The image of the Jesus as the Good Shepherd has captured the Christian imagination since the very beginning. In many of the paintings or frescoes that I’ve seen, the artist has rendered Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus before his death and resurrection—as the Good Shepherd.
But we do not know Jesus merely as that dynamic teacher and preacher from Galilee, as merely a historically distant figure. Jesus comes to you and to me as the crucified and risen King of kings.
In other words, the risen Christ reigns as a Shepherd King. In the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus weaves together two themes that I have been discussing for a while. He tells us what it means to be one of his followers, and he tells us that following him is personal.
So we’re going to spend some time thinking together about what the image of the Good Shepherd says about Jesus and what it means for us. To do this, we’re going to ask three questions:
- The way the Good Shepherd leads is part of what makes him the Good Shepherd. So our first question is this: What is so good about how the Good Shepherd leads his flock?
- Our second question is the flip side of the first one. To say that Jesus leads a certain way suggests that there is a way to follow him. So this is our second question: What does it mean to follow, I mean really follow, a Good Shepherd?
- The Good Shepherd leads the flock to a good destination. So this is our final question. Where is the Good Shepherd leading his flock?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Leading Is More than Herding
What is so good about how the Good Shepherd leads? In a word, Jesus does not herd his disciples.
The word “herding” suggests driving and pushing, steering and forcing. Modern sheepherders use dogs to force flocks to stay together and to move in the shepherd’s desired direction. In essence, herding amounts to pushing the animals around.
I have read that shepherds in Jesus’ day used a different technique. Instead of driving the sheep along from behind, they walked out in front of the sheep. They said or sang a familiar phrase or tune.
The sheep recognized the shepherd’s voice and followed him. They knew their shepherd. We’ll come back to what it means to know the shepherd in a few minutes when we talk about following the Good Shepherd. For now, let’s explore how the Good Shepherd achieves this kind of leadership.
Here’s what Jesus says: The Good Shepherd knows his own. He can identify each individual sheep. (John 10:14) And he can do that precisely because he cares enough to spend the time to get to know each sheep.
Get your head around this. He does not brand the sheep like a cattleman brands a cow. A cowboy only needs to recognize the ranch’s brand. All the cows can look alike. They can be interchangeable. The shepherd, by contrast, recognizes each sheep. He knows if he is likely to stray or tends to stick to the middle of the herd, if he’s slow or energetic, if he’s cranky or playful.
And the Good Shepherd is committed to each of the sheep. As Jesus puts it, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (Jn. 10:11) He does not abandon his flock when the wolf comes. (Jn. 10:12-13)
In a word, the foundation of the Good Shepherd’s leadership is his love for his flock. The sheep are attracted to him because they know that he loves them.
In his Son Jesus Christ, God knows us from the inside. He became one of us, so he understands what it is like to be hungry, to enjoy friendship, to be tired after a long day’s work, to feel misunderstood, to suffer, and even to die.
When he died on the cross, he did so defending us: defending us from sorrow, suffering, abandonment, loss, and death itself.
He knows us and he loves us. And now he knows us and loves us with an intimacy that his disciples could never have imagined before his passion and resurrection.
During his final hours, Jesus promised to send his Holy Spirit to dwell in each and every one of his disciples. Depending upon the translation you read, Jesus and the Father send an Advocate, a Comforter, a Helper, a Friend. (John 14:16)
The Holy Spirit is literally present within heart and soul and mind, experiencing with us all the trials and joys and struggles we face. And he is there to give us guidance, power, and encouragement for our very specific circumstances.
In the Holy Spirit, God gets really personal. And precisely because he is there through thick and thin, because we see that he knows and loves us, the Holy Spirit can draw us along with him in the direction that God wills for us.
Listening and Following
We have looked at how Jesus leads. His Spirit dwells within us and guides us as a helper, a friend, and an advocate. Now let’s look at that second question. What does it mean to follow the Good Shepherd? Or more precisely, the Shepherd King?
When you think of Jesus’ reign as king, you might think about obedience. And this would be accurate so long as you keep in mind that obedience is more than mere compliance with a set of rules or a grudging submission to someone’s orders.
Remember, Jesus is the Shepherd King. He leads by attraction, not by compulsion. The authority he has with us does not derive from his superior coercive power, but from our delight in him. We are aware of how well he knows us and how much he loves us.
So let’s look at that word “obedience.” To obey means to listen. Listening is more than merely hearing. We hear all sorts of things all the time and filter them out as so much white noise.
When we listen, we let what we hear change our minds, our hearts, our direction. We grant authority to a speaker precisely because we sense that that he’s talking about matters of vital importance to us and that he knows what he is talking about. But there’s more than that. We find ourselves drawn to what he says and we want to hear more. It’s as if he is speaking directly to us.
I have had that experience with preachers and teachers and writers. In college, I took every course Dr. Kent Linville taught and hung around in his office in the afternoons. When I hear that Anne Lamott or Timothy Keller have a new book out, I head straight to Amazon to download it to my iPad.
But there is still more. I don’t just want to know what they have to say. It’s as if I want to spend time with them so that maybe some of what they have and who they are will rub off on me.
A parallel comes to mind that might seem at first a little unflattering. When I lived in St. Louis, I routinely saw a man walking two black Labrador Retrievers. He never had the dogs on a leash, and he never gave them voice commands. And yet those dogs walked along with him.
They clearly loved their master. They walked at his pace, stopped when he stopped, and resumed when he started up again. They always had that dog smile on their faces.
They were not merely out for a walk. They were walking with their friend. Some dogs obviously have the walk on their minds and would be happy to be on their own or with some other person at the other end of the leash.
By contrast, these black labs seemed to be walking so that they could be with their master. I imagined that had he decided to stay at home and watch television that is just where those dogs would be, with that same canine grin on their faces.
We follow the Good Shepherd because being with him is our chief delight. Being with him is how and where we feel at home. Because he abides in us we abide, we are at home, in him. (John 15:4)
We listen to him and abide in him through Scripture and Sacrament. How this is so will have to wait for a later sermon. But for now, we have come to our final question.
The Way and the Destination
We have said that Jesus leads us by dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. And we follow Jesus because we want to be near him. So now it seems natural to ask about the destination that Jesus has in mind for us. Where is the Good Shepherd leading his flock?
Christians sometimes assume that the destination is some other place: heaven. But this treats Jesus as the mere means to get to our own desired destination.
But that is not what it means to follow Jesus. We do not follow him so that we can get some greater good. Our relationship with him is our greatest good. We want to be with him, and through him we are with the Father and with all the Father’s children.
Listen to what Jesus says, and it will help us glimpse his intended destination. He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
The destination is not a place. It is a relationship. Jesus is the way and he is the destination. The more we listen to him and follow him, the deeper our relationship with him grows.
Our relationship with Jesus is eternal life. Our minds glimpse that life in Scripture. Our souls taste it in Holy Communion. The way is the beginning of the destination.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He reigns in our lives by the attractive power of his love. He draws us to him. He knows his own, and his own know him.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on April 29, 2012 (4 Easter).