Scripture: John 10:11-18
A lesson from John 10:11-18 on how Jesus the Good Shepherd is a life-long model for men and women alike, with teaching specifically addressing the role of “pastor” as it appears in the scripture.
In the weeks between Easter and Pentecost, the lectionary contains two kinds of lessons for our edification. First, it contains the lessons in the gospels on the post-resurrection appearances and ministry of our Lord, events between the time of his coming out of the tomb on Easter morning, and his Ascension into Heaven ten days before the arrival of the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost.
Next, the lectionary will – as we have today – give us teaching that our Lord's did before his crucifixion, but it is teaching that needs to be considered by us in light of his resurrection and ascension into heaven.
Today's gospel lesson from John 10 is a portion of our Lord's teaching in Jerusalem at the Feast of Dedication – a time notice is given in verse 22 of John 10. This feast is the same as what we know today as Hanukah, the Feast of Lights. It is a feast of the Jews that is NOT mandated in the Law of Moses. Three of the feasts in the Law of Moses – Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles – were feasts requiring all males in Israel to journey to the presence of God (which was Jerusalem, after David brought the Ark into Jerusalem), and there to celebrate these three feasts.
The Feast of Lights aka as Hanukah is a feast inaugurated much later than Moses, after the captivity. Antiochus had attacked Jerusalem, slaughtered 40,000 of its inhabitants, and defiled the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the bronze altar. He then made a broth from the burned pig and sprinkled the pig juice all over the Temple precincts in order to thoroughly defile it. The Maccabees later cleansed and restored the Temple and rededicated it to the worship of God, and the Feast of Dedication celebrated this event.
I wish to note in passing that our Lord here is obviously observing this Feast in Jerusalem. It's held in our month of December, very near the traditional date of Christmas. And, in this case, Jesus is teaching about himself and his ministry in the December before he is crucified in a few months on the next Passover.
So, why does this passage appear in our lectionary between Easter and Pentecost? (cut here extraneous stuff 6:10) Well, one reason is obvious – Our Lord's passion, his death, and his resurrection are all spoken about in his remarks in today's gospel lesson. Listen again to the relevant words from the gospel lesson:
“I am the good shepherd; and ... and I lay down My life for the sheep. … Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
As we read those words, it's impossible to avoid thinking of the cross – where our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to a cruel and grisly crucifixion that redeemed us sinners from sin and death, and bestowed upon us, instead, eternal life and all the blessings that belong to Christ who died for us.
Our Lord's words here look forward to what will happen to him in a matter of weeks. And, certainly our Lord's death on the cross is the crowning achievement of his life as a Shepherd of the Sheep. But, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus' “shepherdness” is confined to that one event.
Yes, there are times when a shepherd is called upon to die for his flock. But by far most of a good shepherd's labors are far, far more mundane and routine, more persevering in one direction over a long time. To lay down one's life for the sheep most commonly amounts to this – to do the work of a shepherd all one's life, to labor for the well-being of the flock for all one's life, to live not for yourself, but for the life of the flock.
And, that, brothers and sisters, is what our Lord and his Apostles teach us about our Lord AFTER his death and resurrection. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd BECAUSE he laid down his life at the Cross, he remains the Good Shepherd after his resurrection. We remain his sheep, members of his flock, and he Shepherds us through his ministry on our behalf in heaven, and in the labors of those among us who are His undershepherds.
Jesus, for example, told Peter to “feed my sheep” three times, commissioning Peter to carry on the work of the Lord Himself toward the disciples of the Lord who remained his sheep after his resurrection.
But, Peter is not the only shepherd our Lord has left here on earth. Peter himself, in 1 Peter 5, writes this to the elders of the churches to whom he writes: “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
There it is – Christ is the Chief Shepherd and Peter and the elders are the undershepherds. The more modern term is “pastors.”
It's unfortunate that the word “pastor” has come to be used as the name of an officer of the Church. This is not so. Officers of the church ought to be shepherds; rather I want to point out “pastor” is not a label that is exclusively applied to an officer of the church.
I remember when I was a seminary student 40 years ago, I sat in a class taught by Charles Ryrie, a man whose name is rapidly fading into the mists of evangelical history. We were discussing spiritual gifts, in particular those mentioned by Paul in Ephesians chapter four, where Paul tells us that Christ “... gave to the Church some as Apostles, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,...”
One student raised his hand and asked, “is the gift of pastor ever given to women?” Ryrie's answer was an emphatic “yes.” “Pastor,” he explained, is a function that takes the shepherd as its model. It is not the New testament name for an officer in the Church. The officers of Christ's Church are three: deacon, elder or priest or presbyter (those names are all interchangeable), and overseer or bishop. Pastor and teacher are among the spiritual gifts distributed to women, because in the Bible, including the New Testament epistles, there women are rightfully commissioned to teach and to pastor their own children, and other women.
Before our modern era of feminism, the overwhelming number of women in the world and in the Bible had their own flocks to tend as shepherds. These include their children, and many times the children of others in their own families, such as grandmothers, or in their communities. It's a small step to understand a married woman's flock to include her husband – not so much because she is her husband's authority, for she is not. But, she is the mistress of the private domain, and in that capacity provides for a husband and for her children the comfort, peace, and the nurture that a good shepherd provides his sheep.
This coming weekend, ICGS will be hosting a weekend Wisdom House conference that focuses upon a critical shepherding role for women, and that is their ministry to other women, particularly the pastoral ministry of older women to younger women. Wisdom House aims to strengthen, encourage, and train women to be shepherds of other women, to inspire older women to marshal the wisdom of a lifetime and to pass it along to younger women. Wisdom House has from its beginning aimed to exhort younger women to seek out older, wiser women in the faith and to feed on the wisdom of age, wisdom that is the result of a lifetime of living for others, a lifetime as a shepherdess.
Husbands, obviously, also have pastoral – that is shepherdly – functions toward their families. Wives are, in a true sense, their husband's undershepherds with respect to the ministry of the man's home. But, I want to say something more about the nature of this shepherding in light of our Lord's words in the gospel here. It is easy to misunderstand our Lord to CONFINE the shepherding function to the laying down of one's life by way of dying in order to rescue the sheep. That’s what comes to our mind as we read our Lord’s words about himself as the Shepherd. Certainly, to die for the sheep is the zenith of a shepherd's role. But, it is a mistake to suppose it is confined to this event.
The early Irish monks used to speak of two types of martyrdom: they spoke of the red martyrdom and the white martyrdom. The red martyrdom was the kind where one died as the victim of a persecution. The red referred to blood, the blood shed by those who died for the sake of the gospel. The white martyrdom, on the other hand, was bloodless. This is the kind martyrdom where one's life was given over to the service of the saints, when a Christian ceases living for oneself and begins to live only for the life of others.
I'd venture to say that in these terms, the ranks of the white martyrs are mostly populated by women. I certainly know that my mother is the first white martyr I ever knew, though it many years later that I ever understood how completely her life was devoted to her husband and her sons. She lived for them – all of her life. And I happily acknowledge my own wife among the ranks of white martyrs in her ministry to me and to my daughters over the past 33 years.
I’ll mention one that most of you here will know – Mary Esta Price-Cates who died on Thursday. She was a white martyr. She was a single woman. And for the brief period of her married life when she took a husband at the age of 84 she entered into a very specialized white martyrdom with respect to him – to care for him until she left him at Heaven’s Gate. But she had already left her mother and her father and a couple of aunts. Mary was one who lived for the life of others.
Women, Jesus the good Shepherd is a model for you just as much as he is a model for men. The Apostle John, in the epistle appointed for today, tells us this: 16 By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Friends, the Apostle John is not saying we all ought go out there and get ourselves killed! He goes on to explain – if you have this world’s goods and do not share them with your brothers in need, how is the love of God in you? No! The Apostle John, though he may not use the phrase “white martyrdom” is talking about what the Irish monks meant when they used that term. It is clear from what John continues to say that “laying down one's life” includes more than dying the death of a red martyr. It means nothing more or less than to live for the sake of those in one's own flock, those who are part of Christ's flock.
My father was shepherd in much the same way as my mother. Like her, like all ordinary shepherds, he lived his life day by day, putting one foot in front of the other in the service and support of his wife and his sons. He was a sinner, and he sometimes stumbled. But, he never stopped until the Great Shepherd of the Sheep took him home a few years ago.
As far as fathers are concerned, I can speak with authority and conviction about two shepherds: my father, and my wife's father. I lived for 62 years of my life with my own father, and for 25 years with my wife's father, most of those years under the same roof with my father-in-law in the years of his declining health. Both men were sinners, and I think it's always the burden of a son to have an almost morbid clarity of understanding about the sins of his fathers or other family members with whom they live. But, as I am in the closing years of my own life, and looking back on my own history as a husband and as a father, I note that both MY father and my father-in-law were exemplary shepherds in the sense that they never abandoned their role as shepherds toward their wives and children. Stumbled in that work? Of course. But, for every stumble there was grace for them to stand back up and to go on as shepherds. So much of it was exactly as the life or ordinary shepherds of real sheep – keeping one foot in front of the other, repeating the same tasks day in and day out, week after week, year in and year out, for a lifetime. These men, too, were white martyrs. They laid down their entire lives for the sheep in their folds.
In conclusion, I turn our attention to the relevance of Jesus' teaching about Himself as the Shepherd of the Sheep in light of his resurrection. Remember, he remains the Great Shepherd of the Sheep AFTER he has laid down his life. What, then, is the significance of his role as Shepherd for us on the backside of His great sacrifice?
The answer is found for us in comments by Peter and by Paul. Peter, in 1 Peter 2, says that “[Christ] bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” In other words, our Lord is always after his resurrection the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.”
And the surety of his blessing and success in shepherding us now is found in a Pauline passage I'm sure you know well, from Romans chapter 8: Let me read it again to you again: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” You see, God's grace to us, while it finds a climax in our Lord's crucifixion and resurrection, that grace does not end there. Rather, it guarantees the surety, the absolute certainty of God's goodness and grace toward us.
At the end of our communion with Christ in the Eucharist, we pray together a prayer of thanksgiving. And the opening words of that prayer make this very point about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as those events have significance for you and me right now. Here is what we pray each Sunday:
“Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ ...”
That body and blood, of course, shows forth the Lord's death until he returns to the earth in glory. And, so, after we have shown forth the Lord's death, we continue in our prayer to say this: “and [Thou] dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us...” In other words, by instituting this memorial of his death, our Lord assures us TODAY of God's favor and goodness toward us.
“and [Thou does assure us] that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.”
You see – the most unimaginable glory, the glory of Christ Himself now is our inheritance as well. God will give Him all things at the consummation of history, and God will give us all things with Him at that time as well. We are heir of God and joint-heirs with Christ. And so we thank our great and gracious God that we are continually assured of His favor and goodness toward us, that we are faithful members of the mystical Body of His Son, and are heirs through hope of His everlasting Kingdom, through the merits of his most precious death and passion. That, my brothers and sisters, is what it means to have Jesus Christ as our Great Shepherd here in this small and obscure corner of Waxahachie.
Thanks be to God that we are His sheep. God grant that we never stray from his fold, until that day when he gathers us into that mighty multitude who rejoice forever with him in His heavenly Kingdom.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.