Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2010
“What the Shepherd Does for the Flock” (John 10:14, 15b, 22-30; Acts 20:17-35; Revelation 7:9-17)
Today is the Sunday in the church year known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” You’ll notice that on this day all of the readings, the introit, the collect, the psalm, the hymns–all carry the theme of the shepherd and his flock, the sheep. So I think what will help us today–what will strengthen our faith and give us life and hope for the future–is to see in God’s word “What the Shepherd Does for the Flock.”
The first thing we need to do is to identify who we mean when we talk about the shepherd and his flock. The shepherd, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says about himself. And when he says that, Jesus is identifying himself as the Messiah, the divine deliverer prophesied from long ago, the heaven-sent shepherd who would come and lead God’s people. Jesus is claiming to be the Christ. Jesus claims to have a unique relationship with the heavenly Father: “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” In his ministry, Jesus demonstrated works that showed he came from God, works full of divine mercy and power.
OK, so Jesus is the shepherd. Then who are the sheep, the flock? Jesus tells us: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The flock consists of all those who listen to Jesus, who are known by him, and who follow him in faith. In other words, it’s people like you! “My sheep hear my voice.” You are here to hear Christ’s voice. You recognize the sound of his voice, how he speaks, the things he says. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them.” Jesus, your shepherd, knows you. He called you by name in your baptism. Do you think sometimes that God has forgotten about you? No. The good shepherd knows each one of his sheep, and they all are dear to him. “And they follow me.” This is not just a one-time thing, this matter of being a sheep in Christ’s flock. You and I follow our shepherd day by day, year after year, throughout the entire course of our life, for this is the only way to live.
What has your shepherd done for you, that you follow him? “I am the good shepherd,” Christ says, “I know my own and my own know me, and I lay down my life for the sheep.” There it is. This shepherd is so good that he sacrifices his own life in order to save yours. Jesus laid down his life by being lifted up on the cross. And you would be dead if he had not done that. Your sins would have killed you. They would condemn you to death. But Christ took our death and our punishment on himself. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That’s what Jesus did by shedding his blood for us on the cross. The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
Now all your sins are washed away, forgiven! Our robes have been washed clean and made white in Christ’s blood. And with that blood, Christ the shepherd has gotten himself a flock. We are now the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. He has purchased and won us, to be his own and live under him in his kingdom. Otherwise, we would be like sheep without a shepherd, lost and vulnerable, and that’s a dangerous place to be.
Our good shepherd lays down his life only to take it up again. The resurrection of Christ at Easter shows the victory he won over sin and death and the grave, a victory he shares with all of us. “I give them eternal life,” Jesus says of his sheep. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Dear Christian, this is your shepherd’s promise to you. It is the promise of a new life that lasts forever. It is the promise that the grave will not have the mastery over you, that hell has no hold on you. It is Christ’s promise that no one or no thing–no devil, no trouble, no disease, no temptation, no despair–no one can snatch you away from or out of our Lord’s mighty, nail-pierced hand.
This is salvation, my friend, salvation that Christ is freely giving you: Salvation is the rescue out of danger that would otherwise kill you and from which you could not save yourself. It is that rescue or deliverance, plus the resulting state of safety you have, secure in the protection of your loving shepherd. Here is assurance you can rely on, have confidence in. Why? Because it comes from God, not from you. Your eternal salvation is as strong as Christ’s promise, and that’s as strong as it gets. “No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Not only can no one snatch you out of his hand, Christ also takes care to strengthen you in your faith your whole life long. To do this, your good shepherd sends you his undershepherds, pastors, to preach the word to you and build you up in the Christian life and hope. Look at how the apostle Paul emphasizes this in his address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20–and by the way, the word “elders” in the New Testament means what we would call “pastors.”
Paul himself is both an example of how to shepherd the flock and he gives instruction to those pastors on what to do. Paul says he was testifying to all “of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He says that his ministry was “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” He says that he did not shrink from declaring to them “the whole counsel of God.” And besides expecting these pastors to follow his example, Paul also instructs them to be on the alert and guard the flock against “fierce wolves” who will come in and try to draw away disciples for themselves “by speaking twisted things.” These aspects of the pastoral ministry that are spoken of here in Acts 20–these are the same things that Christ’s undershepherds are to continue to do today for you, the flock.
And so I testify to you of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Is sin pulling at you, tugging at you, alluring and enticing you to go astray, to wander away from your shepherd? Have you been thinking and acting and talking in ways that go against God’s commandments, self-chosen ways that you know are wrong? Repent of those sins. Confess them, whatever they are: lust, anger, unforgiveness, selfishness, not paying attention to God’s word, absenting yourself from God’s house–these are damnable sins, and you need to repent.
And then find forgiveness for your sins in the holy wounds of Christ. Believe Christ’s promise that he washes away all of your sins, cleanses you, gives you a clean slate and a fresh start. Find forgiveness here at this altar in the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ takes hold of his promises, listens to his voice, and follows where he leads. This is the gospel of the grace of God, the good news that God is being gracious to you, freely giving you great gifts, not because you deserve it but because he is so kind and merciful for the sake of Christ.
As Christ’s undershepherd I will not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. This means delving into God’s word together, attending to the preaching and the hearing of the word, attending to the teaching and the study of the Scriptures. Many of you are reading through the Bible in your homes and then coming to our weekday class where we discuss what we’ve read. This is a good thing. You are getting the whole counsel of God. Many of you come to our Sunday Bible class, and today we’re resuming our study of the Book of Acts. This again is another way I can teach you what God wants you to know. This is what Christ your shepherd is doing for you, giving you a pastor whose job it is to declare to you the whole counsel of God, in order to build you up in the faith and strengthen you in your life of Christian love and service.
That means that I also need to warn you against the wolves, the false teachers that are out and about, who twist the Scriptures into knots, telling people what they want to hear, stuff that appeals to our desire for style over substance, for excitement and entertainment over God’s means of grace. When supposedly Christian teachers downplay and diminish the message of Christ crucified and make Christianity all about what you ought to be doing if you only try hard enough–then they are speaking twisted things that would draw the flock away, and so I need to guard you against that, by warning you and teaching you to distinguish truth from error.
See how much your good shepherd, Jesus Christ, loves you! He does everything for his flock, for you, to guard and guide you, to lead and feed you. He has saved you by his blood, laying down his life for you, only to take it up again in resurrection victory. In him we have forgiveness, life, and salvation, new life now and sure hope for an everlasting future. No one can snatch you out of his hands. Christ your shepherd knows you by name. You hear his voice and follow him in faith. Your shepherd has brought you into his flock, the church, where his undershepherds lead you into the green pastures of God’s word.
And if that’s not all, all that the shepherd has done for the flock, there is also what he will do for us. For our good shepherd will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us out safe on the other side. Then will be fulfilled what is written of our life in the life to come: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”