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A Welcoming Church

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me. And I lay down my life for the sheep. They will listen to my voice. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The first thirty verses of John chapter ten are one long, heavy metaphor about sheep. In the first ten verses, Jesus calls himself the shepherd who enters the sheepfold by the gate and calls his sheep by name and leads them out, and they follow him because they know his voice.

The next eight verses contain the passage we just read. In the next dozen verses, Jesus says, “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. The Father and I are one.”

To our ears, all this talk of sheep might be a little much. Sheep are unusually dirty animals. Because they secrete lanolin, when they lie down, their wool accumulates dirt and dust that does not release. Sheep cannot clean themselves; someone else has to clean them, which is a big job.

Sheep are among the most intelligent animals, with long memories, ranking just below pigs. They can recognize faces and facial expressions, and remember other sheep faces and human faces from photographs. So the overall picture is: smart but unclean, and Jesus is calling us all sheep.

The comparison is not just strange to us: in v. 6 of ch 10, John says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand.”

Meanwhile, shepherds in Jesus’ day were often despised as unclean and treated as outcasts; also anyone who came into contact with them. Shepherds were not allowed to be elders or witnesses in court.

And now comes Jesus calling himself a shepherd. Why? Partly, Jesus loved the OT tradition – his sayings contain a wealth of references to it – and that tradition is filled with sheep allusions. Abraham, Moses, and David were all shepherds. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms contain shepherd references.

Also, Jesus’ humility. Humility, that greatest of all Christian virtues, and the subject of so much of Jesus’ teaching. The Master who washed his disciples’ feet would not be troubled about being thought of as a shepherd.

What is the relationship that exists between shepherd and sheep that Jesus meant to convey, and what does that relationship look like for us? We are all His sheep. It has several aspects to it.

One, the shepherd leads his sheep. He leads; they follow. So, here Jesus is a prophet. He gives us his wisdom and knowledge. In Isaiah (63:11) and Jeremiah (23:2), the shepherd is a leader of his people. Without the shepherd’s leadership, the sheep wander around and get lost. We also are intelligent, like sheep, but we need Jesus’ teaching to lead and guide us.

“I know my own and my own know me.” Jesus the good shepherd knows all about us. He knows every one of our particular situations and experiences and concerns and desires and fears. Jesus knows us. Shepherds watch for wolves who might attack, and they defend the sheep when they have to. The Good Shepherd does this for us also.

Shepherds tend to sick or wounded sheep. They search for lost or trapped sheep and rescue them. Sheep trust their shepherd to do this. Jesus the Good Shepherd does this for us out of love, if we put our trust in him. There is no snare or trap or wolf or threat he does not know. Jesus loves us the way a shepherd loves his sheep, and we try to learn to trust.

Sheep know their shepherd. We know the Good Shepherd, the only Son of God. We came to know Him because he lived and died as one of us. By his life and ministry we got to know Him and trust Him and love Him.

Our Good Shepherd even died for us. By his precious death and sacrifice, when we needed cleaning, He washed us and cleansed us of all our sins. He saved us from ourselves in the way that only the Lamb of God could do.

A shepherd tends both his flock collectively, and the individual sheep. Our Good Shepherd cares for both his people communally and the individual person. Our Good Shepherd, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it, lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” (Luke 15:4-5)

The sheep metaphor is inspired, but it is not perfect. Three chapters after all the business about sheep (John 13:34), Jesus lays out a big difference between them and us. Sheep are not called to love one another. We are. Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Second, John the gospel writer also wrote the three letters of John. In our epistle this morning, he suggests another way in which we should be different from sheep. He wrote, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God.” (I John 3:21). (Repeat)

So courage is another difference between us and sheep. Our Good Shepherd often spoke of courage. His parables of salt and light from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:13-16) are about not losing one’s nerve. Jesus expected his followers to be persecuted on his account, and he wanted them to have courage, what the epistle calls boldness.

This year might be for us one long test of courage. Our boldness will come from knowing that the Good Shepherd loves his people, and loves us and rescues us and cares for us. Amen.