The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
22 April 2018
4 Easter B
St. Joseph-St. John, Lakewood
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Today’s gospel text
uses an image that may be lost on many of us,
an image that we may know from childhood stories —
but not firsthand experience.
Jesus, living in the first century,
talking to people who know livestock and agriculture
in their hearts and bones,
tells his disciples, his friends, us,
that he is the Good Shepherd.
We hear this story, or parts of it,
year after year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
We hear it when Jesus
has not only lain down his life for his friends,
but has taken it back up,
defeating death, sin, and the grave.
His disciples hear it
before Jesus has even gotten back to Jerusalem.
The disciples are where they were through all of Lent —
hearing Jesus predict his death,
in disbelief at it,
and somewhat perplexed.
They’re don’t think he’s going to die.
We know he’s died and risen again.
Our text today is the second half
of Jesus’ describing himself as the Good Shepherd,
a story split in two over the course of church years.
Today Jesus makes the distinction
between himself, the Good Shepherd,
and the hired hand.
“The Good Shepherd,” Jesus says,
“is willing to die.
They’ll get down with the sheep
even when the wolf comes.
They’ll give up their own life to save the sheep.”
He contrasts this with the hired hand,
someone whose work is seasonal
but who isn’t invested in the sheep or the property.
“The hired hand,” Jesus says,
“says, ‘Nope! I’m outta here!’
when the wolf comes.”
The hired hand’s work
is probably temporary anyway,
depending on the season and need.
Why would they stick around when a wolf comes?
Depending on the shepherd’s fairness and practices,
there may not have been any guarantee
that they would be paid.
When a wolf comes with no human to guard against it,
that leaves the sheep scattered
— or worse gobbled up.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me.”
This second half of Jesus’ Good Shepherd narrative
is remarkably tender, vulnerable, and human.
Shepherds were dirty, hungry, and scrappy.
They lived out mostly on their own
with a vast responsibility.
Their only company was sheep,
and they had to learn to love them.
Jesus is telling his disciples then and now
that that is how he cares for us.
He’s not a leader who is around
just long enough to get paid.
He’s not there to just do the easy work.
Jesus the Good Shepherd has come to offer salvation,
salvation through love, self-giving, tenderness, and vulnerability.
The chapel at General Seminary in New York, where I attended,
is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
Each year dozens of students
move from all over the country following God
to lead God’s people.
Many are not from New York City,
and don’t know what kinds of wolves they may face there,
from temptation and vice to greed and violence.
At the center of the campus
is a chapel dedicated to Jesus the Good Shepherd,
who knows his own and whose own know him.
The centerpiece of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd
is, yes, a sculpture of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
This sculpture is not a traditional one,
where Jesus has a sheep slung over his shoulders,
carrying it back from a rescue.
This Jesus looks out at the seminarians and knows them —
as they hope to know him.
In his left hand he holds a shepherd’s crook,
a crozier, herding sheep as the ultimate overseer of the Church.
In his right?
A lamb held close to his chest,
the way many of us might hold a cat we love.
He stands looking out over the chapel,
a place of silence and solace amid the noise and excitement of New York,
with another sheep at his side.
This sheep is leaned against Jesus,
relying on him for support,
demonstrating affection with touch.
Jesus knows his own, and his own know him.
In today’s passage,
Jesus is giving his disciples an Easter message
before he’s even been crucified.
“I lay down my life in order to take it up again…
I have power to lay it down,
and I have power to take it up again.”
Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t run from the wolves,
he gets in the muck with the sheep and loves us.
We started learning about that
when God became human
and let Godself be bound to our earthly, fleshy limitations.
Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t a Precious Moments painting or collectible,
however sweet that may feel or seem.
Love — love enough to lay down one’s life and take it back up again —
isn’t only sweet and it isn’t only a moment.
It’s earthy and dirty.
It’s dangerous and deadly.
But this is Jesus the resurrected Christ, alleluia.
The Good Shepherd who knows his own,
whose own know him, who lays down his life for them
— even when the hired hand won’t.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is tender, affectionate, and vulnerable.
As he tends to us in Bread and Wine,
getting back into the physical, touchable reality of humanity —
like a shepherd in the wild fields —
he joins us to his life, his life that he laid down and took back up.
Jesus the Good Shepherd knows us as his own, and we know him. Amen.