© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.
Jesus is the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He knows his own, and his own know him. Of all the things we teach our children, that is what we teach them first. Not the creation story. Not the Golden Rule. The story of the good shepherd. That is the cornerstone of our children’s program, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. As the name implies, everything we want to teach our children starts with this lesson—with Jesus the good Shepherd. From their first day in Sunday school, we teach our children that Jesus knows each of them by name. We teach them that they know him and already recognize his voice. We teach them that Jesus goes ahead of them and leads them in and out of the sheepfold. And we teach them that, when danger comes, Jesus lays down his life to keep them safe.
Jesus is the good shepherd. One thing we don’t teach our children is how beautifully strange that is. Preachers like to make a big deal about how counterintuitive it is that our God is depicted as a lowly, smelly, unglamorous shepherd. But, actually, that’s not strange at all. Lots of ancient near-eastern religions described their gods and heroes as if they were shepherds: Anubis, Attis, Yima, Zarathustra, Marduk, the Phrygian god, Agamemnon, and Apollonius of Tyana . Given how important sheep were to the economy and how important shepherds were to the sheep, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that divine caretakers were depicted as keepers of their flocks. But what should surprise us—even shock us to our core—is that Jesus defines the good shepherd as one who would sacrifice his life for the sake of the sheep.
What kind of shepherd is that? After all, what good is a dead shepherd? The Bible is full of exemplary shepherds, but none of the good ones die in the line of duty. God shepherds us through the valley of the shadow of death. Moses learns how to be a leader for God’s people while caring for his father-in-law’s sheep. David, in order to rescue sheep that had been attacked by wild animals, fights off lions and bears with his bare hands. Ezekiel envisions the day when God’s true shepherd will come and gather together the scattered flock of Israel. But nowhere in the Jewish tradition is the shepherd expected to give up his life for the sake of the sheep. Really, if you think about it, a shepherd who dies while trying to protect the flock isn’t a very good shepherd at all.
But that’s who Jesus is, and that’s what Jesus does, and that’s what makes our faith so remarkable. We put our trust not in the shepherd who comes and triumphs over the wolves with a mighty show of force. We follow not the one who uses his shepherd’s staff to protect us. We put our faith in the one who surrenders his life for the sake of the flock. We believe in the one who loves us enough to die on our behalf.
The implications of a divine shepherd who sacrifices his life for the sake of the sheep are far-reaching. What does it mean to belong to the one who fulfills God’s purposes not by defeating his enemies but by yielding to them? What does it mean to follow the shepherd who cares more about the sheep than his own life? If we find our greatest hope in the one who gives up his life for our sake, if we pledge ourselves to that good shepherd, our lives begin to take on the pattern that has been set for us by Jesus. Those of us who spend time in the presence of Jesus, who live our days and nights under the watchful eye of the good shepherd, undergo a transformation.
This week, an old survey is making the rounds on social media again. Back in 2013, The New York Times published a dialect quiz that uses twenty-five questions about how you speak and what you call things to predict where you’re from. Every few years it comes back around, and, over the weekend, I decided to take it. Like my speech patterns, most of my answers are still the same, but, after living here for three years, a few of them have changed enough to make a difference. The quiz still thinks I’m from the southeastern quadrant of the country, but the likely cities where I live have moved west from Columbus, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi, to Little Rock and Amarillo. It’s funny how living somewhere, even for a little while, begins to change you.
Those who belong to the good shepherd, who go in and out behind the one who knows them and calls them by name, who loves them enough to lay down his life for their sake, learn what it means to love others like that. We start by seeing how we have been loved, and then that love begins to shape us. John writes about this in the first letter that bears his name. “We know love by this,” he writes, “that he laid down his life for us. But that’s not where John stops. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” he continues. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help?” The answer is that it can’t. When God’s sacrificial love abides in us, we love others, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Those who have experienced selfless love and know that they belong to the one who loves them selflessly become bearers of that same selfless love.
How different our faith would be if we belonged to one whose victory was not accomplished through sacrifice and whose triumph was not achieved through death! But this is our flock, and Jesus is our shepherd. We belong to the one who knows us and loves us sacrificially. Our community is defined by that sacrifice. We make the image of his death the icon of our faith. We proclaim the cross as our fullest hope.
This is the most important thing we teach our children because this is the most important thing we proclaim as Christians: Jesus is the good shepherd who knows us and loves us and lays down his life for our sake. It’s as simple as that, but that is only the beginning. What that means for us is a lifetime of being formed as his disciples—a lifelong journey of study and prayer and practice as students of that love—but, no matter how holy we will eventually become, everything we will learn along the way starts with that truth. Jesus is the good shepherd, and you belong to him. You belong to him not because you come to church or because you are nice to other people or because you try your best to live a good life. You belong to him because he loves you. You belong to him because he lays down his life for your sake. You belong to him so that you might live in his love.
 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John. SPCK; London: 1965, 310