This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on April 17, 2016.
For most churches that observe the liturgical year, the fourth Sunday of Easter is designated, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” From the early centuries of the church and well into modern times, the day was observed only one week after Easter Sunday, and was regarded as a feast of exceptional importance. On Good Shepherd Sunday each year, the Twenty-Third Psalm is read, as is a portion of Jesus’ “Good Shepherd discourse” in John 10. A different segment of John 10 is read each year: verses 1-10 in Year A; verses 11-18 in Year B; and in our Year C text, verses 22-30.
It may seem puzzling to us that an entire Sunday every year is given to a single image of Christ (and of God) especially one that is so culturally remote from most modern listeners. But the New Testament makes many allusions to Jesus as a shepherd, and even the Roman catacombs are filled with depictions of him as the Good Shepherd. The 10th chapter of John is a rich meditation on the theme, with much to contemplate and to preach.
Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd is addressed to his opponents. In verses 1-21 he speaks of his care for his own. Like a shepherd, he gathers them, leads them, and protects them. He calls them by name, and they know his voice. Most of all, far beyond what could be asked of any shepherd, he lays down his life for them. This theme extends into our text, verses 22-30, though the scene apparently occurs later.
It is Hanukkah (“the feast of Dedication”), and Jesus is walking through an outdoor colonnade in the temple precincts. He is spotted by “the Jews,” who gather to him and demand that he tell them who he thinks he is. Preachers should understand that in John’s Gospel this term, “the Jews,” does not refer to Jewish people generally, but almost always to the religious leaders who were hostile to Jesus. To refer to them in our preaching as “the Jews,” can only aid and abet anti-Semitism, and is false not only to historical realities but to what the Fourth Evangelist’s first audience understood about his use of the term. For us, it would be better to say “the religious authorities” or “those who opposed him,” or “those who had not received him” (1:11), or something similar. Such language has the added advantages of helping us to see that we could well be among them.
Whoever they are, the text makes clear who they are not: they are not his sheep. Repeatedly in the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus says that the sheep know him, recognize his voice, hear him call their name, and therefore follow him (10:3, 4, 14, 16, 27). Belonging to the Shepherd, in other words, is chiefly and deeply relational. It is about knowing and being known, about mutual recognition, a speaking of names, a personal responsiveness, a shared understanding. The experts questioning Jesus in our text are in precisely the opposite reality. They demand that he tell them who he is when he has already told them at length who he is. “I have told you, and you do not believe,” he says. In other words, unlike his sheep, they have not heard his voice. He then reminds them of the works he has done, which clearly reveal who he is, but which didn’t make a dent on the closed doors of their minds. Sign upon sign, and they do not see. Word upon living word, and they do not hear.
Perhaps this is where a sermon on this text finds its most fertile ground. Are we the sheep of the Good Shepherd, or are we not? The text invites us to consider a group of good, observant, religious people who have come to the temple, surely in part to worship—as we have done. Seeing Jesus there, they gather to him as sheep might do—just as we have done. And having come to him, they present their words, their questions, their stated need to him—as is our custom also. Yet all this can be done without ever listening to the Shepherd’s voice! It can be done oblivious and immune to signs all around us of a mighty power that should have left us awestruck and eager for transformation. It can be done without the receptive, consenting silence that would allow us to hear our names being called, and so to go to him and follow him. All of which is to say: Christ cannot be meaningfully understood except by responsive relationship, attending to the living voice of the One who knows us, and so can be known and gratefully followed.
Such relationship can withstand any threat. “No one will snatch them from my hand,” he says. This verse (used out of context by some to support the Once-Saved-Always-Saved doctrine) is a powerful assurance that those who know the Shepherd and listen to his voice and follow him will also know the Shepherd’s protection against all ultimate harm. He will do this by “laying down his life for the sheep.” (10:11, 15)
Preachers looking for Easter connection will readily find them. As John’s Gospel continues, there are two people to whom Jesus calls by name. Both of them know his voice and are quickened by it, and respond by coming to him transformed. The first is Lazarus, the second is Mary Magdalene; and for both, the voice of Jesus calling their names comes from beside a tomb. That is the Shepherd from whose hand they could never be snatched—not by those who crucify, nor by any depth of grief or despair, nor even by death itself. The sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow him, and the Shepherd says over them: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” (verse 28)
Dr. Paul Simpson Duke
First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tags: follow, Jews, knowing, listening, Shepherd (Good), voice