The Good Shepherd

by the Rev. John Lane

This sermon is based on John 10:11. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence; then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “You are witnesses of these things.” 

This moment, when the Risen Jesus eats with his disciples and commissions them as witnesses, is the climactic moment, the fulfilling moment, of Luke’s entire Resurrection story – perhaps even of Luke’s entire Gospel.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

A very prominent woman dies. When the day comes for the funeral, the church is completely packed. Everyone who is anyone is there. The parish has a new, inexperienced assistant fresh out of seminary. She is there to walk in the procession, to watch and listen while the longtime rector, who is something of a pompous ass, conducts the most high-profile funeral of his life. He has dreamed about such a moment, the acclaim in front of a large audience, the fact that the bishop will be retiring soon. Today’s performance will go a long way toward making him a natural candidate for a purple shirt.

Everyone is lined up for the procession—acolytes, choir, pall bearers, family, and close friends. But at this moment of moments, the rector is nowhere to be seen. He is all the way across town, stuck in traffic behind a huge car wreck. It is the dark ages before cell phones, and no one knows where he is or why he is late.

The congregation is getting antsy. The funeral director keeps looking at his watch, and finally tells the new rightfully terrified assistant that they have waited as long as they can and she must begin the funeral. She takes a deep breath and starts down the aisle, leading the casket with the familiar words: “I am the resurrection and the life ….”

At which point, the door from the sacristy bangs open, and the rector, still pulling on his vestments, bursts into the church screaming, “No, no! I am!!!”

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Many years ago, I lived in a very primitive society. Every day I would experience things I had read about in the Bible. There were no roads or vehicles. I never even saw a wheel. Everyone walked everywhere, from house to house and village to village. I could picture Jesus walking there in the midst of his disciples, stopping to rest under a large shade tree.

In front of my house was the largest, flattest area in town. This is where I first encountered real shepherds, up close and personal. Once a month or so, the shepherds arrived with a herd of sheep, going from one grazing area to another. My front lawn is where they would spend the night. You haven’t lived until 80-100 sheep are bedded down in your front yard. With the sheep bleating, the dogs barking, the shepherds telling jokes, and sheep bells ringing, the whole scene makes for a completely sleepless night.

My life one night a month was the shepherds’ life every night. They lived with the sheep. Life was a perpetual camping trip without a tent or Winnebago. They had to stay awake to protect the sheep. There were panthers in the area, so the shepherds and dogs had to keep vigilant even in the village.

Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd. Fundamentalists beware. Jesus is really a carpenter, not a shepherd. He is speaking metaphorically as he does when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life” or “I am the bread of life” or when he tells parables. “A sower went out to sow” is not the start of an agronomy lesson.

The good shepherd lives with the sheep. He leads and sometimes follows them. From what I’ve seen of shepherds, they try to keep the sheep together to protect them. They force them to go places they don’t want to go. They push them away from a grazing area before all the grass is gone. If sheep don’t move, they will not be well fed. They will not live long and prosper.

There are always sheep on the fringes of the herd. They’re racing ahead or lagging behind or drifting off to the side. The shepherd slows down the impetuous ones, speeds up the dawdlers, and brings in the strays from the periphery. The shepherd identifies and appoints the leaders, and they become bellwethers.

Jesus is the good shepherd. He is our good shepherd. He challenges us to move along, not get stuck in our ways spiritually. When things are difficult for us or going badly, he comforts us. By being part of the herd, we have others who will walk the difficult trails of life with us.

A good-sized herd—Trinity Church is one example—needs a bunch of shepherds to comfort us when things are tough, to push us along when we are complacent, to help us find whatever we need in different circumstances, to keep us safe. A good parish—Trinity is certainly that—has lots of shepherds. Surprise! Most of them are lay people. Lay people teach the classes, fix the altar and serve there, welcome strangers, keep track of the sick, take communion to shut-ins, feed the hungry, sing in the choir, engage in mission near and far, encourage the rest of us to find our own ministries.

Jesus says I am the good shepherd. I live with you. I move with you. I share your laughter and your tears. I push you spiritually. I pick you up when you are down. I die for you. I rise from the dead. Believe in me—and you will have eternal life.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That’s Jesus speaking, not Paul, not me, not the rector in the opening story who longs for the spotlight.

And it is Jesus who says, “I am the good shepherd.”