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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
3 May 2009

A Sermon Preached by Ms Anne Lane Witt, Seminarian

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with thee and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ezekiel 34:1-10
1 John 3:1-8
John 10:11-16
Psalm 23

Oh Lord, uphold thou me that I may uplift thee.  AMEN.

The concept of the good shepherd is a familiar one to most Christians and a prevalent image in our lives.  Deacon Paul came to us from Good Shepherd.  I attend services at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at school.  There is even a church school curriculum known as the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. 

The good shepherd is everywhere, especially in today’s reading options.

Between our offertory hymn that is based upon Psalm 23, the chosen passage from Ezekiel, and our gospel passage from John, then we show a good representation of the biblical understanding of the good shepherd. 
Together, these tell us which qualities a shepherd should have, the qualities we should emulate in our guiding roles.

Psalm 23 is one of the best-known and best-loved psalms.  Its words provide comfort in times of doubt and remind us of God’s overwhelming love and grace given to us. 

The psalmist and author of Ezekiel both understood God as our ideal shepherd, one who cares for our well-being. 

Who knows the sheep, and the sheep know him.

This shepherd is in relationship with the sheep and the sheep with him.

The good shepherd described by Ezekiel and the psalmist will protect his sheep, giving them reason to have faith in him.

The good shepherd puts the interests of the sheep as a priority, ahead of personal gain or glory.

The good shepherd has chosen to tend the sheep.

Shepherding was a commonly used metaphor in the ancient world for those who governed, appearing in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hebrew writings to name a few. (1)

By Ezekiel’s time, the nations of Israel and Judah had fallen, with their shepherds having fallen down on the job.  Their sheep had wandered and had not been led back to their pastures.

We are all familiar with Isaiah’s words in Handel’s Messiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

God’s people had gone astray and into exile.  Ezekiel served as a prophet to his fellow exiles, and he reiterates that God is the good shepherd who will seek out his flock, rescuing them and returning them to their homeland.

Ezekiel further writes that God will send “one shepherd, [his] servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.” (2)

Fast forward to the first century C.E., the time of Jesus.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is once again speaking to the Pharisees present, using language that they would comprehend:

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (3)

Here, Jesus is referring to more than his skills as a shepherd: the Greek adjective, kalos, translated in the text as good, also means “true.”

This is a declaration of Jesus’ authority: he is the rightful shepherd of the flock, the one sent by God.  Jesus, a descendent of David, has come to rescue all of his sheep.

This rescue is not to come in the form of military victory,

Instead, the shepherd will give up his life to save the lives of the sheep.

For this part of the passage, we have the benefit of retrospection to aid us in comprehension.

The rest of this gospel reading becomes clear through the lens of the resurrection, foreshadowing Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

God the Father loves humanity so much that he sends Jesus to live among us and die for us.  Jesus knows both the Father and us intimately, serving as our “only intermediary and advocate.”

As God’s son, the true shepherd sent by God for us, Jesus spoke to the first century people and to us to tell us what God wants us to do, what we need to do to be in right relationship with him.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are emblematic of what Thomas Merton called “God’s gratuitous mercy” or chesed in Hebrew, also translated as “steadfast love”.

As Merton writes, “[God] has become inseparable from man in the chesed which we call "Incarnation," and "Cross" and "Resurrection."(4)

Jesus does not come to be God’s hired hand in the pasture; we are truly his sheep, and his care for us reflects this.

The good shepherd has heard the cries of distress, and he has chosen to come to save us.

He has chosen to lay down his life for us.

He has chosen to call more than the nation of Israel.  There are other sheep as well.  As written by the prophets, the national boundaries are to be of no regard as God is calling more to the flock.

The earthly demarcations of division are not determinates in Jesus’ call to humanity.  God created all, and all are a part of the flock.  There will not be, however, only one fold.

No, the flock will have its variations, but rest assured, all are one in Christ.

Jesus’ death and resurrection opens the gate to the kingdom of God, through modeling the lives we are to lead and by his actions.  He is our true shepherd.

May we hear his call.  AMEN.

(1) Interpretation: Ezekiel.  Joseph Blenkinsopp.  P. 156.
(2) Ezekiel 34:23-24
(3) John 10:11
(4) Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 178-179.


©2009 Anne Lane Witt