Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
I’m sure you remembered what happened. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. The spiritual authorities disapproved and conducted an investigation in hopes of discrediting the Lord. The man he healed stood up for Jesus and said that he had come from God. Jesus then said to the Pharisees and other officials that he came into the world for judgment so that those who do not may see and those who see may become blind. The Lord’s antagonists were mystified. They wondered if they were blind, too. Jesus then told them the parable from this morning’s gospel, and they were even more puzzled. By the grace of God, this morning’s parable doesn’t confuse us. He has given us the ability to unwrap the mystery.
Jesus wanted to draw a distinction between faithful spiritual leaders and those, like Pharisees – we have plenty with similar temperaments in our own day – who try to put themselves or their own rules in the place of God.
In Bible times, sheep lived in square stone enclosures with an entrance on one side. Sometimes more than one flock would spend a night in the same fold. When a shepherd came to gather his own sheep in the morning, he stood at the entrance to the enclosure and called for them. He had a special name and a unique call for each one. Every sheep knew its shepherd and responded obediently to its own special call. After he gathered his flock out into the open, the shepherd walked in front of them and led them to the pasture for grazing.
There were – and are – faithful spiritual leaders – shepherds – who point there people – the flock – toward Christ and the salvation he offers. But there are others, as we said, who put themselves and their teachings and practices in the place of Christ. Jesus called them thieves and robbers. They took what people had to give them and offered false teaching in return. But the people – the flock – weren’t stupid. They didn’t pay attention to the pseudo-shepherds. They wanted to live and flourish, and so they listened to the shepherds who brought them the good news of salvation in Christ.
“I am the door of the sheep,” Jesus said. True shepherds stick with him. He came to bring life and abundance. He is the door to the kingdom of God; the only way to enter is through faith in him. The true shepherd leads his flock by directing them to Christ and no one else.
Now, you and I hear many voices in the course of a week – on the TV, radio, the voices of friends, neighbors, the people we work with, and family. Some of these voices talk about large questions that touch the spirit – that the world is a mess, say, and there is no hope for it. Some folks tell us not to worry, just be happy and others urge us to spend and buy and keep up with the Jones’s. Or it may be that a little voice inside us nags away persistently. Stronger than all these voices, though, is the voice of our Lord – clear, steady, trustworthy, assuring us that he has come to bring life. He promises that his blood washes away our sins. We pay attention to what he says, for he is the door to abundant life.
Jesus also called himself “the Good Shepherd”, who calls to us by his Word, the gospel and the sacraments, not a general call like a news broadcast, but highly personal. The Good Shepherd knows our names. He sustains a personal relationship with each of us and he does not let go. He intends to bring all of us into heaven on the last day.
We keep faith with him now. The world, the devil, and our flesh work on us so that a part of our souls resents the idea that we need a shepherd to watch over us. We humans aim for independence and self-reliance; we feel defeated when we discover that we can’t achieve very much on our own. We depend on God and on others. The Shepherd pardons our waywardness; he draws us back to him in faith. He teaches us that folks who are aware of their weaknesses have an advantage. We know that we need help; we welcome the Good Shepherd who protects us and guides us through every evil.
Satan influences many things. He takes pleasure in tempting Jesus’ beloved sheep; he wants to scatter us and divide us and destroy our faith. Jesus is stronger than the devil, however; he has already conquered Satan. His victory strengthens us and gives us confidence that we’ll cope well with every situation that comes our way. “Even though I walk through the valley of death,” King David wrote, “I will fear no evil.” Jesus makes us brave and stout-hearted and hopeful of eternal blessedness beyond the grave.
He protects us now from the damage the devil wants to do to our minds. Satan works to shatter our joyfulness. He’s happy if we think we can’t do anything right or that bad things will inevitably happen to us. The Shepherd restores our joy in life and our trust in ourselves. He teaches us that despite the presence of sin, including our own, the world is not a miry swamp but God’s good creation, when with his help we keep on with our activities in joy and hope. Because we are Jesus’ sheep, our power to act for good is stronger than sin and evil. We don’t fear that the bad parts of life will conquer us. The Shepherd rules our thoughts and feelings so that temptations don’t overpower us. Instead, they become occasions for the strengthening of our faith.
The Shepherd is a friend who rejoices in our happiness and who is close to us during hours of trial. He sticks with us and doesn’t leave us to seek his own advantage. He knows us through and through. The misunderstandings of our neighbors may wound us, but we have a friend in our Shepherd who knows us the way we need to be known, even better than we know ourselves. We trust his knowledge; we thrive on his mercy; we rest in his love.
At the same time, our Shepherd uses us. We represent him. We make sure that our neighbors see by our example that Jesus is the kind of Shepherd who accepts everybody, especially the weak and sick and folks in need. When others see Jesus’ hospitality in us, then they are likely to turn to him with hope and expectation.
Martin Luther once said that it’s a terrible evil when one person judges another. Jesus’ kingdom is designed to heal souls that are sick and needy. He is the only judge. We make a mistake if we think highly only of people who are strong and holy and self-reliant, for we can’t see into the hearts of our neighbors. All people are by nature sinners to the core, so we don’t insist that they put on a show of piety and devotion for our benefit. There are only weak and sickly people in Christ’s flock and his pasture is really a hospital where the sick and infirm, whose souls need loving care, are gathered together. Jesus’ sheep welcome other needy folks and make room for them.
I once read in a newspaper that some of Canada’s leaders have said that Canadians are losing their ties to politics and government and even to one another. Canadians long for a system that creates enduring, respectful ties among people. In other words, our neighbors are looking for fellowship, communities, friends, faith, and sound values to live by. No one builds strong, meaningful relationships the way Christ and his church do. What people need is the Good Shepherd and his flock.
We rejoice, then, in the community that the Good Shepherd sustains at St. Peters – and throughout his kingdom – and that he will keep on going with his loving guidance. He has built up among his people what everyone needs. When our neighbors are ready to find a better way than the worldly one, they’ll come to the church. We trust that the Shepherd will make us ready to receive him.
Now, we don’t expect droves of people to come to the church and we don’t accuse ourselves of failure because they stay away. Lots of people take offense at Christ and his flock, for the church doesn’t fall into step with the ways of secular society. The church challenges the world around her, while worldly people don’t like to have their comfortable ways disrupted. Besides that, human nature responds to what we can see and touch and count, where Jesus is hidden from our view and we take hold of him by faith. Then there are times when he conceals himself even from his church and he acts as if he’d forgotten that she exists, because he allows his flock to be humbled and oppressed. The church’s opponents, meanwhile, delight in his humiliation and wallow in it.
Even so, Jesus loves his sheep. He calls to us. His knowledge of us comforts us. It might look like the opposite at times, but he won’t forget us or forsake us. He claims us as his own and gives us satisfying, steady ways of life that won’t perish, lives of joy and hope that will last forever because the Good Shepherd has defeated death and the grave and all the devil’s schemes. He makes sure that we receive the fruits of his victory.
What do we do in return? We know the shepherd and give thanks. Although he’s hidden and we hear his voice with ears of faith and not our physical ears, Jesus makes it possible for us to hear him. His words are the only ones we can trust completely. And so we give thanks that he is our shepherd. And we ask him, in faith that he will grant our wish, to keep us in his flock. In his name we rejoice. AMEN
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.