Like you, I truly love and find great encouragement of the image of our Lord Jesus as the great shepherd of the sheep. The one who is always there, guiding and enfolding, strengthening, protecting at every moment of life, Jesus not only makes us to lie down beside still waters and leads us into green pastures, and revives our souls; he laid down his life for the sheep in his sacrifice on the cross.
How often has it been that you have found solace and comfort in the thought in Jesus as the good and caring shepherd of your soul? How often in your own life has it been that you have turned to the worlds of Psalm 23 and found the courage and strength to go on? To face that which you had to face, sure that no matter what, it was His loving rod and staff that brought you such comfort that even though you might be walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you would fear no evil. And why, if not for the fact of His divine and loving presence with you?
There are, of course, other dynamics implied in the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. These we tend to overlook.
For example, while the Good Shepherd has a personal interest and investment in our well being, we are not the Good Shepherd’s only sheep. The work of the shepherd is flock oriented. Our Lord’s words remind us of this in today’s Gospel.”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.”
Sheep by nature are critters that prefer the safety to the herd. They find great comfort in being a part of a community. Recognizing their vulnerability without the community, the flock, may be one way that sheep understand something that we twenty-first humans do not. We take great pride in our rugged individualism. We take great pride in doing things our way. A popular saying a few years ago was simply this: “it’s my way or the highway.” And who among us has not appreciated the cultural icon that Frank Sinatra has become in singing that famed piece, “I did it my way.” So while we tend to rejoice at the loving care of the Good Shepherd, yet we still rebel against being too corralled, too fenced in, too much a part of the community. But still, the Lord Jesus calls us to be a part of a community. And we are reminded that the community that we are called to participate in is called the church—that community for which he laid down his life –that community in which we have the opportunity to experience the gift of redemption.
Another area of thinking about the Good Shepherd that we often overlook is this: in scripture being comforted is never an end in itself. So while we speak of the Holy Ghost as the comforter, still we are reminded that we are enfolded (comforted) that we might be strengthened for ministry and service, and mission. That is reflected in the first two readings this morning.
But yet in scripture, we see the transformation of Peter totally and completely, from the disciple who thrice denied our Lord and then abandoned him, to the eloquent spokesman who boldly stood up before the same group of people who had lately condemned Jesus to death. And how might that transformation occurred? Certainly not by Peter’s own interior grit or resolve, but by the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit—that same spirit that has been given to us by grace in baptism and in confirmation.
And that same theme is to be found in the Epistle from 1 John 3.16. I am not sure how it is that contemporary preaching has divorced the act of belief from the apostolic like action of mission and ministry. You will hear lots of preaching about how it is His commandment that we should believe in (or on) the name of his Son Jesus Christ, as though the only thing required of us is passive response. But John is very clear about this—that the commandment is twofold: that we should believe and that we should show our belief by our action—by loving one another. And, moreover, he is fairly explicit in reminding us about the practical dimension of Christian Love: Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.