Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 10, 2005
“For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:25
“What punishment so strange is suffered yonder! The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander.” So we sing and confess. All that our Good Shepherd says and does for us, His sheep, is centered in that supreme act of sacrificial love. As the prophet Isaiah put it:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep. This giving is not merely the giving of a fine moral example. It is more than the giving of His devotion and care. It is the giving up of His life as a sacrifice on the cross to bear the griefs, sorrows, transgressions, and iniquities of us all. The pastoral scenes are quite pretty, with the lush green grass and the pure blue pools of water. Jesus is pictured as a shepherd carrying a lamb in His arms with other lambs and sheep following close by. But this beautiful picture should not obscure for us the foundation upon which it must rest. That foundation is the crucifixion of Jesus where He did battle against the devil. It was as Jesus was suffering as the spotless Lamb of God that He was disarming the devil of his terrible power over God’s children. By bearing our sins in His own body on the tree Jesus rescued us from the hell we so richly deserved.
This is the Jesus we call our Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He speaks to us and by His voice He guides us to eternal life. Shepherds feed sheep. The sheep belong to a flock. Jesus is the Shepherd and Bishop of His flock. His flock is His holy Christian Church. It is comprised of all those and only those who hear His voice. He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him. This hearing of the Shepherd’s voice and this knowing of the Shepherd is called faith. Faith hears. It depends on what it hears. It rests secure in the voice of the Shepherd because it trusts that voice. That voice will keep the sheep safe and sound. That voice is the pure gospel. The sheep of the Good Shepherd follow that voice. They go to where the gospel is proclaimed and they listen to it in humble faith. They believe Jesus’ words and through this faith they receive what the words give.
The pasture for Christ’s flock is the gospel and sacraments. If you want to find the flock that belongs to the Good Shepherd you must look to where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are rightly administered because the gospel and the sacraments are the voice of the Good Shepherd. This is the voice that invites guilty sinners to place their sins on Jesus who suffered for them. The voice of the gospel and the sacraments of Christ is not a voice of rebuke that berates us for our folly in getting lost. It is not a voice of judgment that lays on us a penalty for doing wrong. It is a voice of peace. It tells us that for the sake of the Good Shepherd suffering and dying for us all our sins are forgiven and eternal life is ours. It is a voice that gently guides us to the cross to witness there the removal of our burden of guilt and sin. Then it guides us to the open tomb and shows us that Christ is risen with eternal life to give. Then it shows us the open door to heaven. There in heaven is our Savior, preparing a place of pure joy and love for us all. But He is not locked up in heaven to be far away from us. He is present with us here on earth in the words of the gospel we hear. They are His words. He joins Himself to us in our baptism. He feeds us with His own body and blood in the Supper. The voice of the Good Shepherd never fails to guide us on the paths of righteousness for that voice constantly clothes us in the very righteousness of Christ Himself.
Jesus is our Shepherd. The word shepherd and the word pastor mean the same thing. We usually use the word pastor to identify the one who preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments in the stead and by the command of the Good Pastor, Jesus. But Jesus is always the true pastor of His church. The men who speak in His name and by His authority are only called pastors.
Jesus is the Pastor and Bishop of our souls. A bishop is a pastor. Nowadays folks think that a bishop is a pastor with greater authority or rank than an ordinary pastor. A bishop is thought to be a pastor of pastors who holds his office within the hierarchy of his church. In the Bible this is not so. In the Bible a bishop is just another name for a pastor. The word pastor brings out his duty to feed the sheep with God’s word and sacraments. The word bishop or overseer brings out his duty to watch over the flock and to protect it from wolves. A pastor is a bishop and a bishop is a pastor and Jesus is the true pastor and bishop of our souls.
Our human pastors are true pastors and bishops only insofar as they speak faithfully to us the words of Christ. When they speak or teach or preach another gospel they are to be shunned and avoided. We may not determine the faithfulness of our pastors by how popular they are. The gospel is and has always been an offense to human pride and faithful pastors will regularly preach what causes offense. We must determine the faithfulness of our pastors by examining their doctrine and judging it in the light of the Holy Scriptures. This is one reason why we stress the thorough grounding of every Christian in the pure and wholesome teaching of God’s word. This is why we have creeds, catechisms, and confessions that faithfully set forth the teaching of God’s word. This is why we require children to commit to memory the Catechism. The sheep must never presume to judge their Shepherd and Bishop Jesus, but they must make sure that their pastors are faithful to the teaching of Jesus. Jesus Himself warns of hirelings who run away when the wolf attacks. We must have pastors who not only preach the pure gospel but also oppose all false gospels.
Rarely have we witnessed such an outpouring of affection and expressions of admiration as we have seen recently with the death of Pope John Paul II. And there is good reason for this. Pope John Paul II identified, not only with the people of his native Poland, but with everyone who suffered under the yoke of Communist oppression as he played a vital role in the eventual fall of the Soviet Empire. He spoke out in defense of the unborn and the infirm, opposing both abortion and euthanasia. He stood firm against the ordination of women to the priesthood and upheld the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. For all of these things he should be commended.
But in the midst of the overwhelming adulation this pope has received from millions around the world – and not just Roman Catholics – it is important that we speak a sober word of truth from the Holy Scriptures concerning Pope John Paul II and the office he held. We read in paragraph 882 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
This is false. The pope is not the pastor of the entire Church. Jesus is. Jesus alone is the Pastor and Bishop of the entire Church. Jesus alone is the Pastor and Bishop of every individual Christian’s soul. When the pope claims to be the pastor of the entire Church and lays claim to “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church” he attacks the gospel by which sinners are saved. For the only authority or power any pastor has is the authority or power of the keys that Christ has given to the entire Church. That is the authority to preach and teach God’s word, both law and gospel, and to administer the sacraments of Christ according to His institution. To lay claim to any other authority is to set oneself above Christ Himself and to deceive people in Christ’s name. Every pastor of the Church must have the same authority because there is no churchly authority above and beyond the word of Christ that sets sinners free by His blood. The papal claims contradict the gospel of justification by faith alone.
Pope John Paul II persisted in teaching false doctrine until the day he died and his chief theological advisor, Cardinal Ratzinger, continued John Paul’s false teaching in his eulogy at the pope’s funeral. Ratzinger concluded his eulogy with these words:
We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
But this is false. We do not look to Mary to guide us. Jesus alone is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. We need no pope, no clerical hierarchy, no College of Cardinals, no invocations to Mother Mary, no sacrifices of the Mass, or anything else above and beyond the pure gospel and sacraments of our Lord Jesus. We need only the voice of our Shepherd and Bishop Jesus. We need His washing of baptism by which we die to sin and live for righteousness. We need His words of gospel that bring to us forgiveness flowing from the blood He shed for us on the cross once and for all. We need Christ’s words that keep giving to us forgiveness in our sinful need. We need the body and blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
And our Good Shepherd meets our needs. He defends us from the false doctrine of the wolf, even when it comes wrapped in packages of beautiful looking human sanctity. We were lost. We were stuck in the mire of our own making. We were caught in our own sins and because of our devotion to ourselves and our wants and our sins we were powerless to set ourselves free. But Christ, our Shepherd and Bishop, has the power to set us free and to keep us free. This, we pray, He will continue to do as He defends us from all false teaching that will entrap our souls and as He guides us into the rich pastures of His word, and from there to eternal life in heaven.