This week, let’s take a look at what makes the Good Shepherd so good…and whether we’re “good” at all.
4th Sunday of Easter (Year B) – April 26, 2015 – John 10:11-18
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Only One is Good” – Pastor Evan Davis
If there’s one image of Jesus that you’ll find in every American Protestant church, I have to believe it’s Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s so commonplace, however, that we have trouble telling anyone what it means.
That word, “good” – it has its problems. It’s not a particularly descriptive word. It’s actually quite vague. Just ask someone “how are you?” “Good.” We all know that can mean a lot of things. I could have just come back from the hospital, or somebody maybe just rear-ended me on the road or I might be losing my job, but I’ll still answer that question with just… “good.” There’s a wonderful scene from the movie version of We Were Soldiers, a story about an Army unit in the Vietnam War, where a pretty green, pretty young lieutenant says to the grizzly, scowling Sergeant Major, “Good morning, Sergeant Major!” who replies, “how do you know what kind of bleep-bleepin day it is?” The Sergeant Major is just calling out the meaninglessness of the way we use the word. “I’m doing good.” Well what does that mean? As Karoline Lewis points out this week, the word “good” has lost its value to describe…anything.1
Likewise, not usually in so many words, we often think of being a Christian as being a “good person.” That to be Christian is to “be good.” But what does it mean to “be good?” Is it to never say a bad word? come to church every Sunday?
So what do we mean when we call Jesus “the Good Shepherd?” A lot of people out there, people who only hear the name of Jesus in news stories about Christians who don’t like one group of people or another, or from the mouth of a TV preacher asking for money, or as a distant historical figure in a TV documentary…they might wonder… “what’s so special about Jesus?” That might seem like an incredibly obvious question to you. But many of us don’t have the perspective to truly understand the question. We might say, “well, he’s God, that’s why!” But that’s not very helpful to someone who doesn’t know who God is, and isn’t quite sure she believes in God anyways, or that believing in God would be worth his time in a confusing, busy world.
We might tell that person, “well, Jesus is YOUR Good Shepherd,” just like he says he is in John’s gospel. We expect that to mean something. But that person might wonder…why do I need a shepherd? And what makes this shepherd so good?
I can only answer that question for myself. Jesus is good in a way I can never be…he’s good like none of us can be good. Jesus gives away power, love, andlife – he never keeps it for himself. In a world where every living thing and every human being is hard-wired to try to preserve her own life, Jesus gives his away, and shows us that this is, in fact, the Creator’s intent and desire for us. In a world full of bankers and politicians going for the last penny, where we still make ourselves feel better by stereotyping and scapegoating people who are different, where we are willing to destroy the planet, the only one we’ve got, the source of life, so we can have the convenient and comfortable life we want…there ain’t nobody like Jesus.
You see, Jesus is on a mission. It’s what he says in v. 10 right before we picked up at v. 11… “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus is here to bring life, the life intended by God, to you and me.
There ain’t nobody like Jesus. Not even in the Bible. Jacob was a trickster who cheated his brother Esau, deceived his father Isaac, and bankrupted his employer and father-in-law, Laban. Jesus gave away loaves and fishes as if he’d never run out, and he taught us to forgive the debts of those who owe us money.
Joshua presided over the slaughter of thousands of the seven peoples of Canaan when the Israelites arrived at the promised land. Jesus fed four thousand foreign people, with seven baskets left over. He told a story with a foreigner, a Samaritan, as the hero, and even made friends with a Samaritan woman at the well who becomes one of the first preachers of the good news.
Solomon was one of the wealthiest kings ever to have ruled in Judea. Jesus loves wealthy people the same as everyone else and makes a point to include them in his circle, but he’s a homeless, traveling poor man with no household of his own. He shares what he has and relies on the generosity of others. He is the master who washes his disciples’ feet.
David was a shepherd who after he killed Goliath became a great and conquering general who emerges as king of Israel after a civil war. He mows down his enemies, and arranges the death of Uriah, his best general, in order to steal his wife, Bathsheba. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who isn’t interested in who’s king but rather that there is good order in society, who never, ever takes life but willingly lays down his life for the sheep. When the soldiers come to take him, he steps right up and says “whom are you looking for?”
Jesus teaches us another Way, giving away power, love, and life…because the Father sent the Son to save the whole world, to give us all the life we can never take for ourselves. Jesus makes a family out of tax collectors and the people they cheated…out of Samaritan women and Jewish men. He goes and finds the ones everyone else has thrown to the margins, like the man born blind, and gives them a place in his family. He stares death in the face, simply says the words, and Lazarus walks right out of his tomb. His only commandments are to trust him and to love one another as he has loved us….which we can follow only because he loves us to the end, with the greatest love, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (15:12-13).
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And that’s what makes him so good. Because Jesus turns hatred into love, ignorance into understanding, darkness into light, death into abundant and eternal life. Jesus is the only way I know for humanity to overcome the kill-or-be-killed dilemma that fell upon us as soon as we left the garden, as soon as Cain murdered his brother, Abel. Jesus is the way out of that deadly instinct in our DNA this side of paradise.
All of us with that deadly DNA are sheep in need of a shepherd. I’m not saying that sheep are dumb. No, Jesus’ sheep recognize his voice. They know their shepherd and he knows them. But the sheep aren’t in charge. There is no “alpha sheep” in the flock. Not one of us by works or faith earned our place in the fold. Each and every sheep needs the Good Shepherd for protection, for guidance, for rescue when we run astray or get lost. And our Good Shepherd even says to us that he must bring the other sheep who do not belong to this fold. Jesus will bring them, just like he brought us, and they will listen to his voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. None of us is good….none of us has anything over anyone who is not yet part of this fold. Only one is good, and that is God alone.
Yes, God….God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who makes God known. Yes, that is what Jesus and John insist, over and over and over again, that this Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the face of God’s love. That Jesus isn’t just a particularly benevolent philosopher, but that when we look to Jesus, we see the very heart of God. That the source of life is the one who does not hoard life for himself but gives it to everyone he meets, and willingly lays down his life for you and me.
The faith of the Good Shepherd isn’t about “being good.” It isn’t about having the right beliefs that make you a “good person” in the midst of so many “bad” people who don’t believe the same way. It isn’t a justification to divide the world into black and white, good and bad. Christianity is about hearing we are not good, but we have a Good Shepherd…the Good Shepherd who gives away power, love, and life and never keeps it for himself. I hope that word “good” means a little more now. Amen.
1Karoline Lewis, “What’s So Good About a Shepherd?,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3590 (accessed April 23, 2015).