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Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

I was sitting on the porch steps of my townhouse, feeling blue. I had nowhere to go, nothing interesting to do. Classes hadn’t started yet, and Evan was busy with his electronic games. My mentor came by on her way to a gathering and we talked for a little while. After a while I couldn’t help it. I just burst into tears. My mentor asked me why I was crying. “I’m lonely,” I sobbed. “I don’t know anyone”. But my wise friend said to me, “No, it’s not because you don’t know anyone, it is because nobody knows you”. She was right. I had moved away from home and the only person I really knew was Evan. That would change once classes started, but right now I longed to have someone who knew me and wanted to be with me, who accepted and loved me, one with whom I could share myself.

Knowing and being known is what Jesus is all about in this gospel. The Pharisees want an up-front, plain speaking Harry Truman sort of answer about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. Depending on their intentions, if he says he is, they can either get him in trouble for claiming his relationship to God or urge him on to defeat the Romans (Richard I. Pervo). But being the Messiah is not about a plain simple rational decision. Being the Messiah is about an experience (Gary D. Jones). It is about knowing and being known. It is like a shepherd with his sheep.

Jesus tells the Jews that are asking that he has told them already, but he hasn’t really said it in words. The only person he has told that he is the Messiah is the Samaritan woman at the well. His deeds he says, testify to who he is – his turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, his feeding the 5000, his healings. They are more than ample proof that he is who they say he is, but because they want proof, they cannot believe from experience and that puts them far from him. They are not his sheep.

Knowing and being known, is how we are in relationship with God, rather than through a process of intellectual assent, though our minds are certainly an important part of how we structure our beliefs and develop our relationship with God. It is our experience that is our best teacher. We need to center our belief in Jesus as the Messiah on our experience of him.

So who is the good shepherd? What can we learn about him that makes us want to know him?

The good shepherd says that he and the Father are one. In this passage, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the Word of God, though he is that, but it means that God and Jesus have a unity of purpose. What Jesus does is inseparable from what God would do. Jesus shows what God’s character is like through his own character. And Jesus’ business has been about healing and nurturing and celebration and wholeness. Jesus is about making things new. He has healed the sick of their diseases; he has made people glad with new wine at a joyous wedding celebration. He has fed many thousands of hungry people with just a few loaves and fish. Wherever Jesus goes abundance follows. God is like that too. God blesses people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and helps them be a blessing to others. God multiplies the people’s joy and leads them into land flowing with milk and honey. God is in the business of making wonderful things possible and so is Jesus.

The good shepherd protects the sheep. He holds the sheep in his hands, and no one can snatch them away – not the empire, not the devil, not even death. The good shepherd wants the sheep to thrive and be happy. He leads them beside green pastures and makes sure they have good water to drink. He restores their souls. The good shepherd knows he will have to lay down his life for the sheep to free them from sin and death and he does this willingly because he loves the sheep so much.

The good shepherd gives the sheep eternal life. He takes his life back up again (as John puts it) and destroys the power of death – not its reality but its power to separate forever. The sheep can have a new quality of life – a reconciled life, a fulfilled life, a joyful life – as they live in relationship with Jesus now, and they will also have life after death. The shepherd will guide them to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from their eyes. They will continue to live in peace and freedom and give praise and thanks to the good shepherd.

The good shepherd is a lover of souls, who comes seeking us long before we seek him. The shepherd wants everyone in his flock. It has been difficult for some to read this in the passage, because Jesus says that the Pharisees don’t believe because they are not part of his flock. But elsewhere Jesus says he wants one flock under one shepherd. Perhaps the good shepherd has done the inviting and the potential sheep have not responded. The shepherd has shown a proclivity for inviting everyone and some of the potential sheep don’t like that inclusivity.

The good shepherd knows the sheep. He is familiar with everything about us because he made us. He knows our strengths and weaknesses and cares for us individually according to our needs. He wants us to reach our fullest potential and we can only do that by participating in a relationship with him.

The good shepherd knows us and now we know something about him. What kind of sheep do we have to be to enter into relationship with him and find true peace and wholeness? We have to know that we need him. We have to be open to a future that is better than our present and identify the shepherd as the one who can provide it for us. Even in the midst of all our anxiety and negative thinking and resentments and fears, we have to know that good things are out there and they are given out by an all-knowing, all-loving shepherd. Even in our most desperate times, even when we can’t reach out in hope, hopefully we can absorb the love he offers in thousands of different ways.

Sheep need to be vulnerable. In order to grow in our relationship with the good shepherd, we have to let Jesus remove our masks and our armor, our self-deceptions and our denials, and help us stand up as we are and let him in. It is hard sometimes because we have learned a lot about a God of judgment, but Jesus is loving and accepting of us so much that he lived, died and rose again for us.

We need to hear the shepherd’s voice and follow where he leads. We need to trust the shepherd to show us the best places to eat, to sleep, to drink and to grow. We need to show love for the one who loved us first by loving our neighbors. One story in the Washington Post talked about how middle schoolers designed a program to help benefit local food pantries by giving the students the option of donating a dime whenever they bought lunch. If students made these small donations regularly, the program would raise about half a million dollars a year. These sheep are now in conversation with the school to turn their project into reality.

Being in a relationship with the good shepherd is a blessing to the sheep. We know our shepherd and he knows us. We do not have to pretend but we can be who we are. We are filled with good things and given good work to do. We have meaning and purpose that match our Creator’s intention for us. We are protected as we sit in the good shepherd’s hands. We are delivered from sin and death through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Richard I. Pervo, Tuesday Morning, Vol. 18, No. 2, April-June 2016, p. 8
Gary D. Jones, Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 446