By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because all but one of the readings make reference to shepherds. That one exception is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. So let’s look at that first before we move on to animal husbandry.
The first line in today’s reading from Acts provides the Church with a spiritual rule of life. The earliest Christians, we are told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like them, we too are to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We do this when we meditate on the New Testament. We do this when we listen to a sermon or attend a Bible study. We devote ourselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers when we attend the Eucharist and when we pray our daily devotions. But what about devoting ourselves to fellowship? Don’t we do that at every coffee hour? Yes and no. The Greek word translated here as “fellowship” is koinonia, and it has a wide range of meanings, such as sharing, participation, communion, and even communal ownership. The earliest Christians understood this kind of fellowship as requiring them to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is so much more than signing up to bring snacks to the Sunday coffee hour! Such fellowship as is commended to us in the Acts of the Apostles requires profound mutual commitment, up to and including financial support for the poor in our midst.
Now for the sheep and the shepherds! Psalm 23 is a favorite psalm of many, and it is regularly read at funerals, because it speaks of God’s mercy to those who trust in him. The very first line says it all: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The psalmist, traditionally thought to be King David, expresses his ultimate trust in God. The rest of the psalm proceeds to explain why that trust is well founded. To understand why King David calls God his shepherd, we need to know that in biblical times the shepherd was a common metaphor for the king. So here we have a king humbly acknowledging that the one true king is God and God alone.
Now we Americans don’t have kings, but we do have political leaders with enormous power over our lives and the lives of people around the world. What does it mean in our context to say, along with King David, “The Lord is my shepherd”? Well, it means that the Lord, and the Lord alone, is our supreme leader, ranking above President or Congress or Supreme Court. It means that we accept God’s guidance in every aspect of our lives, whether at home or at church, on the street or in the voting booth. It means that our ultimate trust should be in God, for human leaders, like sheep, are prone to stray and wander. And we, like sheep, are prone to follow them.
Moving on to the Epistle, we find St. Peter giving advice to Christian slaves. He attempts to give them hope in their suffering, by assuring them that God is on their side and will reward their endurance. The reading ends with Peter reminding them that, although they once had strayed like sheep, they now have a shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide them through life. Although none of us here knows the pain of being a slave, all of us, at one time or another, have endured suffering. And all of us, at one time or another, have strayed from the right path. It is a comfort to be reminded that Christ will faithfully shepherd us through those difficult times.
Finally, we get to the Gospel reading. In the first of two parables, we’re told that the rightful shepherd is let into the sheepfold by the gatekeeper. The shepherd calls each and every one of his sheep by name, showing no partiality. His sheep recognize his voice and follow him; whereas, they will not follow the unfamiliar voice of a thief.
It’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with an allegory here. The shepherd is Jesus, and the flock in the sheepfold is the Jewish people. Those Jews who belong to Jesus recognize who he is and follow him. The sheep left behind in the fold are those Jews who do not respond to his call. The thieves and bandits in the parable probably represent the untrustworthy religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day. But it’s anybody’s guess whom the gatekeeper represents! In any case, the point of the whole parable is that we should listen to the voice of Jesus and follow where he leads. For all other would-be leaders are as dangerous as thieves and bandits.
Jesus must have had the feeling that his audience didn’t really understand the first parable, so he tries again with a second one. This time, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the gate leading into the sheepfold, instead of with the shepherd of the sheep. Jesus goes on to say that whoever goes in and out through this “Jesus gate” will be sheltered from harm and will have a good life.
Now we come to the part of the sermon where we ask, “How do today’s readings affect our lives?” As we heard in the reading from Acts, Christians in the early Church took care of each other, even if it required selling their land and giving the proceeds to the needy. We don’t do that anymore. Instead, we pay our taxes, and we depend on the government to provide for those in need. We depend on the government to look after the sick and the poor, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the refugee. In effect, we depend on the government to fulfill our Christian duty. But what happens when the government decides that the welfare state costs too much and starts cutting great big holes in the social safety net? What happens when folks lose their health care or suffer cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits? What happens when hungry families can no longer get food stamps? What happens when America’s contribution to world famine relief dries up? What will we do? Well, I’ll tell you. We will rise to the occasion. We will turn away from the beguiling voice of the thief. We will listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd. And we will follow where he leads. Like our ancestors in the faith, we will do whatever it takes to build up the Kingdom of God, and we will give whatever it takes to help our brothers and sisters in need. For the Lord is our shepherd, and we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.” —Ephesians 3:20
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.