I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson is what gives the Fourth Sunday of Easter the name of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It’s certainly one of the most cherished titles of our Lord, no doubt due in part to the prominence of Psalm 23 -- perhaps the most famous of all of the Psalms -- which was also appointed for this morning. The Lord is my shepherd. It’s an image that brings an added element of comfort to the festivities of Eastertide. The risen Lord who has conquered death once and for all in order to bring us to glory is also the Good Shepherd: the one who cares for his flock with unwavering attention and affection.
To unpack the significance of Christ as the Good Shepherd, I want to focus particularly on the two claims that Jesus makes about himself that immediately follow: “I am the Good Shepherd,” he says, because “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father” -- that’s the first claim -- and secondly, because “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Together, these two aspects of Christ’s character are what establish him as the Good Shepherd. So let’s dive in and consider each one in order that we who are his own may know him better, just as he knows his Father in the perfect fellowship of the Trinity.
It actually works best to work backwards, so we’ll start with the second claim: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” If we are to understand the significance of this, we have to consider the contrast that Jesus makes between himself as the Good Shepherd and “the hireling” who is “not a shepherd” and “whose own the sheep are not.” The main thing that distinguishes them is that the good shepherd is the one who “lays down his life for the sheep” while the hireling “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees.” The sheep don’t belong to the hireling, and so when the wolf comes, the hireling scrams and abandons the sheep to their fate -- since they’re not really his concern. So it’s the sacrifice that the good shepherd is willing to offer for the sake of the flock that makes him better than the hireling. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Since Christ is the Good Shepherd, though, there’s no way to hear about him laying down his life for the sheep without thinking of the cross. It is the death of Jesus by crucifixion that reveals him to be the Good Shepherd, for it is on the cross that he lays down his life for the flock of the world. But it’s also on the cross that the mystery of Christ’s dual role as both shepherd and sheep is revealed as well.
I’ve included a print of a depiction of Christ the Good Shepherd in your bulletins that you can find in the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, so take it out for a moment. Note that our Lord is shown with a lamb straddled across his shoulders as he stands directly in front of the cross. The imagery is clearly suggestive of what I said earlier: the cross is where Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and thus it’s against the cross that he is shown carrying the lamb. But the profound ambiguity of the icon is that the lamb on his shoulders is placed such that it appears to be hung across the beam of the cross, almost as though it were crucified itself. Which of course brings to mind the fact that Christ is the Lamb of God, even as he is also the Good Shepherd. To lay down one’s life for the sheep is to be a sacrifice -- and in the mind of Scripture, the ultimate symbol of a sacrifice is that of the lamb; like the lamb that God provided to Abraham in place of his son, Isaac, for instance, or the lamb that was sacrificed at the temple for the atonement of the people of God. So here we have Christ being represented as both shepherd and sheep, priest and victim. Just beautiful.
But the unity of these two roles that Christ takes upon himself further reveals the thing that makes him unique among all of the other shepherds that one finds in Scripture; what makes him the Good Shepherd. So you have someone like King David, perhaps the most famous of these Old Testament shepherds, who is described in Psalm 78 as the one God chose to be his servant...
...and took him away from the sheepfolds. He brought him from following the ewes, to be a shepherd over Jacob his people and over Israel his inheritance. So he shepherded them with a faithful and true heart and guided them with the skillfulness of his hands. (Psalm 78:70-72)
But as we know, despite David’s faithful and true heart, he was nevertheless a mere human being, with all of the sinful flaws that the rest of us have. He was even an adulterer and a murderer, and so no matter how skillfully he shepherded the people of Israel, he could not be the Good Shepherd. In fact, given his failures, you could even say that he was ultimately like the hireling of Jesus’ teaching today. For when the “wolf” of temptation approached David and the flock of his people, he succumbed to it and abandoned his post as the shepherd of Israel. And if we continue to think about David in terms of this metaphor, we can also see how the consequence of his failure was that the people of Israel were indeed “snatched and scattered.” His kingdom was later divided and, after several generations, was eventually captured and sent into exile. Again, it’s the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the flock -- even to the point of laying down one’s life for the sheep -- that separates the good shepherd from the hirelings. And this sacrifice is precisely what every other shepherd of God’s people had in some way failed to perform. As we saw in the icon, the mark of the Good Shepherd is paradoxically the willingness to be like the sheep, to suffer the wolf’s attack for the sake of the flock.
This then leads us back to the first of Jesus’ claims about himself. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father. What makes Christ the Good Shepherd is not only his intimate knowledge of the sheep, but also his knowledge of God the Father. Indeed, the knowledge that Christ and the flock share together is a function -- an expression -- of the knowledge that Christ and the Father share together. For Christ is the Son of God, who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are bound together in the perfect and eternal fellowship of the Trinity. So, if from the flock’s perspective, Christ is the Good Shepherd because he knows us so deeply that he is willing to suffer and lay down his life for us, he is the Good Shepherd from the Father’s perspective because he knows the will of the Father so perfectly that he can shepherd the flock with absolute faithfulness. Again, the repeated theme throughout Scripture is that it takes the Son to perform the Father’s task; everyone else, no matter how devoted, will ultimately prove to be the hireling. For the Good Shepherd has a depth of knowledge and fellowship with the Father that escapes all others.
To close, how is this good news for us and how is it good news for Easter? The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is given for our comfort and consolation as Christians. As it says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus fulfilled the task, for he “did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me” (John 18:9). Through his faithfulness and obedience, Jesus has claimed his flock from the mouth of the wolf, holding them within the arms of divine protection. The perfect love with which he laid down his life for us and shepherds us even still is the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). And as his sheep, we can rest assured that “neither death, nor life...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
But above all else, the wolf is death. And this is what makes Christ the Good Shepherd good news for Easter. For it is death itself, the punishment that binds the sinful human race, that comes to us in order to snatch us away and scatter us. The wolf of death is the primal threat to the sheep, to us as human beings. And yet it was Christ’s willingness to lay himself down before the wolf that conquered the wolf altogether. The wolf of death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because Christ Jesus has, through his death, “destroy[ed] him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). It is therefore through the victory of Christ’s resurrection that death is not just kept at bay, but is overcome once and for all. “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.” Eastertide is the celebration of this victory that is not only for Christ alone but also for us and for the whole world. For “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold,” Jesus says, and “I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”
With this Gospel of Easter in mind and the Good Shepherd in heart, our prayer is that God would grant us the grace to “reckon ourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord”; and being so alive unto God, that he would “grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead.”
Thanks be to God for sending his only Son to lay down his life for us who are now being gathered together into one flock under the one Good Shepherd. Amen.