The Good Shepherd
Published 06 May 2012
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Sunday 29 April 2012
Lessons - Ezekiel 34:1,2,10,11; Psalm 23; Hebrews 13:20,21; John 10:11-18
Thus says the Lord: I myself will search for my sheep and will seek
them out. (Ezekiel 34:11)
Jesus said, 'I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his
life for the sheep.' (John 10:11,15,17)
The God of peace . . . brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus
Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep . . . (Hebrews 13:20)
The pastoral image of the 'Good Shepherd' is so familiar. The shepherd Psalm is the best loved passage in the Bible. In art Jesus is often portrayed sentimentally as a gentle shepherd holding cuddly lambs, the focus being on the comfort that a caring God brings whenever we are unhappy. We have come to think of 'pastoral care' as calming personal fears and resolving congregational disputes by consensus. A good 'pastor' gives comfort to all, avoids conflict and maintains harmony at any cost!
This picture of 'pastoral ministry' owes more to 'therapeutic models of counselling' that help us adjust to the world, than to biblical 'models of discipleship' that unsettle and encourage us to live fully in the world. It is not that God is uninterested in our troubles. Far from it! The Good Shepherd upholds us in times of suffering and death. But he is also the One who guides us in the ways of mercy and righteousness, calls bad leaders to account, and encourages us to be steadfast in the face of serious threats to faith, hope and love.
There is nothing cuddly about the 'shepherd' in Scripture! David, the shepherd-King, boldly defends the faithful. Prophets like Ezekiel risk life and reputation to speak out against false shepherds! (Ezekiel 34.) God is the protector of the persecuted (Psalm 23) who goes in search of lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:4-7). The vulnerable little flock can live in hope because nothing can ultimately thwart the just and gracious purposes of the Good Shepherd.
The setting in which Jesus spoke about the Good Shepherd helps us see what it means to be truly 'pastoral'. The Festival of Hanukah (John 10:22) was being held to commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC. It had been desecrated by the Greek ruler Antiochus IV. Sacrifices to Zeus were made on the altar. Pagan practices had displaced worship of God. Judas Maccabeus led a bloody revolt against the strong Greek army and, against the odds, prevailed. Being 'pastoral' meant opposing idolatry and inhumanity and defending the faith.
As part of the service of thanksgiving, the words of Ezekiel were read:
'Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel . . . say to them . . . you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the flock instead of their own egos? (34:6.)' At Hanukah, when people remembered both the sacrifices of good pastors and the timidity and faithlessness of many bad pastors, Jesus speaks of being the Good Shepherd. In his ministry we see that the truly Good Shepherd seeks the lost and rejoices when sinners and outcasts are welcomed and demonic forces are overcome.
'This Good Shepherd even lays down his life for the sheep' - a point emphasised four times (John 10:11,15,17). Not only does he stand against evil on behalf of his flock but he goes to death in an act of sacrificial love unlike any other. Moreover, as Hebrews says, his crucifixion is not the end of the matter. The Good Shepherd is raised from the dead (Hebrews 13:20). Unexpectedly, incredibly, the goodness and mercy of God triumphed over evil and death.
Idyllic images are foreign to the biblical picture of shepherds. It was tough, dangerous work! Shepherds often had to take their sheep through dark, treacherous valleys to get to the 'green pastures' and 'waters of rest'. Psalm 23 encourages those whose faith is being sorely tested by stiff opposition. The Good Shepherd leads the vulnerable flock away from peril, protects them from harm and sees that they are refreshed and encouraged to face another tough day on faith's path.
Being good shepherds was a difficult but vital task in the community of faith. Sadly, it was common for pastors to mislead the flock and use their position to 'feed themselves' - to starve the people of righteousness and mercy and to feed their own egos (Ezekiel 34:2).
It was no less true in Jesus' time, as we see in the Gospel. Jesus highlights the sacrificial nature of his 'pastoral ministry' (three times) and attacks the 'faithless pastors' of his day as thieves, robbers, mercenaries (four times). It is no small thing for entrusted leaders to turn from God's righteousness and mercy, teach whatever they like and behave however they choose!
It is clear then that pastoral ministry is about much more than treating aches and pains. We must be ready for challenges and temptations which come from being disciples. Like the prophets and Jesus we must not shrink from exposing charlatans so that our fellows will hear the Gospel.
We are facing huge challenges in pastoral ministry today. Christian faith is being attacked by forces not unlike those faced by the ancient Jews and early Christians. Instead of Christian faith transforming pagan culture as it did in earlier times, Christianity is now being transformed by beliefs and practices that are alien to the Jewish-Christian heritage.
Indeed, many 'pastors' now believe that 'there are many ways to reach divine reality, that the Christian revelation is but one expression of faith, that Christ is one Saviour among many and that we can find God or our own divinity by looking within ourselves'. Many in the church believe that self-fulfilment and personal growth, not God's righteousness and mercy, are the goal of life. We prefer the cuddly Jesus, who shields us from hardship, to the Good Shepherd who binds our wounds and sends us back into battle.
We are dealing with dark forces that seek to undermine the Church's faith in Christ. Being 'pastoral' therefore means standing up against charlatans peddling false comfort in order to 'feed their own egos'! Alas, too many shepherds and flocks have become too timid to rise to the challenge of this critical aspect of pastoral ministry. We prefer gentle Jesus meek and mild (who expects nothing of us) to the Good Shepherd who, having suffered discomfort on the Cross, triumphed over evil and called men and women to walk the joyful, yet often uncomfortable, path of costly discipleship.
Too often, shepherds and flocks have learned to live and let live on small and large matters alike. To heck with the Gospel of costly grace! Avoid conflict at any cost! Be 'pastorally sensitive' and let incompatible beliefs-and-practices on the substance of the faith sit comfortably side by side. Better to respect diverse beliefs and life-styles, maintain long- standing friendships and manage dissent than to be passionate disciples of Christ!
This approach to being 'pastoral' has done and is doing irreparable harm to the Church's calling. It has encouraged us not to think of ourselves as belonging to a community called into being to bear witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Because of that we do not see the importance of challenging the shallow relativism which pervades our society in the name of the righteousness and mercy embodied in Jesus.
Today's readings remind us that, no matter what the cost, we are called to proclaim the truth. The love of God for flawed humans like you and me is displayed in the Good Shepherd whose costly love for all has been decisively displayed in the cross-and-resurrection! In Christ, therefore, we see (in a unique, wonderful and totally unexpected way) the righteousness and mercy of the Good Shepherd who led, challenged and renewed the Hebrew people.
Our pastoral duty is to set forth the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The 'Good Shepherd who lay down his life for the sheep' is unlike any other figure. His sacrificial commitment to the human race is unequalled in history! Because of him our worship, preaching, teaching and visiting is to reflect what it means to be disciples of Christ: the Good Shepherd who lay down his life and was raised to life for the sake of all his wayward sheep (John 10:16).
The question for the Church is whether we want to exercise this kind of pastoral care. Do we want 'comfort' for ourselves or 'comfort' that refreshes us so that we are emboldened to spread the word of hope to lost souls and to stand up to charlatans peddling a self-centred faith?
If this seems too hard, remember that there is a festive element to pastoral ministry. In Psalm 23 the Good Shepherd watches over the sheep which, after a tough day threatened by dangers on every side, feed on lush pasture and drink fresh water. Remember too that the Good Shepherd, who lay down his life for his friends, fed the hungry, ate and drank with tax- collectors and sinners, compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet and instituted the Supper of bread and wine as a perpetual sign of his presence with the Church.
The seriousness of our pastoral calling flows from the joy of knowing that the Good Shepherd is the God whose costly and triumphant love for flawed human beings and our strife-torn world has been supremely embodied in Christ's life, death and resurrection as the sign that in future all that threatens life and faith shall be defeated!
Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord
Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the
eternal covenant, equip us with every good thing to do his will,
working in us that which is well pleasing in his sight, to whom be
glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.