Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 3, 2009
In the name of Jesus, the Good Shepherd whose voice gathers the church into being.
It’s called the “messiah complex,”
an insidious little fantasy that allows someone to believe
that they alone can save someone, something …
that they can and must do it all alone.
Many well-intentioned people suffer from this messiah complex.
Mandatory psychological examinations for people entering the ministry
look for, among other things, a latent messiah complex waiting to rear its ugly head.
Messiah complexes exist in all professions, but let me cast the spotlight on mine, for a moment.
There are pastors out there who feel that they must do it all –
from setting up the tables for a fellowship dinner,
to visiting every last member,
from cleaning the toilets to saying “yes” to every invitation or request …
Such pastors find it hard to say “no,” hard to share their ministry with others,
hard to properly delegate tasks to others gifted to do so.
They view themselves as Atlas, carrying the world – or at least their congregation –
on their shoulders.
And truth be told, there are some people within congregations
who think this is the pastor’s job, too …
a hired hand to do all the work.
Of course, it is not only clergy who suffer from this debilitating distortion …
Surely you all know someone like this in your family, place of work, or neighborhood …
or perhaps you see that person every time you look in the mirror.
Yet even though I know in my head that this tendency of human nature
is particularly prevalent among pastors,
I still find it troubling that so many commentaries and reflections on today’s Gospel passage
feel the need to remind pastors that they are not the Good Shepherd.
Yes, this text, one of several in the Bible to employ sheep and shepherd imagery,
is read by some to be a job description of what it means to be a pastor.
But that would be a horrendous misreading.
Today’s text is not a pastor’s job description.
A pastor. Admittedly, the vocabulary of my profession is problematic in this regard,
as the word itself comes from the Latin and means “shepherd.”
Our bishop carries a crosier, a shepherd’s staff curved at the top,
a sign of his office to be a spiritual shepherd within the church.
Yet these pastoral images and metaphors for the task of ordained ministry
come more directly from other passages of Scripture,
including John 21 (when Jesus invites Simon Peter to “Tend my sheep”),
and 1 Peter 5 (where the elders of the congregation are encouraged
to tend the flock of God, but where Peter makes abundantly clear
that the chief shepherd is Jesus.)
Nonetheless, some pastors read today’s text and see in it a job description …
But what do we see in today’s text from John, in this supposed clergy job description?
The good shepherd knows his flock, and they know him.
The good shepherd tends to the flock, and increases it.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – that’s in there twice!
But more … the good shepherd in this passage is compared with the “hired hand,”
the one who is paid to tend the sheep but who runs at the sight of the wolf …
the hired hand doesn’t care.
And so, in contrast to the hired hand,
the good shepherd cares for the sheep and defends them from attack,
keeps them safe, to the point of risking his own life.
And so yes, dear friends, there are some who read these words from John’s Gospel
and see in it a job description for clergy … or even for all Christians.
But such a reading would be wrong, in fact, would deny the heart of the Gospel,
because in this text Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
“I am,” Jesus says. Not, “you are,” or “you ought to be.” No.
Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is the one who lays down his life.
Jesus is the one who knows his sheep.
Jesus is the one who will gather other sheep into the fold.
Jesus is the one who will gather all into one flock, and be its shepherd.
This text is about Jesus … and his relationship with his flock.
Jesus is the subject of this text. And yet, we try to make it about us.
You see, this text is pure Gospel, and how we hate Gospel.
Yes, how we hate Gospel.
That’s an odd thing to say, perhaps, in the church ….
we hate Gospel.
But let me say this: it’s really hard to hear good news.
But have you ever noticed how much our selfish nature
likes to meddle with the Gospel and replace talk of God with talk of what we must do,
how good we ought to be,
what kinds of things we ought to do
when instead we should be talking about what God indeed does for us?
Sure, there’s a time and a place to talk about how we as God’s people are called to live,
to get into issues of ethics and morality …
But too often, way too often,
we Christians spin our wheels trying to re-build the Towers of Babel …
schemes by which we can reach heaven through our own pious efforts.
From practices of personal morality or faithful piety,
to the “proper” positions on political topics and social issues,
we Christians – on the right and on the left – excel at creating litmus tests, check lists,
and ladders by which we can climb into heaven to attain our own salvation and holiness,
rather than sit humbly at the foot of the cross to hear the good news
of God’s love given to us freely by a gracious God.
In the words of the 23rd Psalm,
God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life,
God is good. And God’s mercy is called “hesed” or steadfast love.
God’s goodness and steadfast love shall follow us all the days of our life,
And more than that, the Hebrew word for “follow” is better translated as “pursue.”
God’s goodness and steadfast love shall pursue us all the days of our life.
That’s hard to hear. Nearly impossible for us to believe. God pursues us?
So while perhaps not intending to do so,
we replace Christ, who calls us, follows us, pursues us,
we replace Christ, who is the subject of our faith and of these texts,
we replace Christ and make us the subject … inserting our efforts into an equation
that is earth-shattering for its simplicity … God calls, God gathers, God pursues.
We want to be the most important player in the God-human relationship,
but we aren’t … this relationship is overwhelmingly imbalanced in the direction of God.
Intentional or not, this is a form of idolatry,
where we ourselves become the object and purpose of our own religious efforts.
In writing on these verses, Martin Luther laments that for some
the church has become a place for the strong and morally perfect to show off and boast,
rather than for the weak and broken and sinful to gather at the foot of the cross
to hear the Good News.
In language that is perhaps hard on our modern ears, Luther writes:
(in his sermon for the Second Sunday after Easter, Sermons of ML vol III, pg. 26)
“By our nature we are dishonest to the very hide,
and yet we expect everyone to be pious.
With open mouth, we do not want to look at anyone but strong Christians.
We ignore the sick and weak,
and think that if they are not strong then they are not Christians at all.
And others who are not perfectly holy we reckon among the wicked,
and yet we, ourselves, are more wicked than they.
That is what our evil nature does, and our blind reason,
it … thinks that whatever does not appear pure in our eyes
is not pure in the sight of God.”
Luther continues to describe, then, how such an emphasis on Christian behavior and purity
denies the grace of God by emphasizing our work rather than Christ’s gift,
making people despair that they are not perfect enough, not good enough for God.
I think that’s why Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd in this passage
to describe our relationship to him …
in the shepherd-sheep relationship, it is clear who is in charge.
The shepherd calls, the sheep listen.
It is clear where the authority lies, in which direction the balance tips.
It is clear who does the work … and why.
The sheep – not quite passive, but not terribly active, either – listen, and can’t help but follow.
For sheep are, as Luther describes in this same sermon,
“most foolish and stupid animals.”
Psalm 23 reveals their complete dependence upon the guidance and care of a shepherd:
Sheep must be made to lie down in green pastures,
and need to be led to sill waters …
they can’t even do these simple, life-sustaining tasks on their own without guidance!
What’s more, is that sheep don’t discriminate among themselves,
they don’t scheme to become their own shepherds.
They’re not smart enough – if we want to call it “smarts” –
to drown out the shepherd’s voice with their own,
to replace the shepherd’s leading with their own.
Perhaps the only redeeming quality about sheep in this analogy is that they listen …
they listen and they follow.
Perhaps not always perfectly … after all, sheep get lost sometimes,
as Jesus compassionately speaks elsewhere.
But the sheep in this metaphor are listeners,
drawn to the shepherd and gathered together by his voice …
In this text Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep.
He is the one who calls us,
He is the one who gathers other sheep … sheep that do not belong to this fold.
He is the one who makes one flock.
He is the one who lays down his life.
This metaphor is amazingly silent about what the sheep actually do …
There are no hoops for them to jump through.
No litmus test for them to pass.
No demand for sheep to be like the shepherd – how bizarre would that be? –
or to become self-appointed messiahs.
Why not? Because it’s not about the sheep … it’s about the shepherd, the one who calls.
And this is the Good News, dear friends,
that it is our Lord Jesus
who by speaking his holy word lovingly gathers his sheep to him and tends his flock.
It is our Lord whose voice gathers the church into being.
It is our Lord who has safeguarded his sheep since the dawn of creation
whose voice has continued to call, gather and increase his flock,
and who will continue to lead and guide his flock today and into the future.
It is the Lord whose steadfast love and mercy pursues us all the days of our life.
It’s not about us …
As our society and congregation struggle in an economy that sputters,
and as our congregation looks to grow in numbers even as fewer in our society
claim the Christian faith as their own,
May we remember that it is our Lord, the Good Shepherd, who gathers and tends this flock,
who leads us to and who is the life-giving still waters,
the nurturing green pastures …
a free gift … given and shed for you.