THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Jesus, during his ministry, used a number of metaphors to describe himself. In John 8:12 (NIV), Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” In John 6:35 (NIV), he said, “I am the bread of life.” In John 15:1 (NIV) he said, “I am the true vine.” In John 14:6 (NIV) he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
And then there is the one that is perhaps the most enduring images of Jesus. It is that of the Good Shepherd. We find it also in the Gospel of John, at John 10:11-18 (NIV). I want to read the entire passage for you in order to provide the context. Jesus says:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
I think one of the reasons why this image of the Good Shepherd is so powerful is because we associate it with another passage in the Bible the contains the image of the shepherd. I am talking, of course, of the 23rd Psalm, the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. It’s one of the best known pieces of literature in the English language. Even people who are not Christians recognize it and find comfort and peace in these words.
The odd thing, of course, is that most of us have had virtually no experience with shepherds. In fact, if I were to ask you, most of you would have to admit that you have probably never even met a real live shepherd. But they do exist and I actually know one. He also was a military chaplain and he had little flock of sheep that he kept on his hobby farm. And he said it was wonderful. Sheep aren’t as much work as some other animals. They are incredibly hardy and adapt well to a variety of situations. He used to love taking a lawn chair out into the fenced in pasture and just sitting down to read a book. The sheep would gather around because they knew him and he knew them. There was just his comfortable relationship that gave him an inner sense of peace. They were his flock and he was their shepherd.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And then he goes on to talk about what it means to be a Good Shepherd. He says that the Good Shepherd is not like a hired hand who may come and go and has not particular interest in the sheep. For him or her, it is just a job. If a wolf comes along, the hired person will run away rather than face the danger.
Not so the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd will not run away but, as it says in verse 15, will lay down their life for the flock. That, of course, is something that Jesus did on Good Friday. He gave up his life for his sheep so that through faith in him, his sheep could be with him forever in God’s great and eternal pasture. The Good Shepherd is an good and enduring image of Jesus.
But then we get to verse 16 which says this: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” This is another one of those difficult passages in the Bible. It is both a surprise and a challenge because it says some things that seem to be at odds with other passages of Scripture. But it is not at odds. In fact, it is quite consistent and I’d like to tell you why.
To understand what this passage means for us, I want to look at it in relation to two different but related groups. First of all, I want to look at it as it relates to the church and then I want to look at it as it relates to all of humanity. But before we do that, let’s look at this verse as it relates to the passage as a whole.
Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. We believe that he did that on Good Friday. We also believe that Jesus is unique, that he is the one and only Saviour who alone can reconcile us with God. In the world in which we live, that type of thinking is often not well received but it overtly exclusive. And that is difficult for some people to accept in a world that values inclusivity almost at the exclusion of all other values.
And yet Jesus said some very exclusive things. We have already alluded to one of them. In John 14:6 (NIV) Jesus said this: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Basically, he said that there is no other way to get to God the Father except through him. Other religions, other spiritual groups and other cultures may claim that they have a way to God but they don’t. Jesus alone can get us there. All others are mistaken. That means that Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, Wiccans and other number of other groups are wrong. That’s not saying that they are evil people. It does not say that God does not love them. All it says is that they are mistaken. Christians are right and everything else is, at best, misguided. Like I said, that is a very exclusive comment and there are many who take offense to it.
As Christians, we don’t mean to offend – at least we shouldn’t seek to offend. That too would be contrary to Jesus’ teachings. We are simply stating what Jesus taught and what we believe are the truth claims of our faith. When you think about it, all of those other groups also have their truth claims about why they are right and we are wrong. From that standpoint, we are all the same. But while all of us have our own truth claims, those truth claims all conflict at important points which means that we can’t all be right. As a Christian, I happen to think that Jesus was right and that’s why I follow him. I have no trouble at all accepting the exclusive truth claims of Jesus. I believe that he is the only Saviour. I believe that he holds a unique and singular place in the salvation history of humanity and he is the only way to the Father.
The problem with this, however, is what people sometimes do with it. They use the exclusive claims of Jesus to exclude people from his kingdom. So, we hear people say that if you have not declared publicly that Jesus is Lord, that you have no place in the kingdom but, rather, that you are destined to burn eternally in hell. There are Christians who say that if you have not been baptized by immersion than you are not really born again. I have heard other Christians say that if you do not speak in tongues than you have not really received Christ because speaking it tongues is the one visible sign that you have been filled with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, of course, said none of this. He accepted all people who came to him with open hearts, whether or not they publicly declared him to be Lord. As far as we know, Jesus never baptized a single person during his ministry. And he certainly did not insist that people speak in tongues since that was not even a thing until after Pentecost. That all means that we need to be careful about demanding things of people that Jesus did not demand and we need to careful not to judge them by parameters that Jesus did not declare.
That is because, from my understand of what the New Testament teaches, while Jesus’ claims are exclusive in terms of how we are reconciled with God they are extremely inclusive when it comes to who Jesus welcomes into his kingdom.
Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock. Then in verse 16 he said that there is one shepherd – him – and that they is one flock – his follows. But he also said that there are other sheep who are not of this pen. So while there is one shepherd and one flock there is more than one pen. In other words, there are sheep in this world that we know nothing about and my hunch is that we might be surprised one day, when we arrive in God’s eternal kingdom, who else we are going to find there.
What does this say about the church? Churches are notorious for thinking that they have it right. Many denominations think that they have it all worked out, that they are the ones who are following the way of Jesus and that all other churches have it wrong. And so Roman Catholics put a huge stress on sacraments – the mass is the key to everything. Anglicans love their high liturgies. The Salvation Army is big on social outreach to the poor. Mennonites and Brethren stress Bible study and discipleship. Pentecostals love to teach about the Holy Spirit and Baptist love to sing. And here in the United Church, social just is a very big deal. I know that I’m painting with a very broad brush here but I think you get my point.
The thing is that there is nothing wrong with any of these emphases. All of them are important. Sacraments, outreach, Bible study, discipleship, the Holy Spirit, good theology and music. These are all vital and that fact that some churches stress some of these things more than other should not be a big surprise.
The problem comes when one Christian group insists that everyone should do things that way that they do things. There should be no diversity in the church. We should all look the same, act the same, think the same. That way everything would fit into a nice neat little package. How incredibly boring that would be.
Back in the19th century, there were a number of denominations formed because people wanted to get back to the early church as it is described in the New Testament. It was called the Restoration Movement – meant to take down the church as it existed in the1800’s and rebuild it based on what was written in the New Testament. A number of denominations came out of the that movement. Seventh Day Adventists were one. So were the Plymouth Brethren. The Church of God and the Church of Christ are two more. Some people label Pentecostalism as a restoration church. This also resulted in the formation of some groups that are no longer even considered to be Christian such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God.
Each of these groups read the New Testament and tried to establish a church that was a close as possible to the early church that they read about in the Bible. Do you know what happened? Rather than coming up with a clear vision of what the authentic New Testament church should be like, they just created a whole bunch of other denominations that didn’t agree on everything. Do you know why that happened? It happened because when you read the different writings in the New Testament, you discover that there is no one single church model to be followed. Paul wrote different things to the Corinthians, the Philippians, the Ephesians, the Romans and so on. He wrote to them in their local contexts so that, rather than having a one size fits all church, what we ended up with were churches that could effectively respond to their local situations and contexts.
There is no one single model in the New Testament about how all churches should operate. No single church and no single denomination can be all things to all Christians. The diversity in the church means that sisters and brothers in Christ can find a congregation where they can serve and that meets their needs. Jesus said that there is one shepherd and one flock but he said that there were different sheep pens. For churches I think that means that we don’t all have to be the same.
What does it say about humanity? What does it mean that there is one shepherd and one flock but different sheep pens? I want to tell you a story. It happened a number of years ago but it has stuck with me. I helped to lead a youth group when we served in Espanola. Our second church was in Webbwood and we a great children’s programme there. Every Wednesday after school twenty or thirty students made their way from the school over to the church – about three blocks – for a junior choir. First, we have Lipton’s chicken noodle soup and then sang. We had so much fun.
One Wednesday, Emily came up to me with a smile on her face. She was clearly happy with herself and wanted to tell me something. What she told me was that, on the weekend, she had gone to another church with a friend and there she had given her heart to Jesus. I was thrilled because those were exactly the kind of seeds we were trying to plant in the lives of these young people. It didn’t matter to me that she had made a commitment at a different church. After all, as Paul writes, one plants seeds, another waters but it is God who makes things grow.
But then Emily continued. “Now I’m going to heaven,” she said. She was smiling as she said it. “But I’m the only one in my family who is. My mom isn’t going to heaven and either is my dad or my brother. When they die, they are all going to hell because they don’t know Jesus but I’m going to heaven.” And the truly disturbing thing about this is that the smile never left her face.
I want to be clear that it is only through faith in Christ that we are made right with God. I hope that we can all agree with that but I had serious problems with what Sarah was expressing. We talked about it for a few weeks and I tried to give her a more complete picture of what salvation through Jesus means. But I was concerned by the lessons that she had learned at the other church.
Jesus said that there is one shepherd and one flock but different sheep pens. Do you remember that we talked last week about how the only way that we can know that someone is in Christ is by their actions. That’s because we don’t know what’s in their hearts. We don’t know what they believe. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit has been working in their lives.
Emily was be trapped by what I call magic words Christianity. Magic word Christianity basically says that you are save by saying the right words: “Yes Jesus, I confess my sins and accept you into my heart.” And pow, you’ve made it. You’re going to be with Jesus in eternity.
I believe that when someone accepts Jesus into their hearts and says those words that they truly are saved. The trouble is that only God knows if they are sincere. I don’t know what is in someone else’s heart. Either do you. The only person I can be sure of is myself.
What I’m trying to say is that while Jesus is the only way to the Father, we cannot begin to judge where someone else is on that road of faith. It’s possible that Emily’s parents were lost. But it’s equally possible that they Holy Spirit was working hard in their lives. Maybe they saw the changes that were happening in Emily’s life and some seeds were planted. Maybe they saw the good work that we were doing in our little church and that piqued their interest in Jesus. We don’t know. We can’t begin to know. What we do know is two things. We know that they were not part of the church. I can tell you that with certainty. And I can also tell you that while there is one shepherd and one flock, there are other sheep pens and other sheep. So, while they were not part of the church they very well may have been in another sheep pen.
That leads to one of the age old question of faith. We, as the church, are called to share the Gospel of Jesus and seek to lead them to Christ. When people sincerely receive Jesus they are saved by God’s grace. But what about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about those whom the church has not yet reached? Are they doomed to eternal damnation? That’s a tough question but I think we can begin to find the answer in Jesus’ words that there is one shepherd and one flock but various sheep pens. There are various sheep pens in the church – our different denominations – but there are also other sheep pens in humanity.
In Romans 2:12-16, Paul speaks of how God works in people’s lives by writing his law upon their heart. They may not know God’s laws. They have never even have heard them but they know them because of the direct action of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If God can write his law on the hearts of people who have never heard the law, how much more does God desire to write his grace upon their hearts even if they have never heard the name of Jesus.
This make perfect sense because, as we are reminded in 1 Timothy 2:4, God desire is that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. It goes on in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NIV) to say this: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” Jesus gave himself for all people because it is God’s desire that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
This is interesting because while the exclusivity of Christ is seen in the fact that he is the only way to be reconciled to God, the saving work is available to all people everywhere. In this sense, his ministry is radically inclusive because it available to all people regardless of age, race, gender, cultural or religious background and where someone might live.
Does that mean that all people will be saved? No, it doesn’t because there will be those who reject Christ but we, as followers of Jesus, need to be very careful not to set ourselves up as judge and jury about where others are on the road of faith. We simply cannot know because we do not know how God is working in the heart of someone else.
There is one shepherd and there is one flock but there are various sheep pens. We are simply in one of those pens and we should rejoice that there are those in other pens even if we do not know who they are. And so we reach out with the love of Christ to everyone in the hope that we will see them in eternity.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Loving God, your hand reaches out and touches us where we are most vulnerable. You know us in ways that no one else can know. There is nothing that is beyond your ability to understand or comprehend. No pleasure is too great, no tear drop too small to pass by without your notice. Come to us, again, with your Spirit. Reach into our lives and touch our hearts that we may truly know that you, and you alone, are God.
Who are we that you should care for us? What are we that you would lead us like a shepherd? We are nothing. Sometimes, we act as less than nothing. But still, you love us and embrace us like a parent love a child. You care for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. We give you thanks and praise and honour and glory. You, O God, are an awesome God.
We thank you for the springtime. The signs are all around us. Flowers sprout their heads above the earth. Ducks and geese are in the lakes and ponds. Seasons change but thank you, O God, that you are constant in love and faithfulness.
We thank you for our governments: municipal, provincial, federal. We have been known to poke fun at politicians but which one of us would want their jobs. Especially in this era of Covid-19 we lift up our elected officials and the public service in our prayers that your will may be made known and accomplished.
We also pray for university students who are writing exams right now. Calm their spirits so that they can fill their minds with what they need to know. Also, O God, guide each and every one of them onto your path that they may find fulfillment and purpose in your way.
Finally, we pray for the sick, at home or in hospital remembering especially Joan, Mark, Richard, Angela and Gary. May your Healing Spirit may rest upon her and all of us with power. Heal our wounds, Loving God, and empower us for our ministries in this world. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
April 25, 2021 / Easter 4
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: God calls us to worship in spirit and truth;
ALL: we are the sheep and the Lord is our Shepherd.
ONE: God calls us to follow into the paths if righteousness;
ALL: we are the sheep and the Lord is our Shepherd.
ONE: Come, let us sit together at the banquet table which is set before us;
ALL: we are the sheep and the Lord is our Shepherd.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Your love, O God, is beyond our understanding. Your compassion is without end. Your wisdom is greater than our greatest intellect. Prepare our hearts and minds to receive the message of your love for all people. Convey your Word to us in a manner that we can comprehend. Enable us, by our worship, to be ready to explain the truth of your Word to others at every opportunity. We thank you for your presence and for bringing about these opportunities to grow in faith, hope and love. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy, we come to you aware of the sinfulness that is within us. Help us to remember that not everyone will agree with or accept what we say when we speak of you. There are many who do not want to hear or understand your Word. Rather than reacting to their negative responses, help us to be patient with them, forgiving them if they do or say hurtful things, and praying for them to come to the knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ. May our patience for others mirror your patience for us. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that, on our own, we can never even approach the standards that God has set before us. Praise be to God, that we are accepted regardless of our shortcomings. When we walk in the faith of Christ, we are redeemed by his blood and cleansed of every sin.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We come with thanksgiving to celebrate your many gifts to us, O God. Your generousity is so great that we are, once again, awed by all that surrounds us. Bless our offerings for your purpose. Amen.
The time of worship is over. The time of service is about to begin. Go into the world and do your part to be the Good News. May the only wise God our Saviour watch over you and keep you from this day forward until we meet again in worship.