This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 10:11-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Sheep are herd animals – so much so that, in English, we even use the same word for the singular and plural – one sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep. When we think of sheep, we’re usually thinking about a group of them, not a single individual.
Just like there is really no such thing as a lone sheep, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. Jesus doesn’t just call us as individuals, he calls us to community. We are gathered into one flock, under one shepherd.
That’s why we’re gathered this morning. This is a flock meeting. Our shepherd Jesus has called us together. We are learning that we can trust him, because he lays down his life for us. He guides us in the way we need to go. He protects us from the wolves.
Sometimes we don’t take the wolves seriously enough. The wolves are real. The wolves do tear, and devour, and scatter. Selfishness, addiction, confusion, pride, racism, and greed. The wolves are the spiritual powers of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and despair.
We do not live in a neutral world without moral consequence. We are in a spiritual warfare between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, sheep and wolves. In the words of the apostle Peter, in chapter five of his first epistle:
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers and sisters throughout the world.”
In Jesus, we stand triumphant over the power of sin, death, and the devil. The key words here are, in Jesus. As sheep, we aren’t capable of fighting the wolves ourselves. We survive their predation by hanging together as a flock. We escape the wolves by trusting our good shepherd to protect us.
Sheep need shepherds. We need those who care for and protect the flock. We need those who help us determine which way the flock should move, and to warn us when wolves are threatening the community. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has raised up good shepherds among us. Men and women of spiritual depth and power, who thanks to God’s grace have been made trustworthy to care for the flock, as sub-shepherds to Jesus. These individuals should be honored and heeded and encouraged.
But a lot of discernment is in order. Not just any shepherd will do. There are so many hired hands, false shepherds who would gather us for the fleece. They would lead us out of self-interest and vanity rather than love. And when the wolves come, they will abandon us to our fate.
The church has a long history of discerning between false shepherds and true ones. From the first generation of Christians, the apostles and fathers of the early church warned against those who would turn human tradition into a new law – telling us, “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” There have always been those who would sell us easy, mechanistic spiritual laws rather than the challenging freedom that we find in Christ.
There were those who would tell us that God is so holy that Jesus could never have come in the flesh. Others said that Jesus is merely a human teacher, but not divine. All the ancient heresies of the early church period were the work of false shepherds. All of the paths that they offered tickled the mind and puffed up the ego, but led to spiritual death.
The early Quakers faced off against false shepherds of their own. In their day, it was the state church’s priests and bishops, who inherited their office as a title and made a living off of the mandatory tithes that all were required to pay them, under penalty of law. These were men who turned the gospel into a business. They used the mantle of Christ as a way to extract wealth from the flock of God – shearing the sheep with abandon, but having no interest in protecting them.
False shepherds aren’t just a thing of ancient church history. They’re a present-day reality that we must be on guard against. The false shepherds are on the loose in the form of prosperity gospel preachers and secular hustlers. People who want to sell us on the idea that if we just put the right “energy” out into the world, that we will get back whatever we desire. People who say that if you are poor, or sick, or unlucky, it’s because you haven’t got the right attitude, or that you don’t have enough faith.
The false shepherds are the political pundits and leaders who sow fear to boost their ratings and cement their power. They’re the social media influencers who use our outrage and horror to fuel engagement. The false shepherds step forward as leaders, only to lead us on paths of destruction.
They hand us over to the wolves. Wolves like militant nationalism, stock-market speculation, gambling, addictive video games and social media, pornography, and hard drugs. These false shepherds entice us into patterns of compulsive behavior that cheapen and destroy our lives.
But there is good news. There is a shepherd who is not false! We recognize his voice, because he lays down his life for the sheep. He won’t let any of us be lost. He is here to protect us. We can rely on him.
Jesus is the good shepherd – not just to us, but to the whole world. Jesus says that he has sheep who are “not of this fold.” In the context of John, Jesus is probably referring to the Gentiles – flocks beyond the people of Israel, who were traditionally thought to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Who are those outcast sheep today? Jesus is coming for them, too.
There will be one flock, one shepherd. As Jesus reconciles us to God, he gathers us together as one planetary community. No one is to be excluded. Every single one of us is invited to hear the voice of Jesus and become part of the one flock of God.
I’m tempted to say that Jesus calls us to be good shepherds, too. To imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for the flock. To go forth and preach the gospel, and bring those other sheep into the one flock – to gather all the peoples of the earth into the family of God in Jesus.
I’m especially tempted because it’s true. We are called to do all these things as friends of Jesus. That’s the Great Commandment: love God, and love neighbor. It’s the Great Commission: go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven. This is what it looks like in practice. We are called to imitate Jesus.
But I don’t think that this is what Jesus is saying here, in this passage in John. Jesus is not saying, “I am the good shepherd, come and be shepherds like me.” Jesus is saying, “I am the good shepherd; you are my sheep.”
We are his sheep. He gathers us into one flock. We hear his voice. He guides us to springs of living water. He feeds us on the bread of life. He restores our souls. He makes us one body in him.
We are the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. Our job is not to replace Jesus as the shepherd; our job is to be obedient, faithful sheep. Loving one another. Caring for one another. Listening to the voice of the shepherd as he leads us.
This sheepy-ness is the protection that we have from the false shepherds, from the hired hands that do not really care about the flock but seek leadership for their own reasons. This is our protection from the wolves: Reliance on Jesus, our one shepherd leading our one flock.
We humans are so wired to think we need more than that. The Jews wanted a king. The early church wanted archbishops and popes and ecumenical councils under the authority of emperors. The story of the people of God is one of continuous self-seduction with our sub-shepherds.
The Good news of Jesus is not the reign of sub-shepherds. God does not offer us a new temple, or a law, or sacrifices, or a political order. God offers us his son, Jesus, our good shepherd. God says, “this is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”
As the psalmist says, “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hearken to his voice!”
Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are his flock. One shepherd, one flock, and Jesus will gather us together. We can participate. We can be the flock, but he is the shepherd. Know his voice. Listen to him. Hear him. Follow him.
We must stop looking for another answer, another leader, another ideology that will save us. Jesus is telling us, that’s a dead end. As long as we’re seeking something more than Jesus, all we’ll find is hired hands – gurus and preachers and politicians and TED Talkers and activists and CEOs – people whose interests are served by leading us for now, but who have no intention of laying down their lives for the flock.
Jesus lays down his life for the flock. Jesus is the voice we can trust. Jesus is the pillar of cloud and of fire that Israel followed in the desert. He is the water from the rock and the manna from heaven. He is the answer. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.
So let’s not be distracted by arguments over Paul or Apollos or Cephas – human leaders through whom we have heard the word of God and come to believe. All of our true leaders point us to Jesus, the good shepherd. Listen to him!
Trust him. Follow him. We can walk without fear, because he is guiding us. The Lord will fight our battles. The good shepherd has already triumphed over the wolves of this world. We don’t have to accomplish anything on our own. Wait on the Lord, hearken to his voice, and watch as he accomplishes it.