A Sermon preached on Sunday, May 11 (Easter IV) at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 1:19-25, John 10:1-10, Psalm 23
With all the different mentions of sheep and shepherds and even sheepfolds, I am certain you understand why today is also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ Our Psalm, Psalm 23 starts with the line: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Gospel reading from John was full of ovine images (though Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd” doesn’t come until verse 11). And then the reading from the First Letter of Peter finishes with the words: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” But actually that particular passage is a bit problematic and its link to the concept of the Good Shepherd is somewhat tenuous. Putting it positively, it gives us a good opportunity to talk a little about how we read, understand, and apply the Bible. It lets me say something about the need for putting things in context.
The first thing we must do, or that you have the preacher do on your behalf, is to put the reading in the context of the book or the section from which it is taken. Both theological liberals and conservatives have an annoying tendency to take verses or paragraphs out of context, to use them as so-called proof texts, i.e. to prove their point or standpoint. It looks to me as if the lectionary composers were doing that today, or perhaps they just wanted to avoid a difficult discussion.
You see verse 18, our reading started at verse 19, says: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” So what sounded like a general lesson, about being willing to suffer even unjust punishment for the sake of our faith, is in fact a very specific instruction to slaves to accept their position and the authority of their master, regardless of how they were being treated. This is particularly sad when we remember that many slaves were attracted to Christianity because, as Paul taught “There is no longer slave or free …. for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) If we put this passage in its wider context we find it is about Christians trying to fit into society of their day, avoiding trouble, and wanting to be accepted as good citizens. Earlier in this chapter (2:13-14) the author writes: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” Really? Do we accept that at face value today? I certainly don’t, but I do understand why many early Christians felt that this behavior was necessary was in that time and place.
Another aspect of context is to ask how would a particular passage have been understood at that time? Jesus’ teaching is full of references, both explicit and implicit, to Scripture – to what we now call the Old Testament. And his listeners will have recognized many, if not all, of his references. So when they heard Jesus talking about sheep and shepherds they will have recalled that these terms are often used as metaphors for Israel and Israel’s political and religious leaders.
In the book of Numbers (27:16-17) for example Moses asks the Lord God to “appoint someone over the congregation …. who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” And the Lord chose Joshua. Jesus’ listeners will also have thought of those passages where Israel’s leaders were criticized for being very bad shepherds. The prophet Ezekiel (34:2-16) is told to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel because they had been feeding themselves, and not their flock, and because they had “not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed, not sought the lost.” And they will have remembered that because of this, the Lord God appoints himself as the shepherd of his sheep and promises them good pasture. “I will feed them with justice,” God says.
Another context is the situation of the community for which this particular Gospel was written. The traumatic and painful division between those Jews who had now become Christians and the majority of Jews who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah was still recent and had culminated with the followers of Jesus having been ejected and banned from the synagogue. So we can imagine how these followers will have applied the image of some sheep being called by name and lead out of the sheepfold to themselves – making their own experience less of a shameful ejection and more like a privileged selection. And they will have identified the thieves and bandits, those who came before Jesus, with the Jewish authorities.
Jesus’ listeners and John’s readers will also have known how sheep were cared for and how shepherds worked in those days. At night most sheep were kept in a shared fold or pen and when their shepherd entered the next day and called them by name, they really would follow him because they knew that he would lead them to food and drink. And as for the gate Jesus compares himself to: At night the shepherd would lie down in the gateway acting as a human barrier – keeping the wild animals out, and the sheep in.
Finally let’s not forget our own context. We hear and read the Bible through the filter of our own society, experience, and expectations. All of us do.
So taking all these contexts into account, what does the Gospel passage have to say to us today? In using the image of sheep and shepherd Jesus was making clear that he was appointed by God. In fact based on what God says to Ezekiel, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” (Ezekiel 34:15) Jesus was telling his audience that he is acting in God’s place, as God. The passage also tells us that the sign of a good shepherd and a true leader is that his people will follow him out of love and trust. This sort of leader truly cares for the flock and acts selflessly, rather than out of self-interest. Shepherds would lie down in the gate and put their lives between the flock and danger. Jesus lay down his life for us. His sacrifice keeps us safe from the ultimate enemy, death.
But while Jesus is the ultimate Good Shepherd, the role of being a shepherd, or to use the Latin word, a pastor, can be and was delegated. In Matthew (9:36) Jesus delegates his pastoral role to all the disciples, and later in John’s Gospel (21:15-17) specifically to Peter: “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘feed my lambs’ … ‘tend my sheep’ … ‘feed my sheep.’” This was in response to Peter affirming his love of Jesus. And that is the main qualification of a Christian leader: to love Jesus, to love God, and to love those made in God’s image and God’s Creation. All the details we find in Ezekiel, feeding the hungry, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, bringing back the lost, feeding with justice, are signs of that love.
I admit that this is a challenge and I’m glad that the role is not restricted just to those who are ‘pastors’ by profession! This is the calling of all the baptized and the very idealized situation described in the reading from Acts (2:44-45), that all “who believed would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need,” expresses this idea and ideal of mutual pastoral ministry.
But it’s not just about the physical care of others, about meeting the physical needs of those who cannot do so without our help. It’s also about their spiritual needs. We are called to bring people to Jesus to find real pasture. Jesus is the bread (John 6:35) and the water of life (4:14). Through Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, (14:6) we gain access to God and it is only that relationship that truly stills our spiritual hunger and quenches our spiritual thirst. When we enable other people to have a relationship with Jesus we let them partake in his invitation to “have life and to have it abundantly.” (10:10) And not only will their lives be full to overflowing, and fulfilled, ours will too! You see, our life in Christ is not just so abundant that it can be shared. Our life in Christ is at its most abundant when it is shared.