4th Sunday of Easter – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 10:11-18
Our Savior Lutheran, Raleigh
April 25, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
This Gospel lesson is about death. Some of you are probably thinking, “No Vicar, it’s about Jesus the Good Shepherd.” I’ll admit, it’s about that. But it’s mostly about death. And those of you who were at the text study on Wednesday this week are thinking, “But Vicar, you said then that this passage is about the Church!” Yes, it’s about the Church, too. But death is the main focus of this little discourse with the disciples.
I wouldn’t have come to this realization if it wasn’t for the image on your bulletin cover, which hangs in my office. As I stared at it throughout the week, I remembered that the original image is a mosaic in a mausoleum. Then I remembered the catacombs, those old tombs under Rome where the earliest Christians worshipped, and where we find the earliest images of Christ—portrayed as the Good Shepherd. Finally, I realized what Jesus’ main qualification is for a Good Shepherd, since he repeats three times: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The good shepherd dies for his flock.
But that’s not what a sensible shepherd does for his flock. Jesus doesn’t seem to understand how to run a very successful business. A practically-minded keeper of sheep would recognize that his own life is worth significantly more than the life of any of his sheep. Of course, he’s not going to act like the hired hand and flee at every whiff of danger. He’ll put up a good fight for sure! But he’s got to keep the bottom line in mind, and a careful cost-benefit analysis shows that the shepherd’s death would be much more detrimental to the business than if a couple sheep got snatched by the wolf. There’s only one of him, and he’s needed to lead, feed, and protect the flock. Besides, sheep can quickly reproduce and replace any of the flock that disappear. They might have to tighten the belt a little bit to make up the loss, but they’ll make it through alright.
But Jesus, of course, isn’t in the shepherding business to make money. So when he teaches his disciples that “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he’s pushing against our assumptions about life and death—that any kind of death is always bad for business, and that only the most valuable lives are worth preserving. Instead, Jesus says, my sheep truly are worth dying for. And death isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s necessary for the life of the sheep.
What is it that makes the sheep so valuable that Jesus would die for them? Maybe they’re some rare breed, making this one of only a few flocks of this kind in the world. Maybe their wool is priceless, used in the fine fabrics found in royal palaces and king’s wardrobes. But again, these sheep can simply breed together, make more sheep, and produce more of the same fine wool. Besides, there’s probably some company that’s produced a synthetic alternative that’s just as good, anyways. So the quality of their wool must not be why they’re worth dying for.
Maybe they’re worth saving because they’re really smart sheep. They know that I’m their shepherd, Jesus says. They listen to his voice and probably do exactly what he says. That’s not necessarily a trait you can breed into a flock. A calm, attentive flock requires the careful hand of a shepherd, who doesn’t spare the rod. They probably know that they’re supposed to stay together and not stray. If they encounter wolf, they know how to get away from him. So the shepherd is probably more than happy to lay down his life for his carefully disciplined flock because he’s invested so much time in them. But if the flock is so well-behaved that it never gets into trouble, then there’s really not any point at which the shepherd would have to intervene. They’re so perfect that the shepherd doesn’t even have to consider laying down his life for them.
Well, if there’s no value in the wool the sheep produce or in their good behavior, why should the Good Shepherd die for them? That’s the difficult thing with this passage—Jesus never explains what is about the sheep that makes them worth dying for. Instead, all we can conclude is that the sheep are valuable simply because the shepherd says they are. He loves his sheep—not because he ultimately profits from them, but simply because they are his sheep. In fact, he willingly loses everything so that his sheep can live. In the end, it’s the sheep who profit from the shepherd.
In the end, it’s our Good Shepherd’s willingness to die for us his sheep that determines our value as his flock. Our value comes not from anything in us, or anything we do. The wool of our works, our knowledge, our self-disciple don’t make us any more valuable to God. Instead, our worth comes from the fact that the very Son of God was willing to become man and die for our salvation. “He is called by thy name,” William Blake writes, “For he calls himself a Lamb: / He is meek & he is mild, / He became a little child…” The shepherd became a sheep for you. He became a little child and died, so that you might become children of the Father—children whose value is far greater than anything you yourself could produce.
But his death does not leave us without a shepherd. After the final time Jesus says that he lays down his life for the sheep, he declares, “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” He not only dies for us, but he rises for our glory as well. And Jesus stands and shepherds his flock eternally, so that death for us sheep is now the gate into the Garden of Paradise. Where else would a flock of sheep love to be than in a garden that is ever green, where streams of living water flow and verdant pastures grow?
For the time being, however, we’re still wandering our way to Paradise through this barren land. The devil prowls about like a roaring lion and a threatening wolf, but Christ preserves us through all the changes and chances of life. He does this by gathering us together into the flock of this congregation. And as we gather in his presence, Christ gives this flock an oasis in the journey. In this place, he ensures that you hear his voice and receive his gifts of life and forgiveness. Here you can lift up your voice in prayer and praise, and know that he will hear you and tend to your every need. Here he spreads a table in your sight, giving you a foretaste of that feast in Paradise.
So dear lambs of Christ’s flock, listen to the voice of your Good Shepherd and receive the gifts he has prepared for you. Death will still come for us. We have no choice—as the flock, we must go the way of our shepherd, which is the way of the cross, the way of suffering and pain. Ultimately, we will come face to face with our mortality. But receiving Christ’s gifts and communing with him and his people is how he prepares you for that death. And at that day you will be able to stand confidently and say, “Death where is your sting? Grave where is your victory? My Shepherd has transformed death into the gate to Paradise. His goodness never fails, and I will dwell in his presence forever.” Alleluia. Christ is risen!
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.