Sermon for the Second Sunday After Easter | 2018
By Fr. Hayden A. Butler
The Scriptures reveal that God has always declared Himself to be the Shepherd of His people. The Psalmist prays: “Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth.” The prophet Isaiah declares that “the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel conveys the Lord’s words as He declares Himself to be “a shepherd [who] looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” Without fail, God stands as a shepherd who leads His people with gentleness and also strength, who is endlessly attentive to their needs while defending them with a fierce love against their enemies.
So too, God has always called certain people into service as shepherds, and required them to act in such a way that truthfully revealed the identity of God as Shepherd. The Psalms reveal how God acts through His under-shepherds, recounting how God “led [His] people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Then Jeremiah delivers the words of God who promises to His people “ shepherds […] who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.” We remember Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, shepherds of sheep called to serve and lead.These were good shepherds, those who despite their many imperfections stood as living icons of God, leading His people toward the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise of peace and rest.
But this did not always go so well. There were many supposed shepherds of Israel who utterly failed in their calling. Of these, God declared through Isaiah: They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.” Against these God would summarily declare judgment through Ezekiel the prophet, saying “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
Far from leading the people to rest and peace, these shepherds exploited and went astray through selfishness, negligence, ignorance, and immorality. They falsely represented God and they brought ruin and destruction as the people of God were scattered across the world. Everyone suffered because of bad shepherds; everyone suffered because of hirelings pretending to be shepherds.
And so at the end of Israel’s long history of shepherds and hirelings, Christ stands face-to-face with the religious leaders of the day. The God of Israel has taken on humanity to regather the scattered sheep of the people of God from both Israel and from among the Gentiles and to lead them into God’s peace. He has condemned in His opponents their misguided religiosity, their opportunistic political maneuvering, their short-sighted revolutions against their enemies. Then our Lord makes a dramatic statement–Christ makes a claim to own the sheep. They are His own. He is their Creator. He lays down His life for the sheep. It is by the sacrifice of His own life that the sheep will be gathered together into one flock. From henceforth God Himself will stand as One with His people and lead them as their shepherd. Through His Passion and Resurrection, Christ has made one flock under Himself the Chief Shepherd. He is the One who now gathers, tends, sustains, and leads his sheep to their promised rest. Christ is the fullness of God as Shepherd.
So too, Christ has continued to call shepherds to live as icons of the Good Shepherd over His flock, the Church. One such pastor is the author of our Epistle lesson: St. Peter. After the Resurrection, Christ takes St. Peter aside and restores him. “Peter, feed my sheep” he says. This was the same Peter who betrayed Him, denied knowing Him at His darkest hour. When St. Peter ends his Epistle by saying: “all ye were as sheep who went astray” he is speaking from personal experience as one who had run away from His Shepherd. But in the Resurrection, Christ brought him back with gentleness and grace and appointed him as a shepherd to His people. This is the foundation of the pastoral presence in the church. Christ has given us icons of Himself to lead, to teach, to direct, to bring the sacraments. These Shepherds are good insofar as they represent Christ truly in the laying down of their lives for the sheep. These pastors become the accursed hirelings when they exploit, mislead, and neglect the sheep for their own interest.
As we continue to live in Easter-time we begin to explore what it means to live this new life we have received in Christ. The Good Shepherd has made us His people, gathered through His sacrifice for us. The Good Shepherd knows each of us, loves each of us, lays down His life for each of us. The Good Shepherd calls the pastors of His people to be good like He is good as they care for His sheep by watching over them, loving them, giving everything for them. But as we will see in time, God calls us all to life patterned after the Good Shepherd. We are all called to love one another by giving ourselves for one another, laying down our lives in humility before one another, and diligently seeking out those scattered sheep for whom He died and to bring them into the flock. Having come to the glory of Easter, our Shepherd now leads us forward. The Good Shepherd lays down His life to give life. We His sheep have been given life; so we may give life, too.
“I am the good shepherd; and know my sheep, and am known of mine, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.”