Good Shepherd Sunday
May 4, 2014
“The 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. John 10:11-16
The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. They hear his voice. He gives them eternal life. This is a beautiful picture describing the relationship between Christ and his church. While Jesus paints this picture for us here in St. John’s Gospel, he did not make it up. King David, who as a young man had been a shepherd, wrote the psalm that begins with the words, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Jesus is the shepherd of whom David wrote.
Jesus is the LORD. The wonder of our holy faith is that our LORD and God takes on our human flesh and blood, body and soul, and gives his life for us. “The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.” He gives it. He doesn’t sell it. He gives it. He doesn’t lend it to you as if you may use it as you will and then give it back when you are done. No, he gives his life for you, calls you by name, and joins himself to you so that his life is your life.
Jesus is the good shepherd. He doesn’t work for pay. The hireling does not own the sheep. He works for pay. He will use the sheep for his own advantage. They are for him a way to make a living. The hireling figures out how to enrich himself at the sheep’s expense, whether by fleecing them or butchering them and selling their flesh for food. The good shepherd gives his flesh and blood for the sheep. He owns the sheep. He gives his life for them. As we sing in the hymn:
Jesus is the good shepherd. All other would be saviors are hirelings. Jesus explains the difference. He says:
The wolf is the devil and his apostles. He is the source of false teaching and false religions. His goal is to destroy faith and to replace it with idolatry. The hireling cares nothing about the truth. This is why, when he sees the wolf attack, he runs away. He cares for himself, but he doesn’t care about God’s revealed truth. This means he doesn’t care about true faith. This means he doesn’t care about the sheep. They are just a means to an end for him. Should the wolf destroy them, why should he care? The sheep don’t really belong to him.
The sheep of the good shepherd belong to him. He bought them. True enough, he bought the whole world with his blood shed on the cross. But the sheep that hear his voice, know him, and are known by him belong to him in a fellowship of love that will last forever. Two things are joined together. First, the shepherd dies for the sheep. Second, the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He dies and he speaks. What does he speak about? His death, of course!
Take eat, this is my body, given for you. Drink of it all of you, this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This is what he talks about. In instituting the sacrament of his body and blood he tells his under-shepherds what to preach. Preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Preach the blood and righteousness of Jesus. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is incomprehensible apart from the preaching of the cross.
The sheep are foolish animals, wandering off into danger, getting bogged down in all sorts of trouble. So we wander away from God’s truth, finding ourselves distracted by sights, sounds, notions, ideas, and stylish opinions that capture our hearts and cut us off from God. We discover that we are lost and alone. We are caught in the mire of our own making. We require the voice of him who suffered and died for us and raised himself up from the dead on the third day. Only his voice can forgive us our sins. All other religious messages require us to do this or that or the other thing to secure the freedom we need. Only the voice of the good shepherd actually takes the burden of sin off of us and takes it away and brings us genuine peace.
The hirelings are all over the place, selling their religion to gullible people who don’t know they are lost. They care nothing about the sheep. They care nothing about true faith. Anyone who doesn’t care about the pure and saving doctrine of God’s word cares nothing about Christians. He’s a hireling, a belly-server, a man-pleaser, a charlatan – regardless of how pious he looks. Sheep don’t need a seven or twelve step self-help programs. They don’t need an emotional release, a dramatic experience, or some other kind of manufactured religious high. They need the life of the good shepherd given into death for them. They need his body and blood. This will sustain them in their holy faith. This will strengthen them, nourish them, and keep them strong. The message of the cross where Jesus suffered and died for us to take away our sins is the voice of the good shepherd calling his sheep to safety where no evil can hurt them, no lie can deceive them, and no wolf can devour them. As we sing in the hymn:
This gospel gives us the true knowledge of God himself. It ushers us into the very mystery of God. Jesus says:
Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Whom do they know? They know him whom the Father knows. They know him who knows the Father. They are thus united with God the Father through his only begotten Son. This knowledge or faith comes from hearing the voice of the shepherd who died and rose again.
This voice or gospel not only sets the sheep at peace with God, it also sets the sheep at peace with the sheep. If you look at all of the sins and lies and fighting and self-promotion that have caused divisions in Christ’s church over the years, you see that they all have one cause and they all have one cure. The cause is rejecting the clear word of God. The cure is the forgiveness of sins that Christ, the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, gives us in the gospel. So listen once more to Jesus’ promise:
The unity of the church is the unity of the faith. It is not that all of the sheep have the same abilities or the same opportunities or the same talents. They are as varied as the human race. But they share the same faith. It is the faith that lives on every word Jesus speaks. What does Jesus say? He says, “They will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
During the past hundred years or so there has been an effort among the denominations that call themselves Christian to overcome what divides them and to come together as one. People want to see the unity of which the Lord Jesus spoke when he said there will be one flock and one shepherd. While the goal of Christian unity is good, the means have unfortunately undermined the very goal that has been sought. The only way to unity is the way of the truth and the whole truth. To join together in worship and common religious efforts with purveyors of error and false teaching is not to promote unity, but to cause division.
This is why our congregations and our pastors have never joined together in religious services where churches of contradictory confessions set aside their differences and worship together, whether it is a community Thanksgiving service, Good Friday service, or any other type of service where we are invited to pretend that we are united with those who promote human errors as if it were God’s word.
The unity of the church comes only from the word of God. It cannot be achieved by ignoring false teaching as if it doesn’t matter. It cannot be achieved by establishing and obeying rules or procedures or proper church government. When the established visible church of the 16th century said that they, not we, were the true church, this is how we responded in the Smalcald Articles:
God’s Word and true faith make the church the church. As Jesus said, “They will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” This is what Jesus said. He also said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We confess in the Creed, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” We believe what we cannot see. We cannot see the unity. We see division. We cannot see the holiness. We see sin. We must rely, not on what we see, but on what Jesus our good shepherd says.
When we do so we find that our unfaithfulness is no match for Christ’s faithfulness. He who gave his life for the sheep has never condoned sin. He has died for it. He has never excused sin. He forgives it. His voice unites us with God. His voice unites us with one another. His voice – his holy Word – is our greatest treasure in this life. It gives us the treasures of heaven and makes us his Church on earth.
Rolf D. Preus