4 Easter – April 25, 2021
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”. This usually conjures up, for me, the image of Jesus holding a sheep lovingly and tenderly in his arms and it’s actually an image I have hanging on my wall at home. It brings me comfort.
Just prior to our gospel reading today, Jesus contrasted the shepherd with thieves and bandits, but today the contrast is between the good shepherd and the hired hand. Hired hands, it turns out, aren’t out to destroy the sheep but they aren’t committed enough to risk their lives for the flock. They are pretenders, in it for the cash rather than out of genuine care. They have a legitimate and important job to do, but do it for themselves with little regard to those entrusted to their care.
So, I wonder. Do you think there a lot of hired hands in our world today? You know, both people and institutions with legitimate and important roles who seem to have little to no regard for those they are called to serve. Yes, I think there are.
Maybe one way to understand the calming presence of a good shepherd’s care is to experience the distress caused by its absence. When a greedy wolf shows up or an opportunistic hired hand runs the other direction, you know it. Your whole body experiences the threat. Feelings of terror, worry, and abandonment get embedded in our bones and systems.
There are too many toxic effects of lacking a good shepherd. Some examples: You’ve been awakened by pandemic-fueled anxiety dreams. You’ve had nowhere to hide from the predatory racism that roams the streets. You’ve had to map out escape routes to save yourself from the daily wave of microaggressions, only to run face first into a surprise macroaggression.
We need Jesus, the Good Shepherd, now more than ever. Today we hear Jesus announce himself as the good shepherd because now that Easter Sunday has passed, he is on his way back to the God he calls his Father. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his ascension as his return to the divine embrace. The divine embrace. There, abiding with God in a perfect love that drives all fear away, he possesses power. That power doesn’t keep us in perfect safety in this dangerous world, but it does provide the security of love. The power consists of the constant, watchful care of an unblinking shepherd.
In contrast “hired hands” are more interested in self above all others and in the false narratives of scarcity, insecurity, and fear they perpetuate. Their messaging is consistent: you do not have enough, you are not enough, you should be afraid, image is everything, you are what you own, etc. Beneath all of these various messages is a single and consistent demand: justify yourself! Your worth, your person, your very existence.
And then there is Jesus. In Jesus there is the consistent message that we are loved, that we are worthy, that we need not be afraid, that we are enough, we are children of God. Jesus offers himself as the good shepherd. And the proof of his fidelity is simply this: he is willing to lay down his life on behalf of the sheep – us. Five times in our reading we are told that the good shepherd freely lays down his life for his sheep. This shepherd intimately cares about each sheep, especially the lost one, and wants the flock to flourish as a whole. His love even extends to the sheep in other flocks. In the presence of Christ all are welcomed, tended, heard, accepted, watched over, and loved beyond death. It is a beautiful love upon which to model our relationships.
The Resurrection of Jesus upsets the balance of power— and every expectation—of the entire cosmos. Evil no longer reigns supreme. Death does not have the last word. Hope edges out fear. Should that not shape our very lives?
Jesus’ resurrection declares that death will not have the last word. That’s true, but it’s only part of Easter faith. Jesus’ resurrection means that he reigns, he loves, and he holds each of us in the palm of his hand. As a good shepherd, he has a remarkable stamina for staying on duty. And so we give great thanks for Jesus, our Good Shepherd, our source of power, and the One who holds us in his divine, loving embrace – now and always. Amen.