I found myself in the narthex counting sheep one day last week, but don’t worry, I wasn’t sleeping on the job. I just got curious about how many of them there actually are out there. The answer, if you’re interested is about 20, counting all of the sheep in every different format. That’s enough for a good-sized little flock.
We do love our sheep here, and we love the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who will know us and love us and keep all of us little lambs safe.
We celebrate that image today, the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, the day that’s nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel readying always includes a section of the passage we call the Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.
It’s a special day for us in church when we get to lift up the Good Shepherd at Good Shepherd Church—and it’s also the day when we gather for a celebration lunch afterwards. At our annual meeting after lunch, we take time to listen reports from the various ministries and committees about how things have gone over the past year, and to elect members of the Vestry.
We do love that image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
So here’s a question for you: How many of you know an actual shepherd? Anyone?
I do know a few people who raise sheep, but I’ve never known anyone who made their living by being a shepherd and herding them. And yet it was an occupation that would have been very familiar to people in the time of Jesus. They knew what shepherds did or didn’t routinely do as a normal part of the job, and I think we that in our ignorance, we tend to romanticize it a bit.
Do you know what it is makes Jesus the Good Shepherd, and not just an ordinary shepherd?
It’s not that he keeps the sheep safe, or that he knows his sheep by name, or that they follow him because they know hisvoice. That would be true for any shepherd—or what would be the point of having a shepherd at all?
What makes Jesus the Good Shepherd? The thing that separates him from the rest is the thing he says at the very beginning of the Gospel we heard today:
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
That’s an awesome thing, isn’t it—to know that Jesus would willing give his life for us.
And there’s another place in John’s Gospel where it says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
No one has greater love than this. It’s one of those familiar and beloved Bible verses, right up there with John 3:16: “God so loved the world …”
We love this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and ourselves as the lambs he loves. We love the feeling of safety and comfort that goes along with it. Knowing that out of love, Jesus would do anything for us, including willingly laying down his life for us.
We love Psalm 23, the psalm for Good Shepherd Sunday: “The Lord is my shepherd … I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
We love to know that we are loved. We love the feeling of comfort and safety we find in these verses. We like to think of this church as the sheepfold where we can rest safely, knowing that Jesus is watching the gate.
But the New Testament reading from the first letter of John tells us something more about what it means to be sheep of God’s flock.
The sheepfold isn’t just the place where we rest safely in the arms of the shepherd, it’s where we learn to follow in his vocation of care and concern.
Where we learn to follow his example, loving the way he loves.
In today’s New Testament reading from the first letter of John, we hear just how much that love is going to demand from us:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
To lay down our lives for one another is no small thing.
In fact it’s so huge, it’s almost unimaginable.
And it might very well be true that no one here will literally make that tremendous sacrifice of giving their life for another person, but we’re all called at some level to live our day-t0-day lives for others.
As that letter continues:
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
How do we love in truth and action? Those words describe a self-giving, self-sacrificing kind of love.
Parents love their children that way. Sometimes teachers love their students that way, too. In fact, our jobs and interactions with others offer lots of opportunities.
I’m thinking of people who work in hospitals and nursing homes and other care institutions, who go behind the basic requirements of their jobs to make life as good as it can be for the people in their care.
But this kind of love doesn’t have to be extraordinary. We all have opportunities to live for others, if we look for them.
That prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi lays out a whole series of possibilities. They are so simple on the face of it, and so challenging when we get down to trying to live them out.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
It is in this kind of dying—dying to ourselves; letting go of the part of us that wants to live for our interests alone—that we become more and more like our Good Shepherd.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Christopher W. Skinner, “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life for the Sheep (John 10:1, 15, 17): Questioning the Limits of a Johannine Metaphor,” accessed April 17, 2018.
John 15:13 NRSV