Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Our gospel reading this morning gives us insight into the compassion of Jesus Christ and we learn that he cares for us. That’s one of those truths near the heart of the gospel that is easy to lose sight of because maybe we think first of the various duties that come with being a Christian: praying, tithing my income, feeding the hungry, and so on. Or maybe we think that because we are just one person the Lord is busy caring for others. So it is worth remembering: Jesus Christ cares for you.
This week I was visiting with someone in hospital and a short verse from the first epistle of Saint Peter came to mind. It says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” (5:7). Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who cares for each one of his sheep. How does he care for them? He lays down his life to guard them and to gather them. This is what defines the good shepherd.
As we heard, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand. What do we learn about the hired hand? Basically, that he has no skin in the game. These sheep are not his sheep. So then, when trouble threatens, when the wolf approaches, the hired hand cuts his losses, turns tail, and is out of there. The hired hand abandons the sheep in the face of danger and leaves them vulnerable to the wolf who snatches them and scatters them.
As an aside here it is worth asking who Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the wolf that comes to wreak havoc on the flock. He does not explicitly say. It could be that he has in mind the Pharisees and religious leaders that are spiritually blind and lack compassion for the people of Israel (Jn 9:40). It could be that he has in mind false teachers that distort the gospel for their own ends (Mt 7:15).
After all, it matters greatly what the Church teaches. For example, in the book of Acts Paul is headed to Rome and he calls the leaders of the church in Ephesus together to say good-bye and to exhort them: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them,” (Acts 20:28-30). Here, wolves are those teachers that shamelessly distort the One Faith [point upwards at St. John’s] that shepherds are tasked with guarding and passing on.
Being a good pastor is about learning the importance of both of these things: genuine compassion for God’s people and uncompromising fidelity to the Apostolic Faith.
Nevertheless, Jesus is not overly concerned with the wolf here. Rather, he wants us to know what the good shepherd is like. As we heard, when the going gets tough and the hired hand gets going but not the good shepherd. While the hired hand takes flight the good shepherd stays and fights. And what does the good shepherd do in order to protect the sheep? He lays down his life. Four times in this short passage we hear this. This is the central characteristic of the good shepherd: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
The good shepherd guards the sheep even at his own peril. Jesus does not flee at the first sign of danger. He himself does not avoid the cross but faces it head on and by his resurrection is victorious over sin and death. Jesus Christ knows what it is to suffer. He knows your suffering and he is very near to you. He has taken hold of you, do not break from his grasp. As Christ says only a few verses later: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand,” (John 10:27-29).
The good shepherd is willing to suffer for the sake of the sheep because they are exceedingly valuable to him. They belong to him therefore he is personally invested in them. If those sheep are in danger you better believe the good shepherd will put himself in harms way, even putting his own life on the line. This should tell you something about the value of the sheep in the eyes of the good shepherd. How valuable are they to him? Infinitely valuable! Of more value even than his own life!
There is a psychological phenomenon that might help us understand this, what behavioral scientists call the “sunk costs fallacy.” Basically, the sunk costs fallacy says that people are more likely to make irrational decisions on account of “sunk costs,” money already spent that you are not getting back either way.
For example, say you have a pair of Leafs’ play-off tickets valued at $200 each. The night of the game rolls around and there is a big snow storm. I know that is a terribly unlikely scenario because it is April but humour me. Studies show that you will be more likely to risk traveling through perilous conditions if you paid the $400 for the tickets yourself. On the contrary, had you received the tickets for free you would be much more likely to stay in and watch re-runs on Netflix. Objectively the value of the tickets remains the same but their worth to you personally changes. Why? Because of the cost. In the one scenario the tickets cost you nothing. In the other scenario the tickets cost you personally, perhaps greatly. Therefore you are willing to incur other costs.
Likewise, we can say that because the good shepherd owns the sheep he is willing to incur the cost of their safe-keeping. When the sheep are in danger the good shepherd goes to meet it and takes upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall them. Even laying down his life. Because, “our salvation is dearer to the Son than his own life.”
So, the good shepherd guards the sheep but he also gathers the sheep: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Historically this refers to the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant that God had established with Israel. And of course, from the very beginning the Church included both Jew and Gentile together, one flock with one shepherd.
Yet the point remains true today. The risen Jesus continues to bring many sons and daughters into God’s family, making it bigger and richer than ever. Those who once did not know his voice now know his voice. How does Jesus accomplish this? Again, by his cross and resurrection. Saint Peter interprets this mystery for us as we heard in Acts. The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone that holds the whole building together. The name that was wiped out from the earth has become the name by which we are saved! He was struck down yet in rising again he brings many with him.
“I must bring them also,” says Jesus. I must. Do we share Christ’s sense of urgency? Do we share his conviction that right now there are people out there who he knows and loves and wants to bring into the fellowship of his church?
You here this morning are witnesses of these things. You are here because Jesus Christ the good shepherd has brought you here. You may have been here your whole life or you may have been here but a few weeks. Regardless, the truth remains: Christ has drawn you in by the beauty of his love and mercy, by the beauty of his cross and resurrection, and he cares for you. And in the pasture of the Church he nourishes you and feeds you with his very life and love in the proclamation of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread.
I believe that Jesus is still doing this. In fact, my prayer is that he would continue to gather people into this very church community. I pray that this time next year there are people in our midst that are not here right now. I pray that this time next year we will have baptized more men and women into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Because that’s what the good shepherd is about. Therefore it had better be what we are about.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus Christ is the good shepherd. You are his. He cares for you. He lays down his life for you. He guards you and he gathers you into friendship with the living God. Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of the cross! Let us therefore contemplate the mystery of his resurrection! Let us therefore contemplate his great love for us and for those he is still gathering into the flock.
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
 John Calvin.