Jesus the Good Shepherd

Being a disciple of Jesus involves seeing Jesus is like a good shepherd and seeking to obey him.  If we follow Jesus, we can trust that he will watch over us, take care of us, and provide for us an abundant life of peace, contentment, and joy.  Being a disciple also means being compassionate and caring toward others as Jesus is with us. 

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:  John 10:1-10

I’m not the best person in this church to talk about sheep.  Knowing that there are people like Cory Suter and his family who are experts makes me feel kind of sheepish talking about sheep!   But here we go.

Jesus as shepherd is a metaphor that may be quite familiar to us.  Psalm 23 and other popular Psalms like Ps. 91 and and Psalm 100 speak of God being the shepherd, and we humans as the sheep of his pasture.

But maybe this metaphor is so familiar to us that we haven’t taken much time to really reflect on and what Jesus as the Good Shepherd meant in Jesus’ day, and what it might mean for us today.  So let’s take a look at it.

First, in using the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, Jesus is talking about what it means to be a disciple.  Disciple means “learner”, and disciples of Jesus follow him to learn from him, obey what he tells them to do, and go on the paths where he leads them.

So the sheep’s job is to follow, and the shepherd’s main job is to protect the sheep.  Sheep are vulnerable animals who don’t have many ways to protect themselves from thieves and wolves and other predators.

Sheep don’t have a shell like a turtle, or teeth like a lion, or a nasty spray like a skunk, so they need someone to watch over them.

Now when Jesus talks about his role as the Good Shepherd, he says that he not only protects his sheep’s life, but he also says that he offers them abundant life.   They’re not just meant to survive, but to thrive and enjoy their life to the fullest.

It’s not surprising that this story of Jesus as shepherd is found in the gospel of John.  Because in John’s gospel, God’s promise of life is a theme that runs throughout the book, from beginning to end.

The noun for “life” is used 36 times in John, and different forms of the verb appear no less than 20 times.  Here are a few of them:

In John 1, John says about Jesus, “in him was life, and that his life was the light of all people.

In the famous verse of John 3:16-17, he says that God loved the world so much that he gave Jesus as a gift to the world, so that whoever believes in Jesus can experience eternal life.

In John 14, Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life.

And then near the end of the gospel, in chapter 20, John says “these words are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

Now in spite of what some TV pastors who preach the prosperity gospel would say, I don’t believe that the “abundant life” is synonymous with “abundance of possessions”. 

We know enough from life experience and observation that more stuff doesn’t make people happier.  Some of the wealthiest people with the most stuff and shiniest toys in our world are some of the most miserable and unhappy people.

On the other hand, some of the happiest people who live what looks like an abundant life don’t have much stuff in the way of material possessions.

Karen and I experienced this time and time again when we lived in Bolivia.  We knew so many people who had so little, but who were truly content with what they had and lived life with so much joy and generosity.

One person I think of was our neighbor boy, Rosendo.  From an early age he worked hard to help his family make ends meet.  every morning he would walk through the neighborhood with a basket of fresh baked bread make out of rice, shouting “pan de arroz”.

Rosendo served as kind of an alarm clock to us, waking us up at the crack of dawn.  After he sold his pan de arroz, he would go to school, and after school he would get in his father’s rickety horse cart and haul things for people; like what we use pick-up trucks for.

Then he would often come by our house in the horse cart and pick up our two sons and take them with him to a nearby field to find pasture for his horse.  He was like a shepherd to that horse, caring for it and protecting it.

Rosendo didn’t have the latest toys or the nicest clothes, but he always wore a big smile that seemed to cover his entire face.  He probably had more responsibility at a young age than what kids should have, but when I think of people who live the abundant life, I think of people like him.

I also think that the abundant life is captured by the way the sheep are described in Psalm 23, which we read as our call to worship.  The psalm says that with God as their shepherd,

(You, Lord, are my shepherd.  I will never be in need.)

They sheep have all they need; they are content with what the shepherd provides for them.

You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams
of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.

With God as their shepherd, they are also able to find rest and renewal and refreshment; they’re not always going at 100 MPH

You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.

With God as their shepherd, the sheep have complete trust that God will guide them on the right paths.   

I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.

Even when they walk through dark valleys, and when enemies are near, they feel safe because God is always there to protect him.   

You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup until it overflows.

 With God as their shepherd, they feel valued by God and honored to be in his God’s presence.

Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life,
and I will live forever in your house, Lord.

And they know that more than anything else, God their good shepherd is kind and full of love, and that lovingkindness will always be with them. Nothing can take it away from them.

So this metaphor of Jesus the good shepherd and we as the sheep remind us that if we follow Jesus and seek to obey him, we can trust that he will watch over us, take care of us, and lead us toward experiencing an abundant life, a life of peace, contentment, and joy.

But it doesn’t just stop there, with me and Jesus. Being Jesus’ disciple means being compassionate and caring with others as he is with us.

It means learning how he valued and treated other people, and then following his example in our own relationships with others.  And that’s not always easy.

Something that I read this week reminded me how hard it can be to be a disciple of Jesus in our world today.   It was a long tweet by Christian author Beth Moore.

Since Moore left the Southern Baptist denomination over concerns she had about racism and devaluing of women, she has become a bold and prophetic voice in the evangelical world,

speaking up to hold the Church accountable and faithful to Jesus in our polarized society.

She said on Twitter:   I was thinking this morning how we’re all disciples of someone, or of some entity or some doctrine. You can quickly tell these days which news networks we’re discipled by.  I’m not just talking about one in particular.  Take your pick  We the people have become we the parrots.  No critical thinking.  No attempts to understand other views.  Just parrots.

We have chosen the narrow way alright.  Just not the narrow way Jesus meant.  His narrow way opens wide our heart’s capacity to love (even our enemies!) and our mind’s capacity to consider others more important than ourselves.  If we hate more people and spew more division than we did 5 years ago, we may believe in Jesus but make no mistake.  We are not his disciples.    End of tweet.

I’d say those are prophetic words to the Church in America these days.

I especially love where she says “his narrow way opens wide our heart’s capacity to love and our mind’s capacity to consider others more important than ourselves.”

In a world where cruelty is so often more visible than kindness, these are words that need to be heard.

In a world where self-preservation is so often more visible than self-giving love, these are words that need to be heard.

In a world where homeowners are so paranoid and unhospitable that they shoot strangers that mistakenly come onto their property, these are words that people serious about following Jesus and loving like Jesus need to hear.

Just as Jesus’ capacity to love is shown through his commitment and caring for his sheep, who are some of the weakest and most vulnerable animals, our capacity to love as Jesus’ disciples is judged by how we treat those around us, especially those  who are vulnerable and hurting.

There’s a great example of this in Philip Yancey’s book Why? The Question that Never Goes Away

Yancey talks about the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and how she used to ask her audiences,

“What do you think is the earliest sign of civilization?”  ….”Here is my answer”, and she holds up a human femur, the largest bone in the body, pointing to a thickened area where the bone had healed after a fracture.

And she says, “such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies.  In their skeletons we find clues of violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club.  But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for this injured person—hunted on their behalf, brought them food, served them at personal sacrifice.” 

Yancey then says, “Contrary to nature’s role of “survival of the fittest”, we humans measure civilization by how we respond to the most vulnerable and the ones who are suffering the most.”  P. 53

And that’s how Jesus measures true discipleship, by how we respond to the most vulnerable and those who are suffering, hurting the most.  I mean, just look at the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25.

He says about the sheep, whom he calls righteous, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  (Matt. 25:36)

In contrast, the goats, the unrighteous, are those who turn their back on those who are needy, weak, and vulnerable.

And Jesus adds this twist to the parable.  He said, that “insomuch as you helped one the least of these, you did it to me.”  In other words, when we show compassion to those who are hungry or thirsty or new in town or needing clothes or sick or incarcerated, we’re actually serving and caring for Jesus himself.

Mother Teresa, who spent her life serving the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable and needy on the streets of Calcutta, took this parable as the basis of her entire mission.  She said that each person she and her coworkers served was “Jesus in his distressing disguise”.

Jesus ends the parable of the sheep and goats by saying that the righteous ones, those who care for him through caring for others, will have eternal life.

Personally, I am of the persuasion that this “eternal life” that Jesus talks about here and other places is not just a future “pie in the sky” but also something that we can experience right here, right now during our lives on this earth.

In fact, could eternal life be just another way to describe the ‘abundant life’ that Jesus talks about in our passage today?  I believe that it is.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is in our midst, and is longing to have each one of us as part of his flock.  He desires that we make our home in him and put our trust and hope in him.

So may we draw near to Jesus and stay close to him.  May we listen closely for the voice of our Good Shepherd, above all the other voices trying to capture our ears and our allegiance in the world today.

And may we trust him to take care of us and to lead us along paths that provide for our needs as well as the needs of others, paths that lead us to experience the abundant life that we long for.  AMEN.