SERMON – Easter IV
April 29, 2012
+In the Name…
Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
From the Gospel this morning, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep and cares nothing for the sheep…I know my own and my own know me” (St. John 10: 11-14).
Jesus was indeed the Good Shepherd because He was devoted to the sheep (the people) God the Father had given Him to care for. He saw it as a privilege, a calling, an assignment, and an act of obedience to care for them. His shepherding was through thick and thin, and was not defined by Him, but by the will of the Father.
Jesus was recognized as and taught to be the Good Shepherd in the writings of the Apostles. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is named as “the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (13:20). As the Lamb of God whose sacrifice for the sins of the world established a new covenant of life and love with God the Father, Jesus proved Himself as the Shepherd of shepherds in dying for the sake of the sheep. In St. Peter’s First Epistle General, we hear Peter name Jesus as the “Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (2:25), and the “chief Shepherd” (5:4). Peter, who was given the role of shepherd for the Apostles and the Church by the Risen Lord (“Feed my lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep”), understood that his shepherding was that of and in the Name of the Good Shepherd – a role he knew he was not worthy of being given.
Jesus was criticized for the religious authorities of His day for what He taught them and for the way He cared for them – welcoming sinners, healing on the Sabbath, pointing out the frailties of man with understanding and compassion, and always trying to lead people further into holiness and self-sacrifice that He would exhibit on the Cross. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (St. John 15:13).
He contrasts His understanding of what constitutes the ways of a Good Shepherd compared to that of a hireling who, when danger to himself and others comes , flees away to take care of himself leaving the sheep in danger – the danger of their being hurt and being scattered. He says that the Good Shepherd can’t and won’t do this because, “I know my own and my own know me." In other words, there is a bond of knowledge about and commitment to them and them to him. The shepherd’s commitment was to lead his sheep into a good and safe pasture.
For a short time (and praise God that it was short!), the prophecy of Zechariah was fulfilled: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13:7). The Apostles and disciples (save the beloved disciple John and the Blessed Mother) were scattered at the time of His arrest and Crucifixion. But they reassembled in the Upper Room, and in that assembly beheld their Risen Lord. He bid them to be at peace because He had risen.
Jesus used the image of the Good Shepherd to describe His relationship to people because shepherds did know all of their sheep by name. They cared for them as if they were their own children – feeding them, leading them, and protecting them from danger. So often, Jesus, before and after His Resurrection, spoke to persons by name to affirm that He knew them by name and by character and in what He expected them to do. When he said, “Peter” to Peter, and “Mary” to Mary Magdalene, it was not just His calling them by their names. It was His saying that He knew their character and their needs.
For Jesus as the Good Shepherd, His care for the well-being of His sheep manifested itself in the laying down of His life in order to put them into a very green pasture of atonement (at-one-ment) with God. He says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (St. John 10:17-18). He taught them on Maundy Thursday (which I have already stated): “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).
For shepherds and sheep in the Church, we are to lay down our lives for the benefit of others, of our own accord. We give; we sacrifice; we serve; and we love others with the love of Christ as He loves us – keeping our eyes on Jesus, rather than on anything that would dissuade us from our work.
Jesus, as the Incarnate Son of God, faced tremendous obstacles and criticism, as did the Apostles when they assumed their ministries in the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “…my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor in not in vain” (15:58).
He wrote to this Church in Philippi: “…for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).
St. Paul followed the way of Jesus the Good Shepherd – in humility, in sacrifice, and in trusting God for the sake of those to whom he ministered, saying that he could do all things in Him who strengthened him.
Blessed John Henry Newman points out in a sermon he preached At St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford (while an Anglican priest) titled, “The Shepherd Of Our Souls,” how many mighty men of the Old Testament were shepherds – Jacob, Moses, and David. Men whose background and vocation were that of shepherding.
Newman suggests that their character shaped by shepherding made them right for God’s particular calling to them. He wrote: “…the shepherds of old times, men at once of peace and of war; men of simplicity, indeed. ‘plain men living in tents,’ ‘the meekest of men,’ yet not easy, indolent men, sitting in green meadows, and by cool streams, but men of rough duties, who were under the necessity to suffer, while they had the opportunity to do exploits.”
And then he states how these Patriarchs pre-figured our Lord Jesus Christ: “…three favored servants of God….special types of the Savior to come, men raised from low estate to great honor, in whom it was His will that His pastoral office should be thus literally fulfilled… And if such were the figures, how much more was the Truth itself, the Good Shepherd, when He came, both guileless and heroic? If shepherds are men of simple lives and obscure fortunes, uncorrupted and unknown in kings’ courts and marts of commerce, how much more He who was ‘the carpenter’s Son,’ who was ‘meek and lowly of heart,’ who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again,’ and who ‘despised and rejected of men’? If, on the other hand, they are men of suffering and trial, how much more so He who was ‘a man of sorrows,’ and who ‘laid down His life for the sheep’?”
Near the end of his sermon, Newman states: “Let us desire to know His voice; let us pray for the gift of watchful ears and a willing heart. He does not call all men in one way; He calls each in His own way….But whatever difficulty there be in knowing when Christ calls, and whither, yet at least look out for His call. Let us not be content with ourselves; let us not make our own heart our home, or this world our home, or our friends our home, let us look for a better country, that is, a heavenly. Let us look out for Him who alone can guide us to that better country; let us call heaven our home, and this life a pilgrimage; let us view ourselves, a sheep in the trackless desert, who, unless they follow the shepherd, will be sure to lose themselves, sure to fall in with the wolf. We are safe while we keep close to Him, and under His eye…”
That’s a lot of Blessed John Henry Newman, but I pray that you profit, as I do, from his wisdom, spiritual depth, passion, and faith.
Jesus is so many things for us in the love of the Father for us: Lord, Master, Savior, Redeemer, Friend, and so much more; but today we think of Him, and give thanks for His being the Good Shepherd who knows of each by name; and who alone can, will, and should guide and govern us on this earthly pilgrimage.
He has guided us to this place of worship and where our relations one to another is caring and committed. He has allowed challenges and difficulties to come our way which test our faith and confidence in Him – a time to corporately affirm the teaching of St. Paul, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3). Our mantra has been and remains that of Blessed John Henry Newman: “Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene – one step enough for me.”
We can say in the words of “Amazing Grace”:
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace that brought me safe this far, and grace will lead me home.”
And so we are to say (as will sing today): “The King of love my shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”
+In the Name…