18 April 2021
Easter 3 Misericordias Domini
O Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom is the fountain of life, give us all, we entreat Thee, grace and good will to follow the leadings of Thy most Holy Spirit. Let the dew of Thy grace descend and abide upon us, refreshing that which droops, reviving that which is ready to perish; until the day when all Thy faithful people shall be satisfied with the fatness of Thy house, and drink of the river of Thy pleasures. Amen.
God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours, from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus Amen.
This is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the Gospel for today is that text where Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. We’ve seen some of the Bible’s imagery relating to this theme during this service. It’s a good theme, and has been a vivid picture for many people for centuries.
Maybe not as vivid for us. But as little as you may know about shepherds and sheep, the picture of a Good Shepherd makes sense. Especially when we see how Jesus paints it.
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is the word of God. Heavenly Father, sanctify us through the truth. Your Word is truth. Amen.
This whole chapter of St. John is filled with shepherd imagery. It’s reminiscent of the way God raised up the shepherd boy David, a man after his own heart, to be a shepherd to His people. And David became a great king, but still all too fallen and sinful. Even David, one of the most faithful kings of Israel and Judah, failed in certain ways.
Jeremiah prophesied, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord” (24:1). And God also promised, “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord” (23:4). How is this possible? If David failed, how can anyone else succeed in taking care of God’s people? We can’t. Now, the title “pastor” means “shepherd,” but every conscientious pastor knows that we cannot succeed on our own.
So today’s Old Testament is a great relief to us all. It shows how God’s people may be cared for in the best way, and how those we call “pastors” are not left to our own devices.
God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down” (Ezekiel 34:15). You are in the care of God Himself. That’s how we understand what Jesus is saying with the words, “I am the good shepherd.”
Before we study how Jesus expanded on this idea, let’s take a moment to ask about pastors. The word “pastor” is an English version of the word “shepherd” taken from the Latin language. You might not have realized it, but whenever you use the word “pastor,” you are as good as speaking Latin.
Are pastors also in today’s Gospel? Yes, but not specifically. They are not supposed to be hired hands (that is, working for no more reason than their pay), and they are not supposed to be wolves (harming the sheep for their own appetites). These things can happen, and sadly they do sometimes happen, so pastors need your prayers, encouragement, and accountability to God’s Word. But in this gospel, pastors are really just part of the flock. We are all sheep of the Good Shepherd.
If you read back to the beginning of the chapter, you’ll find another place where pastors come in, because the parable is different there. Jesus uses the picture of the sheepfold with a gate or door. You can tell the real shepherd because he enters the fold through its door. Robbers and thieves climb over the walls. The sheepfold in that parable is the Church, where the flock is gathered and kept. Jesus enters through the door of His Word taught, preached, and delivered through Confession and Absolution, as well as through the Sacraments: Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Those things are the door by which Jesus comes to His flock, and He leads them in and out through that door to give them the food and rest they need. So you might ask, then, where are pastors pictured?
Jesus said (v. 2-3), “He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens.” The gatekeeper opens the way for Jesus to be present with His flock, and that’s what pastors do.
That was also the concern of Martin Luther 500 years ago today. He knew that the Church needs Jesus above all. Without Jesus, there is no Church. But without correct teaching, devout worship, and piety in living, the Church loses Jesus. So when the head of his nation threatened Luther face to face that he must choose between Jesus and his security; between truth and death, Luther spoke the words quoted on the back of the service folder. “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He was being a faithful pastor. He was opening the gate of the sheepfold.
But now, back to our Gospel, later in the chapter. Jesus gives us reasons why we should believe that He’s the Good Shepherd. He’s the Shepherd of whom King David and even Luther were only imperfect shadows, and the figure we perceive through our pastors in their most faithful work.
Jesus tells us the distinctive thing about the Good Shepherd: that He gives His life for the sheep.
Now, pastors may sometimes work for little compensation, and it may be assumed that they have given their lives to the work. Even when a congregation takes great care of its pastor, the work requires dedication. Some of them have given much, and much is sometimes also asked of their families. This is all for the sake of the gospel and Jesus’ assignment to preach it. Luther was ready to die for it. Lately in this place, it’s rare that pastors die for their work.
The Good Shepherd did give His life on a cross. He shed His blood for the sheep, even the wayward ones with a habit of making trouble or contradicting what He says. Even for those like you, who can’t help wandering into this or that mortal peril through dangerous habits and appetites. He gave His life for them all, so that they might have forgiveness and life in themselves that will never end. That’s a pretty big difference between the Good Shepherd and the pastors who work for Him.
There’s another difference. Jesus gave His life for the sheep. He cleanses them with clean water. He washes their feet. He feeds them bread from heaven that is His flesh with the power of life and healing. He does those things for them that are written in the 23rd Psalm. His focus is on the good of the sheep.
But pastors are sheep themselves. They deliver the gifts of the Good Shepherd, and in that way do some of the same things He does for the flock. But in order to do this rightly and well, the focus of a pastor ought not to be on the sheep. Pastors need to focus on the Good Shepherd with His gifts and instructions. That’s where they receive the forgiveness they need. That’s where they obtain the unfailing guidance for faithful stewards of the mysteries of God. Keeping one eye fixed on the Good Shepherd, then pastors may also look and see the needs of the flock.
A good pastor will reflect the Good Shepherd that the sheep love so well, but no good pastor seeks to replace the Good Shepherd. That would make him a hireling, seeking only some kind of compensation from men like praise, security, or material possessions. No pastor or hireling can give his life for the sheep the way the Good Shepherd has done.
Every one of us must be a sheep of our Good Shepherd before all else. That goes for pastors, teachers, catechists, evangelists, musicians, and anyone else working in the Church under the Good Shepherd.
It also goes for anyone whose work is outside the walls of a church. In each vocation, we serve God first, then the good of our neighbors, and finally the boss or supervisor. This has its challenges even in the domestic vocation, where God makes us husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, and so forth. “God sets the solitary in families,” which means our responsibility toward others in the household is really to Him.
The challenges and conflicts can be especially difficult in vocations outside the home. We are asked to serve, tolerate, or even advocate ideas that run against God’s Word and love for our neighbors. Your sinful flesh always wants to go along to get along. You don’t have to tell me. That’s especially true when recent ideologies have been making everything in our Catechism political, contentious, and even potentially violent. Wisdom seems to say, “Keep your head down, and don’t make waves.”
But sometimes the sheep of the Good Shepherd must be wise as serpents. Just like pastors must be different from hirelings, so must the flock of our Lord stand for what is right, support one another, and let the word of Christ matter more than anything else. Do you believe He’ll take care of you if your faith shows in your actions? Do you? Martin Luther thought he was about to be burned at the stake like the Bohemian reformer Huss. Here we must cry out, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
And He does help, for He is the true Good Shepherd. His promise will not fail. Your life on Earth will follow a path that resembles His: a cross for a while, and eternal life to come. Your sin of wavering and doubts are forgiven. Your compromises with those who are misled or even trying to undermine God’s creation are washed away. You are created anew through the blood of Jesus, for He has called you personally to live in righteousness as His own precious lamb.
Will you suffer? As surely as you live in this world. Will you die for your faith? If that is His plan. But Jesus will not forsake you. His promises are stronger than death, which He proved the day He rose from His grave to make all things new.
That’s what Jesus means by a Good Shepherd. You may rely on Him.
Soli Deo Gloria!