Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
Few words speak as powerfully as the opening words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” The words sooth the heart of the grieving, comfort the lonely, and assure the hopeful. They speak to the inner longing of our hearts for God to tenderly care for us throughout all the days of our life.
Yet our familiarity with the Psalm and its shepherd metaphor often prevents us from fully appreciating the significance of this text, as well as Jesus’ announcement that he is the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John. We easily romanticize these texts and fail to consider the magnitude of these passages. Moreover, we easily miss the implications of these texts for our own life and ministry.
As idyllic as the shepherd imagery may be, we ought to remember that being a shepherd is tough and dirty work. The shepherd goes where few willingly go, as we hear Jesus say in today’s gospel reading. The shepherd has to get his hands dirty and resign himself to smelling like his sheep. He has to be willing to do hard work and expose himself to the elements.
Shepherds were not always looked upon favourably, particularly at the time of Jesus. They were considered dirty and unclean for they couldn’t faithfully observe the religious laws and rituals of their day. To be faithful to their flocks, the shepherds had to be willing to sacrifice their self-interest for the good of the flock entrusted to them.
Despite the culture’s poor estimation of shepherds, God decides to reveal God’s self as a shepherd. Rather than identify with kings and princess, God identifies with the marginalized of society. Not only does God compare himself to shepherds, God reveals the good news of salvation to shepherds. They are not only the ones with whom God identifies with, they are also the ones to whom God has his angels announce the news of Jesus’ birth.
That God would disclose God’s self to us as a shepherd says a lot about God and about us. God is a god who loves so much that God relinquishes his power so as to redeem and save us. God gives of himself as gift to us through his son’s life-giving death and resurrection. Jesus makes it clear that no matter how far we may stray, or how low we may sink to the depths of suffering and death, he will find us and lift us up. Yet in revealing himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus also makes clear that we are to do as he does. If we wish to walk in his way, then we must be like Jesus and give of ourselves to others, even if that may mean we may have to die to our wants and desires, perhaps even to the point of death.
The early disciples took Jesus’ words to heart. As those of you who participated in our Wednesday Eucharist this week heard in our reading from the Book of Acts, the disciples were so compelled by Jesus and his command to proclaim the gospel to all nations that they went out into the world, risking all they had, including their very lives. The disciples’ passionate commitment to the flock, to the lost sheep of the world, was so profound that countless women and men responded to the message of Jesus by turning away from their former way of life and embrace the new life of grace. The scriptures are not the only texts that give witness to the disciples’ missionary zeal and care for God’s people. Several non-Christian writers living during the time of the early Church wrote about the life-giving transformation of the disciples’ ministry to those who were most in need of healing and care. In fact, the disciples’ loving care drew others to share in their ministry. We are told of how countless women and men embraced the gospel simply because of the early Church’s faithful response to Jesus’ call to lay down their lives for others.
Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel lesson — and John later affirms it in his first letter to the Church — that his way of self-giving ought to be our way as well. We who are baptized in the waters of life and who take on his name are called to live as he lived: a life of sacrificial self-giving for the life of the world. John makes this point explicit in his first letter: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16) Jesus didn’t simply give up his life so that we can continue in our former ways, concerned with our own wants and desires, but rather that we may live as he lived: for the life of the world. While the metaphor of God and Jesus as a shepherd is comforting, this imagery also speaks to our way of life. True love is seen when we give of ourselves for others.
Traditionally, this Sunday — often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday — is the day in the liturgical year when we consider vocations to the priesthood and religious life. While it is certainly true that those of us who are ordained as priests in the Church are called to dedicate and devote our lives to the flocks entrusted to us, it is also true that all of us are called to be a priestly people. By virtue of your baptism, you are called to be a priestly people, a royal people, and a prophetic people. As a priestly people we are called to offer prayer and sacrifice for those most in need of God’s healing and grace. As a royal people we are to rule over sin and injustice and to proclaim the reign of God by living the virtuous life. And as a prophetic people, we are to confront hatred, violence, and injustice with words and acts of love and peace, even if our witness of God’s justice means we may have to lay our life down for others.
We recall today not only ordained ministry, but the ministry of all of us members of Christ’s Body the Church. How perfect this message is for us today when we look around us and see a world increasingly divided by hate and violence, greed and selfishness. Hate and violence only begets hate and violence. Greed and selfishness only further deny the abundance of God’s creation from those who need those fruits the most. Now is the time for us as a Church to live another way, a way of selfless love and courageous faith that compels us to go out into the world proclaiming the good news of God’s life for all.
Perhaps that is why God has allowed us to endure these many long months of pandemic and denied us the opportunity to gather in-person for prayer and worship. Might God be testing us like gold in fire, removing from us all impurities so that we may shine bright in a world wounded by sin and injustice? Perhaps. However, only God knows his plan for us. We, for our part, can only listen to Jesus’ words and respond by going out into the world, getting our hands dirty while sharing in the work of the gospel. Now is the time for us to be good shepherds and to go find the lost sheep of God’s flock. Amen.