Saturday, May 06, 2006

Easter 4 Sermon, "the Good Shepherd"

Scriptures related to this sermon
John 10
1 John 3:16-24
Psalm 23
Ezekiel 34

(For the first half of this sermon, I have elected to share the reflections from the New Interpreter's Bible, after the "gathering at the table" bit, the work is original.)

The image of Jesus as the good shepherd has a perennial hold on Christian imagination and piety. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep. This picture of Jesus has influenced the church’s images of its leaders, so that in many traditions the ordained minister is referred to as the “pastor,” and ministerial care of the congregation is referred to as “pastoral care.” Behind both of these understandings of ministerial vocation is the sense that the minister is called to lead in the image of Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd. Because these images play such an important role in the life of the church, it is critical for us to distinguish among the various uses of shepherd imagery in the NT.
The move to pastoral images of ministry, for example, belongs more to other NT texts (e.g., John 21:15-19; Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:2-3) than to the interpretation of John 10. The pastoral images of John 10 are primarily focusing on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the sheep.
The heavy concentration of OT pastoral images in this discourse, particularly images associated with God in the OT texts, points the reader to the discourse’s christological heart: Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people. Yet Jesus is more than the good shepherd for whom Israel waits (Ezekiel 34), because he is also the gate for the sheep. Jesus is the way to life (the gate), and he leads the way to life (the good shepherd). While these are closely related, they are not the same thing. Jesus is the way to life because he is himself life (v. 10; cf. 14:6). Jesus leads the way to the life because he lays down his own life (vv. 11, 14-15). These are non-transferrable attributes; they derive from the heart of Jesus’ identity as the one sent by God. Later in 14:6, Jesus says perhaps more boldly, but also more explicitly, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you know my Father who sent me.
The “I am” statements of John 10, then, deepen the array of images of Jesus available to the church. The images of Jesus as the gate and the good shepherd are intensely relational; they have no meaning without the presence of the sheep. These “I am” statements do not simply reveal who Jesus is, but more specifically reveal who Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him. The identity of Jesus and the identity of the community that gathers around him are in-extricably linked.
The relational dimension of the Christ images provides the bridge to what these images have to say about being the church. The identity of the community is determined by the shepherd’s (Jesus’) relationship to it and its relationship to the shepherd (Jesus). For the community of faith, human identity is determined by Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is with and for the community determines who the community is.
What image of community life does this discourse present? Nowhere in this discourse are any who follow Jesus depicted as shepherds or even assistant shepherds. Rather, all who gather around Jesus receive their identity as members of the flock. The community that gathers around Jesus are the ones who share in the mutual knowledge of God and Jesus, whose relationship to Jesus is modeled on Jesus’ relationship to God (v. 15). Listening to Jesus’ voice is the source of its unity (v. 16). By taking Jesus as its point of access to God, the community receives abundant life (v. 10).
Most important, however, the community that gathers around Jesus receives its identity through Jesus’ gift of his life for them. In the end, to be a member of Jesus’ flock is to know that Jesus died for you. In the freely chosen act of his death, Jesus shows the way to life (gate) and offers abundant life by the example of his love (shepherd). It is important that Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep, not for his sheep (v. 15), just as in 6:51 he speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. It is an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, gift, just like God’s love for the world (3:16). Jesus makes the love of God fully available by expressing that love in his death (vv. 17-18).
That love and that sacrifice is what we celebrate at the table today as a community of faith. We remember Christ’s offering for us, and in so doing pledge to sacrifice our lives for his sake in this present day. As we feast and fellowship together as forgiven and forgiving people, we see that the table is the gate—and because our Christ is a loving, good shepherd, that gate is open to us.
As the 23rd Psalm goes, Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
This Good shepherd is a restorer of relationships. Though we may find our vision clouded with notions of enemies and friends, this shepherd calls us all his flock. When we come to the table, even a table in the presence of people we may consider enemies, we are forgiven and healed—our head is anointed with oil. Anointing symbolizes both healing and the commissioning of kings. When we realize that we are forgiven and our enemies are as well, we are both healed and commissioned. The experience of this healing is like a cup running over.
Friends, here at this table, the cup is running over. Jesus says in John 7, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.' "

As we come to this table, and our cups runneth over, we have the potential to be living water for those around us. As a community, as a flock, we are asked to also be the body of Christ. At the end of John, Jesus comes to the disciples in his resurrected form. After asking for some breakfast, the disciples realize it’s him, and he asks Peter 3 times, “Do you love me?” to which Peter answers, “yes, of course!” What is Jesus’ response? “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.”
In relationship with our savior and maker, we are asked to share the duties of our shepherd. We are asked to lay down our lives for one another, as in the first Epistle of John 3:16. We are asked to not love only in word or speech, but in truth and action. In the sustaining meal that we take together, we are asked to fellowship with our enemies, and in doing so becoming healed and blessed with abundance.
Being a flock means following the shepherd. The shepherd did these things for us, and by following the actions of the shepherd, we enact the sacrifice of Christ for this world.
Let us feast then! Let us be led into green pastures and beside still waters. Let our cups run over, and let the life giving rivers flow from our hearts, because we believe and we hear the shepherd’s voice calling us—and not only us. We hear the shepherd’s voice calling the world! Amen.


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