Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(reprinted by permission from The Lectionary Lab Commentary: Stories and Sermons for Year B)
Cheeky answer, wasn’t it?
Peter is standing — along with his accomplice, John — before the very seat of power in Israel of the first century CE. This is you or I being brought before our particular judicatories (synod, conference, presbytery, deacon body, etc.) and questioned about our ministerial practice. The fact that these men were “all” members of the high-priestly family added a bit more gravitas (if any were needed.)
“By what power are you doing these things? Who, or what, gives you the right to act the way you have been acting?”
It’s not a question one wants to answer lightly. They knew that they could get in real trouble. You or I might very well find our livelihoods on the line if brought up for questioning on a similar matter. (What if your entire pension fund were riding on the words that came next out of your mouth, for instance?)
“None other than Jesus of Nazareth — the one you crucified. God raised him from the dead and his is the only name that has been given by which we may be saved.”
Pretty specific; pretty well-defined. Not afraid to be gently, if firmly, confrontational. It’s an all-or-nothing response, when you think about it.
Are we, who may have much less on the line, just as willing to proclaim our conviction as to the truth of the gospel today?
The classic Psalm 23 provides background for the qualities of the “good shepherd.” We do well to have this passage in mind when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
As you re-read Psalm 23 — and do take the time to re-read it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, read it, or even preached it — what quality (or qualities) of the good shepherd stand out to you? How have you experienced the presence of the Lord as your shepherd?
1 John 3:16-24
True love does a lot more than wait; it gives, it hopes, it perseveres, it trusts, it supports…and a whole lot more (refresh your memory at 1 Corinthians 13.)
Mainly, as the Elder Apostle writes here, it acts. Love is a very active thing to feel and do. Not just the words, lofty as they may be (love poems are among the highest literary achievements in human history.) It’s all about what you do, baby!
Don’t just tell me that you love me — show me! You don’t have to live in Missouri to subscribe to that kind of wisdom!
John says that we have not gone far enough when we have simply believed in Jesus…we must also love (in word and deed) one another.
If you’re just in it for the paycheck, you probably aren’t too interested in sacrificing yourself for anyone at the place where you work. That’s just not a “normal” way to think, is it?
But Jesus says that living life his way is sort of like a shepherd in the old days — most likely, the shepherd had a literal financial interest in the welfare of the sheep. He was owner or part-owner of the flock, so it was in his best interest to deliver them to market (or to the shearer) in the best possible condition. Healthier sheep equals higher dollars.
But more than that, the shepherd shared a bond with the sheep. He knew them each by name (his own pet names for them;) he knew how they acted, which were prone to act up or skip out, which were prone to mind and follow in the way they were led.
The sheep also knew which was their shepherd; they got used to his (or her) voice. Even when penned with other flocks and other shepherds, only the voice of “their” shepherd would rouse the sheep to follow. The shepherd was sworn to protect the sheep, and — evidently — would put himself at risk in order to fulfill his duty.
So, Jesus says, I am a lot like that; I know you, you know me, we’re really in this thing together. I have given my life for my sheep. All of them. Even the ones you can’t see in this fold.
Trust me on this.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
My fourth grade teacher, Miz George, died a few weeks ago. (This was not Miss, for she was married, not MS. for though she was quite liberated, she wasn’t a modern feminist, not Mrs. – just good old-fashioned, general purpose, Southern Miz George.) She was in her 90s. Last time I saw her was at my Daddy’s funeral twelve years ago. She came with my second grade teacher, Miz Collins. They taught the four oldest Chilton children at Redbank Elementary School in Claudville, VA, which is the reason none of us will ever end a sentence in a preposition or say “can,” when we mean “may.”
When I saw Miz Collins and Miz George at the funeral, I was reminded of how well they took care of us, their little flocks of illiterate sheep, of so many years ago. They did more than teach us the rudiments of grammar and the building blocks of mathematics. They also taught us to tuck in our shirts and to say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Sir,” and “Please” and “Thank you.” They taught us to respect ourselves and to respect others. They kept us safe, they lead us beside the still waters of knowledge; they created a space in which our minds could grow. They were good shepherds.
That image of those tough, kind, independent, and bossy women as “good shepherds” was helpful to me in thinking about today’s Gospel Lesson, where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” For those of us without any direct experience of sheep and shepherds, this analogy falls a bit flat. If we’re honest, we’re not exactly sure what being a shepherd actually entails, not would most of us be able to tell a good shepherd from a bad one without a lot of help from someone in the know.
It’s important to know that even Jesus is not directly referring to himself as a keeper of sheep; rather he is tapping into a long standing image used by the Hebrew people to refer to the kings, priests and prophets of Israel. These people were seen as having been given responsibility by God to take care of the people, God’s flock. And as many of them failed in this assignment, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tales of bad kings and false prophets.
When Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd,” he is contrasting himself with all those previous leaders who had been poor and incomplete shepherds, no better than hired hands really. By contrast, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, the one truly ready to “lay down his life” for the good of the sheep. Of course, that is what Jesus eventually did upon the cross, and it was that act of laying down his life for the sheep, all God’s people; which are, after all, all people from every time and every place – that created the new community, the new flock, that we call the church. In this new flock, we are all both shepherd and sheep – called of God to care for each other and for the world.
Most of us have seen the Hollywood movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The movie only told part of the story. Behind the movie is another, more important story. In his book, “Miracle on the River Kwai,” Ernest Gordon says that Scottish soldiers, forced by their captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of animalistic behavior toward each other in a struggle to survive.
One afternoon, a shovel was missing. The officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and threatened to kill them all, there, on the spot. It was obvious the officer meant what he said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat the man to death.
When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to a second tool check. This time – no shovel was missing. There had been a miscount at the first tool check.
The dead man was innocent. He had voluntarily died to spare the others. What was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”
That’s not the end of the story. The fact that someone had died to save for them worked a profound change on the prisoners. As one of them said, “we wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking out for each other and taking care of each other.
When the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese guards were terrified. They fully expected to die, to be executed on the spot. Their former prisoners, not little more than skeletons, lined up in front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate. No more killing. What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards are stunned, and broke down weeping.
(Source: Phillip Yancey “Rumors of Another World”)
Sacrificial death had transformative power. The death of an anonymous prisoner transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community who cared about and for one another. The sheep became shepherds to one another.
This one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their captors. When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as lost sheep – not as ravenous wolves. They saw them as the “sheep not from this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them.
We are invited today to reflect upon the sacrificial death our good shepherd died for us. We have an opportunity to open ourselves up to the transforming power of the gift of new life, letting our lives be changed by the Risen Christ living in us and in this community. We are called to continue the work of the good shepherd, caring for one another, loving each other, dying a little for each other, opening doors and tearing down barriers, bringing everyone into the sheepfold, into God’s beloved flock.
Amen and amen.