The Good Shepherd Gives His Life for the Sheep
Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| 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,
Could my zeal no respite know
Could my tears forever flow
All for sin could not atone
Thou must save and thou alone.
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.
For 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 sheep.
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 preach.
“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.