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"Means Much More Than This..."

The risen Lord is our good shepherd, protecting us with self-giving love and gathering an expansive community into his one flock.

 

            A church in northeastern Pennsylvania worships around a Good Shepherd window in the sanctuary. The window is constructed from rippled stained glass. As the light changes, there is depth, beauty, and rich hues of color. The window is located immediately behind the pulpit, and that’s a good idea, too. If the church members can look through the preacher, they see Jesus. The Shepherd presides over a flock of dull-looking sheep. There’s no question who he is. An empty cross stand in the background, and this Shepherd has familiar wounds in his hands and feet.


            But here is the most curious detail about the figure in that window: whenever anybody looks at him, his eyes do not return the gaze. Instead, he is watching his sheep.

            It can be disconcerting, so much so that some worshipers confess to looking away. Most people might expect a measure of eye contact from the figures in our stained-glass windows. Yet that portrait of Jesus has no interest in returning the gaze. Neither does he look sideways, as if angling up toward heaven. He is completely devoted to his sheep. Nothing will disrupt his focus or distract his attention. He does not appear threatened by pressing demands or burdened by responsibility. The Shepherd knows his flock. He will do anything for them, even if it means laying down his life.


            This is how the Christian church has interpreted the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm. The Gospel of John tells of the Living Christ speaking of his love for the people gathered in his flock. When John writes down these words, it is some 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet in this text, Jesus speaks in the present tense. He addresses the church of John’s Day, and by extension, our own day. Even though it is many decades after the death and resurrection of Christ, the gospel testifies to the continuing experience of the Shepherd with his flock. 


            The ancient Psalm 23 promises green pastures, still waters and the restoration of souls. These idyllic images still offer an alternative to the paved parking lots, turbulent floods and fragmented souls that all of us know so well. In funerals and memorial services, there is comfort in the promise of divine presence as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As we look ahead to the final banquet at God’s table, we can trust that goodness and mercy chase after us, now and forever. The Good Shepherd speech of the 10th chapter of John reaffirms all these promises.


            What our text adds to that favorite psalm is the life-giving commitment of the shepherd, who is Jesus Christ. Three times in our text, Jesus speaks of laying down his life. He does this willingly, of his own accord. This shepherd takes the initiative in loving and protecting the sheep. Here is an obvious allusion of the cross, the great self-giving act by which the sin of the world is taken away.1 The Jesus of John’s Gospel carries his own cross without any assistance.2 He does so willingly and generously as a supreme act of love. Thanks to him, friendship and fellowship with God are eternally available. 


            Yet there seems to have been trouble in John’s church. He remembers Jesus the Shepherd warning about the “hired hands” who take no concern for the sheep. They have no investment in the care of the flock. For them oversight has been downgraded to a matter of employment, not self-giving love. Compassion has been reduced to a transaction, declaring, “I will care for the people only if I am paid generously.” It’s no wonder that, at the first sign of trouble, the hired hands run away, leaving the unprotected sheep to be exploited and scattered.


            We don’t know the situation of John’s first century congregation, but this is a pattern that has been repeated many times and in many places. The caregiver quits because the elderly patient is “too much trouble.” The church volunteer steps away in anger because her name isn’t listed in the monthly newsletter. The pastor resigns because he doesn’t receive an adequate cost-of-living increase. Hired hands? Perhaps. Let this be a continuing reminder that our care for one another is often inadequate, incomplete and frequently compromised by our own self-interest. Despite the platitudes we speak and the good intentions that spark motivation, we are imperfect shepherds of one another.


            Fortunately, there is one shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who remains with us even as others come and go. He remains with us in trouble, perpetually unafraid. In the valley of the shadow of death, he is present with us. He loves us, not because he is paid to do so, but because love is the essence of his identity and the intent of his continuing mission. Nothing has ever distracted Jesus from loving the world. He lays down his life for us with total commitment. When he takes up his life again in resurrection, he can transcend geography and time to continue by our side. This is the shape of his love.


            Not only does he love us, but Christ also knows we belong to him. As John writes in the beginning of his book, “[Jesus] came to what was his own.”3 Historically speaking, Jesus came to the Jews. The Jews have a covenant with God, and the Holy One honors that covenant by sending Jesus to the very people redeemed from slavery and gifted with the Torah.


            In an even broader way, the Word of God takes on human flesh. The One through whom everything was created comes into that creation. Wrapped in flesh, Jesus takes on our aches and pains, our hopes and aspirations, our limitations, and our dreams. In the greatest possible sense, he “knows his own.” And he keeps speaking to them if they will listen.


            For those with ears to hear, he says something stunning: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.” It seems the flock of the shepherd is a lot bigger than we think it is.


            Perhaps you have heard the tired old joke that’s always worth telling again: A new arrival is getting a guided tour of heaven. Saint Peter explains there are many rooms in God’s house. The first stop is the dance hall for the Lutherans, then the tearoom for the Episcopalians, followed by the chapel for the Roman Catholics. They listen to the Methodists sing hymns and sniff the incense ignited by the Orthodox Christians.


            Then they come upon another door. It has no windows and is locked from the inside. “Who’s in there?” asks the newbie.


            Saint Peter says, “Those are the people who think they are the only ones here.” It’s an equal opportunity critique of any person or denomination that reduces the vast circumference of God’s love. It’s also a reminder that too many folks believe God’s mercy is reserved only for those like themselves.


            The Risen Christ counters by declaring there are other sheep in his fold. The flock of God is bigger than anybody imagines. The grace is greater. The love reaches further. The mercy extends deeper. There are more people who listen to the living voice of Jesus than in this little fold. John reports that the Lord is gathering them, too. This suggests our mission — to announce the inclusive love of Christ and to reach out to all whom he loves. It is not enough to simply look around this room and say, “This is it.” The Shepherd offers tender care for anybody who can receive it. He speaks to keep inviting and challenging all to come.


            There is one Good Shepherd, and it is Jesus Christ. We depend on him more than we rely on ourselves. Today we pray for his guidance and to receive his care. As we gather to listen for his voice, we think of all who might benefit from a clearer expression of his grace. As we sing praises to his name, we remember how far he can reach. There is room in the kingdom of God for all whom Christ loves. His invitation is to taste the bread of life, to graze his green pastures by faith and to hear his continuing instruction on how to love the world and all who live upon it.


            For Christ the Risen Lord knows us. He calls us by name. He loves us, and not only us, but all who trust him with all their hearts, souls, and minds.

 

1 John 1:29.

2 John 19:17.

3 John 1:11.




 

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