It must be human nature to mark the midway point of things. When I’m reading a book, I notice when I get to the middle. Do you do that, too? I even look at the last page and divide the number by two so I’ll know when I’ve reached the mid-point of the book. (And no, I don’t read the last page to see how it ends. Spoilers!) In school, the mid-point of the school year was Christmas break: that glorious two-week oasis full of lights, music, presents, and Crock-Pots full of tiny smoked sausages swimming in barbecue sauce. In the church, we’re no different: we mark the mid-point of our seasons. The midpoint of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, when purple is exchanged for pink and the theme is decidedly more upbeat. The same goes for the middle Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday. Today is the midpoint of Easter: Sunday number four of a Seven-Sunday feast. And we mark that midpoint by highlighting one of the most prominent images of our God in all of Scripture: that of a Shepherd. This midpoint Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, or simply Shepherd Sunday.
When we ponder this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, our minds naturally go to some of the works of art that we’ve seen over the years. Chief among them is a painting by Bernhard Plockhorst. Now, you may not be familiar with that name, but you are familiar with the painting, or at least with reproductions of it. It’s the one that depicts Jesus with shepherd’s crook in hand, among a flock of sheep, carrying a tiny lamb in his arms. It calls to mind the parable Jesus once told of the shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep to go and search for one missing sheep. When he found that one sheep, he placed it on his shoulders and brought it home with great rejoicing. That powerful is burned into our minds because of that painting, but since we did not read that passage today, we’ll focus instead on three themes that arise from our Gospel reading.
I. The Good Shepherd is God. John is not a biographer. John has selected his material very carefully to make his point. He tells us so at the end of the Gospel: “Jesus said and did many things that are not included in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life through his name.” Of all the miracles of Jesus, John picks only seven, and he calls them not miracles, but signs: signs that point us to Jesus’ divinity. In the same manner, he chooses seven sayings of Jesus. Each of these seven sayings begins with the words “I Am,” a phrase that, to the Hebraic mind, is firmly connected with the God of the Hebrew scriptures. When Moses encountered the burning bush and was told to go talk to Pharaoh, Moses asked God, “Whom shall I say sent me?” And God replied. “I Am that I Am.” Tell them “I Am” has sent you to them. When Jesus told the leaders of his day, “Before Abraham was, I am,” they tried to kill him, because they understood what he was saying. He was deliberately using “I Am” to equate himself with the one who spoke from the burning bush. And he does this seven other times in John’s Gospel. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the door (or the gate).” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the true vine.” And this saying: “I am the Good Shepherd.” In each case, Jesus is telling his listeners that he is the One who was, and who is, and who is to come. He is proclaiming his deity, and at the same time showing us an aspect of that Deity. He is the God who nourishes our souls as the bread of life, the God who provides safe passage and protection as the door, who is the way, truth, and life, who sustains us as the vine sustains the branches, and now, who shepherds us.
II. A shepherd must be present with the sheep. It is impossible for a shepherd to herd sheep long distance. Shepherding is not a job you can phone in. If the shepherd isn’t right there with the sheep, you can bet a sheep dog will be right there with them, staring them down, even nipping at them if they won’t go the right way.
When Jesus was here on earth, we are told that he looked on the crowds and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he shepherded them. He healed the sick. He gave food to the hungry. He reached out to those whom society, even religion, shunned. He was a kind and gentle shepherd. But what about now? Can we still say “The Lord is my shepherd?” Can we say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”? Thomas asked Jesus this question when Jesus told the disciples, in the Upper Room, that he was going away. Jesus answered: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, who will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. I am going away, and I am coming to you.” Now, how does that work? “I am going away, and I am coming to you”? Jesus says that through the presence of the Comforter, that is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father would send, Jesus–and the Father–would come to Jesus’ disciples. This is our ten-dollar word this morning: perichoresis, which means mutual indwelling. Where one person of the Trinity is, the other Persons are also, and what one is involved in doing, the others are involved in doing. So, Jesus ascended into heaven: we rehearse that event every week in the Creed. But, because God has sent the Holy Spirit, and because the Holy Spirit is in us and with us all the time, then Jesus too is with us, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our Shepherd. He is present with us, as a shepherd must be.
III. The shepherd is a sheep. When I entitled this sermon “Shepherd and Sheep,” you probably thought it was a “Jesus and me” kind of thing, or at least a “Jesus and us” kind of thing. Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the flock. Well, that’s true, we are, but that’s not what I had in mind. I mentioned that painting by Plockhorst earlier of the Good Shepherd, but there’s another work of art you may not have seen. It’s a relief in the rotunda of a church in Rome called the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The most striking mosaic to me is in the apse of the church. There are twelve sheep: six on each side, looking toward a center point. There are many such mosaics in churches of this period, and typically the sheep are looking at a figure of Jesus, who is standing amid them. But in this case, the twelve sheep are looking at another sheep, who is standing in their midst. The sheep in the center is wearing a halo or crown. The Good Shepherd, you see, is the King of kings, but he’s also a sheep. His compassion toward us extended so far that he didn’t just become our shepherd: he became a sheep like us. As the Nicene Creed says, “Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator became a creature. The immortal God became mortal. The shepherd became a sheep. And we, who are the flock of that shepherd, are called to live out the same kind of love and compassion that caused his incarnation. We are called to be present with those who are suffering. Not just to say, “Go your way: be warmed and filled,” but to be present with one another in our joys and in our sorrows. Too often, I’m afraid our concept of worship–and of of being church in general–is vertical at the expense of any horizontal dimension. We want an “I-thou” encounter with God without encountering one another. Yet we worship a shepherd who became a sheep. He came and lived where we live, as one of us! We exchanged the peace last Sunday, and I know there was some trepidation about that. It is something that was foreign to Presbyterian worship before the 1970s, but it wasn’t invented in the 70s. It goes back to the first-century church, and it’s one way to demonstrate our commitment to live with one another as one body: to care for one another. To incarnate the love and compassion of our shepherd among one another. Even when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which should be, St. Paul tells us, a reminder that we are one Body in Christ, we make it instead a time for somber, solitary introspection, instead of the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, a feast that we share as one body with the risen, living Christ. Yes, we ought to exalt God, ascribing to God the glory due his name, but at the same time we need to emulate the shepherd who became a sheep.
The Hebrew scriptures, in Psalm 23, Isaiah 40, Ezekiel 34, and many other places, tell us that God is our shepherd. The Gospel tells us that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is God. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is always present with us, his sheep, through the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sent to be with us forever. And the Good Shepherd demonstrated his love for us by becoming a sheep like us. As the flock under his care, let us follow where he leads. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.