Out of the Sheepfold with the Good Shepherd

Alleluia! We are in the midst of Eastertide, the season of Easter, fifty days from Easter to Pentecost. Other than Ordinary Time, Eastertide is the longest season of the church year, longer than Advent, longer than Epiphany, longer than Lent. So often we treat Easter like a single day, a one-day holiday before it’s back to life as usual. But Eastertide, the season of Easter, draws us each Sunday to celebrate with joy the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Risen Christ is among us! Alleluia!

Last week we celebrated Easter in the best way possible, with a baptism. In the Hymn of Preparation from last Sunday, we declared, “At the font we start our journey, in the Easter faith baptized” (Jeffrey Rowthorn, “At the Font We Start Our Journey”). But we also sang, “Easter’s work must still be done.” Our discipleship journey begins in baptism, but there is work to be done for the sake of our Risen Lord and Savior. Easter’s work must still be done!

Before we baptized Brian, I asked him, and all of you, to heed Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. When we are baptized, when we are reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, we are baptized into Christ’s work, into the mission of God. All of us here are ministers—all of us! We are all to feed Christ’s lambs, to tend Christ’s sheep, to feed Christ’s sheep. Because we belong to Jesus Christ, the Risen Son of God, Christ, who is our Good Shepherd.

That image, of Christ the Good Shepherd, is so foreign to us. We don’t have shepherds anymore, and even if we did, they wouldn’t be anything like the shepherds of ancient Israel. We’ve made the Good Shepherd a sentimental figure, a soft image reflected in the sappy oil paintings of Jesus almost melting in gentleness for the lamb on his shoulders—you know the ones I’m talking about. Sometimes they end up on banners or cards with Psalm 23, but they’re a far cry from the biblical images of shepherds and sheep, whether in Psalm 23 or in John 10 or elsewhere.

First, to be a shepherd in the Bible is to be a king after David, the great king of Israel in the Old Testament. “Shepherd” is another name for “king.” There are good shepherds, kings who serve God faithfully, and bad shepherds, kings who lead Israel into turmoil and disobedience. God holds the shepherds accountable for what happens to the sheep. And if shepherds are kings, then sheep aren’t just hapless creatures stumbling about getting lost all the time; sheep, in the Bible, are first and foremost people who belong in the kingdom where the king is a shepherd.

Second, the ultimate shepherd is not the king, not even David, but the Lord God. As Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd!” The Lord! God provides for our needs; God leads us; God restores us; God guides us past the threat of evil; God welcomes us into a household of feasting and joy forever. The Lord is king above all kings; the kings of Israel are shepherds because they serve the Shepherd-God.

So when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he does not mean, “I hope one day people will paint lovely pictures of me in peaceful farmlands sitting quietly beside babbling brooks.” No! Jesus means, “I am the True King. The Father and I are one. I am the Shepherd who will not abandon his flock, because everything that Israel expects to find in the Good Shepherd, I am.” That’s why we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, which is always the fourth Sunday in Eastertide, during Easter. As the Son of God, the Risen King, Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd.

Now, that’s all well and good and important, but it’s just background to the essential moment from today’s gospel reading. The Jewish leaders want to know if Jesus is the Messiah—the coming Good Shepherd—and Jesus replies, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If we insist on holding on to our sentimental oil-painting shepherd Jesus, then all we’ll get out of those verses is something like, “Jesus cares about me; he leads me like a little lamb; I can rest secure on his tender, loving shoulders.” But I think we’re gathered this morning to be church together, right?, so I hope we yearn for something a little deeper, a little more challenging than postcard sap.

If Jesus is the True Good Shepherd, our king and our God, then his claim on our lives is about so much more than gentle reassurance. To be counted among the sheep of Jesus Christ is to be part of the kingdom of God, to be a part of the new creation that breaks into our world with Christ’s birth and erupts in stunning newness at his resurrection.

Christ’s sheep hear his voice—that means we need to respond to the good news with bold faith, it means we need to recognize Jesus’ lordship over every part of our lives, and not just our “religious time” on Sunday mornings or at Bible studies, and it means we have put our allegiance with Christ and none other.

Christ knows his sheep—that doesn’t mean he’s got us squared away in the correct columns of some eternal Excel spreadsheet; it means he has an intimate relationship with us, cares about us, yes, but, more importantly, knows what we need in order to grow in discipleship, in order to continue to follow him. For Christ to know us, his sheep, means we, his sheep, can expect to be confronted with the gospel over and over again until our very lives bear witness to our Good Shepherd.

Christ’s sheep follow Christ—here’s where the rubber hits the road. This doesn’t mean that we all toddle behind Christ, mindlessly letting him guide us to the safety of the Sunday morning sheepfold. It means that Christ is going out ahead of us to call all of his sheep, the ones we can see and the ones only Christ knows about. It means following Christ wherever he leads, abandoning the familiar and the safe for the new, the risky, and the life-giving pastures that might be in some very strange, even scary, places.

In other words, to be sheep of the Good Shepherd is to be part of a kingdom on the move, on a mission, the mission of God. And to feed Christ’s lambs, to tend Christ’s sheep, and to feed Christ’s sheep, as we are all commissioned to do by Christ himself, is to join Christ in sustaining the mission we are all supposed to be on together as his sheep.

For generations, churches have tried to tend Christ’s flock by building up big, beautiful sheepfolds: safe enclosures where new sheep are welcomed but treated, at least at first, with suspicion, just in case they might be wolves. And churches have focused on trying to pull more sheep into the fold and then getting them to stay safely inside. It worked, too, and attendance shot up for a while at some churches, and for a few churches that model still functions.

But it’s not what the Good Shepherd is up to. It never was. And so the question facing Centre isn’t, how do we get more sheep into our fold? The question is, who among us is bold enough to follow Jesus into the world? Who among us really hears his voice? Who among us has the faith in Christ to trust him to lead us in paths of righteousness out of the sheepfold and into the world?

Our vision prayer team is in its third month of working now, and God has been stirring up some pretty exciting possibilities: collaborating with community organizations, offering Bible studies in unexpected places, listening to our neighbors for their actual needs, anticipating growth and changes in our county for the next decade or more. But vision is not enough: we need people willing to take risks, to get things wrong even sometimes, people who will follow the Good Shepherd wherever he leads. It’s time to start praying about whether you are one of those people. It’s time for us all to make sure Centre is a congregation that gives room for those people. “Easter’s work must still be done!”

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