
It is not as if the good shepherd keeps on giving up his life for
the sheep, dying and rising. He fully paid for all sins of all sinners on the cross.
There was no punishment deserved by the human race that he
didn’t suffer. There was
no crime he didn’t pay for. All
sin in general and every sin in particular was imputed to him.
The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep and then he
receives his life back again on Easter Sunday.
We confess that he is risen.
“He is risen” – perfect tense, not “he was risen” –
past tense. The past tense
simply means that it happened in the past and the past is the past.
The perfect tense means that the past event has a present
significance. He is risen
and he is among us. He who
gave his life for the sheep is here among us to give his life to the
The gospel is never just words a
preacher preaches. The good
shepherd is the one who shepherds the flock.
He is the one who gave his life for the sheep.
He is the one who raised himself from the dead.
He is the one who sent out preachers to preach his word and
administer his sacraments. He
is the one who feeds his sheep by means of the words that his preachers
“The Lord is my shepherd; I
shall not want.” So wrote
David. “I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd gives his life for this sheep.”
So says Jesus. Jesus is David’s son and David’s Lord. Psalm 23 is fulfilled in Christ.
The green pastures and still waters of the psalm are the gospel
and sacraments Christ has graciously bestowed on his holy Church.
Luther paraphrases this in one of his hymns, “Thy people’s
pasture is thy word, their souls to feed and nourish, in righteous paths
to keep them.”
The sheep belong to the
shepherd. The shepherd belongs to the sheep. The words of the shepherd are the sheep’s food.
The sheep are to judge the teaching of their pastors to ensure
that they are being fed with the wholesome word of God.
Jesus teaches us all to beware of false prophets who come to us
in sheep’s clothing. The
pure teaching of God’s word is not just the responsibility of the
preachers who preach it. It
is the responsibility of the hearers who hear it.
St. Paul urges us to mark and avoid those who teach contrary to
the sound doctrine of God’s word.
This means that the laity – literally, the people – are
responsible for what their pastors teach to them.
One purpose of requiring the children to memorize Luther’s
Small Catechism is that in this way they will, for the rest of their
lives, be able to judge the doctrine that they are taught by their
pastors. It is the teaching
of the good pastor, Jesus?
Every Christian has the right to hear the pure gospel proclaimed. Jesus has purchased this right with his holy, precious blood. A hireling is one who teaches what the itching ears want to hear. He keeps his mouth shut when threatened by those who have power over his position and means of making a living. He measures his message by considering his own wellbeing and popularity rather than the welfare of Christ’s sheep. Any minister, who out of fear, refuses to stand on the clear word of God is no minister of Christ but a hired hand to be marked and avoided by the faithful. Every Christian is responsible for what his pastor preaches because Jesus alone is the shepherd and bishop of our souls. We were all lost, going astray. We were stuck in the bog of our own sin and spiritual blindness. We could find no good grass, no good water, and we were easy prey to every sharp-toothed predator out there. Only the pure gospel of Christ can save us. It will always point us to him “who bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes we were healed.” Everything that God teaches us is centered in the free forgiveness of all our sins for Christ’s sake, which is ours through faith alone. There is nothing God teaches us that is not for our spiritual benefit. Our good shepherd has taught us that we live on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. This is why we will cherish the gospel of Christ and call on our pastors to preach it and teach it to us in its truth and purity.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus