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The Good Shepherd

[Note: It is a coincidence that the gospel reading on the Good Shepherd falls on Mothers Day in some years - not in 2006 or 09, for which see the alternative sermon for next Sunday or perhaps make use of this one as well. It is no coincidence that some aspects of motherhood are seen to be shared with the Good Shepherd, but there is a question in the background concerning the appropriateness of various elements of folk religion of pagan origin being introduced into the proclamation of the gospel. For further discussion of this danger and related themes see Should we celebrate Mothers' Day? and Love like a mother, and more . It may also be noted that some parts of the sermon for Easter 4 Year A, Sharing the work of the shepherd, when the gospel reading was the first part of John 10, are included in this sermon. There is an unrelated alternative topical sermon for today, Creation: Faith and Science , from the corresponding Sunday three years earlier. DB.]

Jesus said, (John 10:11) I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

When I was a teenager, a long time ago, I used to prefer the verse that comes before this one, where Jesus is said to be the source of abundant life. It was the last part of that preceding verse (John 10:10b) which in the translation (NEB-REB) I came to prefer later said, "I have come that they may have life, and may have it in all its fulness." For a good many years it was my favourite text. I think I preached on it when I was about 16; it was probably my first sermon. Is that not a reasonable thing for a young man or woman to like: the prospect of "life in all its fulness"? Young people of the time around 1950 that I am recalling were not very different from young people today in their love of life, and hope for "abundant life", despite all the bad press that "The Fifties" are given today by people who have a particular view of what makes for progress. Perhaps those were more hopeful and innocent days as prosperity returned after the war, and young people had yet to face the fears, anxieties and loss of faith that was so widespread during the cold war, the cultural revolution and the increasing alienation of economic rationalism over the coming decades, but in these basic things people are pretty much the same anywhere and anytime. Indeed we who were young fifty years ago are not so different today ourselves, though we might have been battered a bit by life in the meantime. Regardless of age or situation, believers have always looked to Jesus as the one who brings life in all its fulness.

[This section may be omitted
Do mothers model the Good Shepherd?

You might wonder whether the positive emphasis of "Life in all its fulness" or even "Abundant life" might not be a better text for Mother's Day, but then when you think about it, "the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep" might also have something to do with motherhood which does have some elements of sacrifice in it, sometimes indeed an enormous amount of sacrifice. Whether in a prosperous society today women should be expect to make the economic sacrifices that many do for the sake of their children is another matter. I wonder, too, if the evidence that children brought up in single parent households often grow up good citizens and better than many have expected is not an outcome bought at great cost, economic, social and emotional, to the mother. There is injustice in expecting women to make most of the sacrifices, but no one want to argue with the fact that some choices involving sacrifices often need to be made for children to be born and raised. The ultimate sacrifice of giving one's life is hard to imagine in most circumstances in our society, although in pastoral work I have had reason to learn that death in childbirth does still happen in rare cases. Anyone who has done much family history is likely to find instances of such deaths among their ancestors. You might say there was not much choice in it then, so it was hardly a sacrifice, but women have always been willing to take the risk for the sake of having children. Of course it is more likely that much smaller everyday sacrifices will be a normal part of family life, and those sacrifices are made willingly by countless mothers. We will later look more closely at how the Good Shepherd offers a model for parenting, for both men and women. First we need to understand the central message of what it means for the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. So why does his death have to receive so much attention? What has it to do with life in all its fulness?]

What makes the Good Shepherd good?

Let us continue with the words of Jesus as John gives them to us in the following verses:

How then do you know the good shepherd from one who does not care for the sheep? It is by his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep that the true shepherd is known. It is not merely an incidental consequence of his being a shepherd. A leader caring for his followers by providing them with necessary food and shelter, and even driving away enemies, could be represented universally by the old pastoral image of the shepherd. You might even imagine an assessment being made in terms of modern management practice by asking such questions as how well did the leader shepherd his or her flock by showing them the way forward, making realistic assessments of strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, encouraging them in their personal development and rewarding their efforts, providing the resources necessary for their success, and celebrating with them the achievement of both corporate and personal goals. The idea that Jesus was a good and caring shepherd type of leader in those ways might fit the story in part, but there is much more to it. The normal human model of a good leader as like a shepherd does not go the extreme of sacrifice. Such a thing might happen in war, but even there it is not recommended. Indeed the opposite: a leader will usually be advised to preserve his life for the sake of his followers, whereas we say that Jesus sacrificed his life for the sake of his followers. It was at the heart of his identity as the Good Shepherd. That was how his true character was revealed, just as when Jesus risen from the dead drew attention to the wounds on his hands and feet as proof of his identity, as we were recalling last week. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

The way in which we can tell who is the true shepherd, teaches us a little more about him. His love is known from his willingness to sacrifice for them, and that comes from the fact that the sheep belong to him while the hireling who does not own the sheep runs away (John 10:12). Jesus said,

It know my own and my own know me, {15} just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. It is an intimate and loving knowledge with which the Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and they should know him. They might not always realize it, but the people for whom the Good Shepherd died, do indeed belong to him. [To return to motherhood for a moment] there is a famous illustration of loving, sacrifice and belonging in Solomon's judgment between the two prostitutes who both claimed the one child (1 Kings 3:16-28). You remember how it was: the wise king said cut the child in two and give half to each of the women who claim him and one said, no, give the living child to the other woman and do not kill him; and so Solomon identified the true mother and gave the child to her who was willing to give him up.

You can say that Solomon's judgment can have a selfish explanation along the lines of Dawkins' theory of the selfish gene: that is, the mother was acting in her own interest biologically. Whether such a theory fits the facts and whether it matters as an explanation of altruism can be debated, but we know that people do sometimes conscientiously make sacrificial decisions. For Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, the position is quite different. There was no question of ensuring his posterity biologically, but quite the opposite, although his loved ones were treated as if they were the children of his future, as the suffering servant of Isaiah clearly illustrates:

Some ethical implications of the example of the Good Shepherd

While there is more to the sacrifice of the Good Shepherd than a good example, there is something to be learned for everyday life from the model of a shepherd in the saying of Jesus about himself. Yes, certainly, Jesus was different, but did he not choose homely examples, and do not ordinary people share in the character of a good shepherd, even in making some sacrifice for those in their charge, be they children, workers, or fellow citizens. There are obvious implications of the example of the Good Shepherd for all in positions of shepherding in church and society. Traditionally people in positions of responsibility of this kind include teachers, managers, governing authorities, priests, parents, and elders. Today in liberal democratic societies we tend to dislike hierarchical forms of leadership. In the church especially we place emphasis on being of service to others, and sometimes we import secular ideas of equality. Servant leadership does not, however, mean that there is no role for leaders. Servant leadership is not a contradiction in terms. To speak of leaders being servants says, rather, something about the kind of leadership we should expect to give and receive in the name of Christ. Groups often need leaders, but the purpose of good shepherding is to serve those who are led, just as Jesus made himself a servant of his followers who nevertheless looked to him for leadership. Much the same applies as far as practicable in our work and family responsibilities: where we have responsibility for the welfare of others we are not called upon to give up that responsibility but to carry it out for their benefit rather than our own.

Some of you might say that you are just an ordinary member of the church or the community in which you live, and that in your everyday life you are not a leader, or that you are not the managerial type. Perhaps, to a degree that is true; but there are times when each of us takes responsibility for someone else. Parents cannot avoid it; and in later life we often find it is necessary to accept a reversal of roles when we have responsibility for aging parents. Sickness or unexpected disabilities among those close to us sometimes thrusts upon us cares that we might never have anticipated. We all have to act at one time or another as the shepherd looking out for and leading on behalf of someone else. When we do that Christ is the model for what we do. Jesus did, after all, call upon his followers to take up their cross too as the way to fulness of life:

In contrast there are today plenty of people with power to affect the welfare of others to whom the warnings that Jesus gave about thieves and robbers apply, even if this is only a secondary meaning of his warning. Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd [John 10:11,14] who knows his flock and cares for them even to the extent that he lays down his life for them. His followers know that he cares for their lives more than for his own, unlike other leaders who use their followers to advance their own interests. They know that his purpose is fulness of life for his followers:

Overcoming the evil of the bad shepherds

Abundant life, the fulfilment of God's plan for each one, is the purpose of the leadership offered by the Good Shepherd. We know well enough today how the welfare of others is not always the motivation of people in positions of leadership with power and responsibility in business, government or sadly sometimes in the church and welfare organisations. Exploitation of the weak by the powerful is an ancient wrong, and, of course, a modern blight. It is a common human failing which becomes more obvious at certain times. One such time was in the days of the prophet Ezekiel. It is very likely that Jesus had his words in mind when he warned of bad shepherds who exploited the flock rather than caring for them. In Chapter 34 of Ezekiel we read how the prophet addressed the rulers of Israel and accused them of being bad shepherds:

Other prophets gave similar warnings at other times. It is a recurring theme in history that people in positions of power and responsibility abuse their positions. So at various points in the history of Israel the prophets spoke out: another example was Jeremiah [23:1-4]:-

And Zechariah [11:15-17] warned "the worthless shepherd .. may the sword strike him"

Ezekiel went on the warn them that God would act: [see 34: 7-10] Thus says the Lord,

And he promised to come and lead them himself:

That is the role that God have to Jesus, his son, who was God, to seek and save those who are lost

So, here is the purpose of his sacrifice. It was more than a good example. Looking at the ethical implications of the example Jesus gave, we see beyond the immediate earthly application of a good example to the ultimate purpose of God for humanity. That is the purpose in which we might become children of God, the purpose in which the sacrifice of his son played the crucial part. It was necessary because there was evil in the world such as the evil illustrated by the bad shepherds. There was evil to overcome in ordinary human affairs before the fulness of life could be enjoyed, as when exploitive shepherds who consume the sheep must be overcome. Such evils are examples of the principalities and powers of a spiritual kind from which humanity had to be rescued, or saved. For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. ... For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

The willing sacrifice of his life was the price to be paid as the cost of that confrontation with evil in which victory was won for us, beyond what we could ever do for ourselves. It was the way of the suffering servant Lord, the Good Shepherd.

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