I Am the Good Shepherd!

Reflections on the Gospel Reading for April 26, 2015: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

At the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hammond, Louisiana, suspended between the narthex and the sanctuary is a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. I would like to know more about that window. I don’t know who designed and created it. I don’t know when it was made. What I do know is that it goes back to at least the 1920s when the church bought the church building on the corner of N. Cherry and E. Charles. At that time, the glass hung behind where the choir sang.

In the early ’60s when the  current sanctuary was built, the window was placed in its current location. However, much more important than the history of the window, is its symbolic meaning for the life of this church. If I could, I might call our church “The Good Shepherd Christian Church” and not just because of the window, but because the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd resonates deep within us–both in terms of how Jesus continues to shepherd but how he has taught us to shepherd.

Of course, the notion of the Good Shepherd is much older than our stained glass window. In fact, the ideas are older than the words of Jesus above. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that “shepherding” is the predominant metaphor in Scripture for “doing ministry.” As sampling of some of these texts would include the following.

Referring to the appointment of Joshua to follow Moses, Moses prayed

Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17 NRSV)

The language of “sheep without a shepherd” shows up again in the ministry of Jesus  when he feeds the crowds (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).

Or who can forget the prophet Ezekiel’s scathing critique of Israel’s shepherds:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2–6 NRSV)

One should probably read the entirety of chapter 34 but this snippet gives a good idea of how important “shepherding” is a key for understanding the nature of ministry.

Perhaps no text has influenced what we think when we hear about the Good Shepherd more than the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I will not be in need . . . “

You can take it from here.

Thus, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he chose an image that was loaded with history, meaning, and interpretation—it was an image that tells the Story of God in the Bible.

Our text, John 10:11-18, begins with a contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. The point is simple: when danger comes, the hired hand will save his own skin, while the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep when necessary. Of course, this comment presages what will happen when Jesus lays down his life.

In v. 14, Jesus repeats, “I am the good shepherd.” This second declaration marks a shift in the conversation away from the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. Now the emphasis is the special relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. Jesus says, “I know them and my own know me” AND in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. Typical of the Gospel of John, the writer holds before the reader that the same intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father can be theirs, too, that is, with the Father, with the Son and with each other.

This should not be missed. John is not just saying one can have a good relationship with God, but the same kind and level of relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. Thus, just as Jesus knows the Father, so we can know Jesus. The level of union with God promised here is amazing and available, and too often, unrealized by many Christians.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so, of course, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what we do when we love someone, is it not?

But who are the other sheep? A couple of possibilities have been suggested. One is that the other sheep are the Gentiles who will be added to the flock. Other options might include a reference back to the OT promises to restore the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Yet another is the church that will grow around his apostles (this fold?). I tend to favor the first option, but the emphasis in the end is that we will belong to one flock and have one shepherd.

The final note of the text returns to the theme of Jesus’ laying down his life. Why would he do that? Simple answer: Because he wanted to. Or as Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The placement of the last sentence, “I have received this command from my Father,” suggest that the command was not that Jesus must die, but rather that Jesus had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In the final analysis, the Good Shepherd, to be “good,” is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. This has great implication for the kind of people we are called to be.

Now while I don’t know much about our stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, I do know this. The Good Shepherd knows me and I seek to know the Good Shepherd.


Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has devised a simple but deep way to categorize the Psalms that has real applicability to life. He suggests that most psalms will fall in one of the following three categories: Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. While wordy, perhaps, these labels are very helpful in understanding life. In some Psalms life is good and as it should be, in others psalms life is chaotic, hard, and confusing, and in yet other psalms life is experienced as new beginning, renewal, and moving beyond. Sometimes all three of these can show up in the same psalm, as with Psa 23. The Biblical story resounds with this rhythm. Notice the following examples:

Exodus:           Egypt ➤ Wilderness ➤ Promised Land

Exile:                           In the Land ➤ Exiled in Babylon ➤ Return to the Land

Jesus:                                      Life ➤ Death and Burial ➤ Resurrection

Christians                                            Old Life ➤ Repentance ➤ New Life

What is common to all of these stories is the movement through orientation, disorientation, and into reorientation. Also common is that no one really likes being in the middle phase of disorientation.

William Bridges, in an insightful little book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes, points out that all transitions in life have three basic phrases: the “old,” the “new,” and the “in-between,” this last one Bridges himself calls the “neutral zone.” The old is when life is what life is and we are not complaining because it’s normal. Then something will happen, a death, a divorce, a new opportunity, which changes our old comfortable world. The in-between is uncomfortable because it is no longer the “old,” but neither is it quite yet the “new.” However, this neutral zone of disorientation can be just what we need to grow, to come to new understandings, to get out of old ruts, etc. For some this in-between time can be excruciatingly painful. But often disorientation, in time, gives way to reorientation: a death becomes sweet memories; a loss gives way to new gains; and that which was old is given new life.

Personally, I have found thinking of life in terms of these three categories helpful. I experience life sometimes, as it should be. Things are in place. Life is good. Psalm 23 is true and the Lord really is my shepherd. However, sometimes, and more times than I would like perhaps, life is hard, disconnected, chaotic. With Psalm 23 I walk through the deepest, darkest valley. I don’t like those times but I do usually grow closer to God through them. Then disorientation gives way to new life and I find, again with Psalm 23, a table prepared before me, my head anointed and my cup full, desiring nothing more than to live in God’s house forever.

Lent is the perfect time to reflect on this. Lent is the “neutral zone” between Advent and Resurrection Sunday. You therefore might find the language of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation useful even now.

For further reading, see Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994) and Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: De Capo, 2004).

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