A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]
Today, since we are a flock, and since the Good Shepherd has gathered here as one, I’d like to reserve several minutes here at the beginning of the sermon for us all to share some pasture time with our fellow sheep. If you could, please find a worship bulletin and turn to the Question for the Car Ride, which you’ll find on page 11. The question is “If you were to be a hired hand on a farm, which task or type of work would you choose to do and why?” Spend a few seconds thinking that over to yourself. I won’t give any examples because I don’t want to limit anyone’s imaginations. And I’m going to set aside several minutes for you to introduce yourselves to the people sitting around you—on your pew or maybe just behind you or in front of you—and to share your answers to that question. Get to know one another, move around a bit if you need to.
[pause for conversation to happen]
Just this past Monday I was visiting with someone in a nursing home and several of her family members were already there. Four generations, in fact. They all happen to be members of this congregation and so it was good to catch up with them, and as we were talking one of them, a young man, explained that he had the day off because he had been in class all weekend long. Knowing this young man was a firefighter, I assumed he meant some type of continuing education course where they were catching up on new codes or new equipment guidelines.
“No,” he informed me, “we were out in the field for this class. It is called ‘Rescuing people from confined spaces.’”
“Oh, yes, that class,” I retorted.
Interested, I asked him to tell me a bit about it, and he said, “Well, we actually practiced rescuing someone stuck in a silo. We had a dummy placed inside a tight silo compartment high off the ground and we took turns climbing up there with a harness on, hoisting it out, fastening it to a zip line structure we had set up and lowering it to the ground that way. It’s all very technical and very dangerous.”
He said each scenario is different because no one gets stuck the same way. The rule or procedure, if there is one, is to figure out how to perform the rescue as quickly as possible while maintaining a level of safety for the rescuer. Although we often hear about those things on the news pray those kinds of risky things go well for everyone, there is always the realization this young man or another firefighter like him may end up laying down his life for another.
If I were to be a hired hand on a farm, I don’t think I would choose to work in the silo, but I’m glad there are people getting trained to put their lives on the line if I did.
This morning we hear about the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is speaking with his disciples and the other people who have begun to follow him and he is setting himself as an example against the other caretakers of the people of God through the years who had been reckless and neglectful of their needs. Jesus says he is the good shepherd—the noble shepherd, the genuine shepherd, which are two other meanings of this Greek word translated as “good,”—because he lays down his life for the sheep.
According to Jesus himself, that right there alone is what makes him good or noble or genuine. We know does a lot of things we would call good—he heals people, he extends God’s embrace and is sure to include in God’s love and forgiveness those who’ve been marginalized, he’s got solid teachings about how to live. But in the end his goodness is not based on any other quality or trait other than the fact he will offer his life for the sake of the sheep. He is selfless. He will sacrifice his own well-being. Other people who watch the sheep, the hired hands, tend to look out for themselves. They don’t look the wolf in the eye. They don’t climb the silo to pull someone out.
Jesus’ followers would have known that their people had a long history of those kinds of leaders, the leaders who really looked out only for themselves, who thought of ways to enrich themselves on the backs of the people they were supposed to be serving. Jesus will not respond to leadership and responsibility that way. He recognizes that those in his care are his own. There is a connection there between him and us that he either can’t or won’t ignore or deny. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”
There are two main ways you can know something. One way is to learn information about it through seeing or hearing it. Babies come to know their mother and father by seeing their faces over and over again. We come to know a lot of information in school through seeing words and notes and diagrams our teachers give us.
But there is also the knowing that we get through experiencing something, through actually being a part of it and doing it. People learn to perform rescues from confined spaces this way. When the firefighters have classes all through the weekend they aren’t sitting in a classroom reading about the technical aspects of it or looking at pictures of silos. They are actually experiencing it. Climbing up and climbing back down.
Jesus’ knowledge of us comes from being made flesh and dwelling among us. He doesn’t just look from afar at what we go through, or study some textbook about what it’s like to be a human in a broken world. Left to die on the cross, abandoned by his friends, and feeling forsaken by God, Jesus experiences a life that needs rescue. He knows his own people because he’s in some way been there with them in it all.
It stands to reason, then, that part of our knowledge of Jesus will come through experiencing that relationship. We can learn facts about Jesus in Sunday School. We can chew on words of sermons. We can read theology and read Scripture and come to know Jesus that way. But sheep know a shepherd by getting up and following, by moving along, by experiencing his loving leadership. That is, at some point, our faith in Jesus must become more than just knowledge about God. It is stepping into relationship with him. It may mean involve saying to ourselves in some way, “I am one of the people Jesus laid down his life for. I don’t understand it the way I’d understand algebra or the Civil War, but it sounds good and I trust it and I will continue to walk and talk with him.”
Of course, the issue is that walking and talking with Jesus is not something we do alone. A group of rescued individuals all with their own privatized relationships with their Creator is not what he’s going for. It’s not what any shepherd goes for. The good shepherd works to keep his flock together, and this part is vitally important. The laying down of his life and taking it back up again is not done primarily for you and for me, but for the sake of all us—a community, a whole.
Interestingly enough, there is no difference between the singular and plural words for sheep. In both Greek and English, the word sheep is used both for one and for many. All other livestock I can think of have different words. One cow, many cows. One horse, many horses. One pig, a bunch of swine. One ox, many oxen. But sheep is sheep are sheep, and it’s true that sheep do naturally flock more than most other livestock. I don’t think it’s an accident of language. It’s plausible to me that the ancients didn’t really conceive of sheep as single animals, really. I think it indicates there is something fundamental about our identity as God’s people that comes from realizing we’re all one. Jesus has laid down his life because we belong together, not scattered. In fact, research shows that even singing in groups, like choirs and in congregations, is good for one’s mental health, regardless of one’s own singing ability!
We essentially live scattered lives nowadays. Single congregations situated in suburbia, pulling from multiple municipalities, have an especially challenging time embodying the one flock nature of following Jesus. Few of our lives overlap in meaningful ways throughout the course of the week. Typically we don’t even see each other. We spend a large portion of our lives in work situations where speaking about faith is either looked down on or even illegal. We gather for an hour or two on Sunday mornings and that’s about it, and so it’s very easy to begin thinking our spirituality is individual, that as long as we are tending to our relationship with God, we’re doing our part.
But sheep is sheep are sheep, and entering into meaningful relationships with each other here is part and parcel to what the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. We are one flock.
Furthermore, there are even others out there, Jesus says, not of this fold that are being brought together with us. Early on, Jesus’ followers may have interpreted that to mean the Gentiles or the Samaritans or others that were not part of the household of Israel, but now Jesus may mean anyone not of our Christian flock.
We may not always know how to interact with others not of our fold—people who don’t acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, people who don’t believe in God, people of different faiths and religions—but Jesus clearly sees himself as their shepherd too. Who knows which folds he is talking about? But he is in the process of leading them into some kind of unity with us. We may not understand how or when, but it does mean that our stance toward others, even those who seem to be outside our household of faith, should likely be one of love and patience and dialogue. Even as we trust in the name of Jesus, even as we gather and help grow our congregation or our outreach and service ministries to the community, even as we grow in our love for God’s creation, even as we grow in our singing, we know that others who do not share our specific beliefs are still in a fold that Christ cares for.
Because to the Good Shepherd each sheep is one of many sheep. Each person is someone for whom Jesus has died, whether they know it or not, and each person is one of a group, no matter how lonely they feel. He has laid down his life for them. On the cross he climbs up into your silo for the rescue and leaves himself there so that we can be free. You are his own. He knows you. And he hasn’t just learned your face. He is walking with you, with us…because we are his flock.
It is we who he loves.
He is the good shepherd.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.