The Shepherd, the King

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

A Sermon Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, May 11, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This day is commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” To my knowledge, there are only two Sundays in the whole year that we name for one of the titles of Jesus Christ. In November, on the Sunday immediately before Advent begins—and thus the last Sunday of the liturgical year—we keep the Feast of Christ the King. And then each year, on this the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. Those are the only two, and there is something fitting about that.

Only two Sundays in the whole year named for titles of Jesus, and it happens that those two Sundays show forth the full range of Christ’s identity and ministry. Christ the King and Good Shepherd Sunday run the gamut of human experience: from a King’s crown to a Shepherd’s crook—from the dazzling heights of royal authority to the lowly life of a livestock-herding wanderer.

No one but Jesus can claim both of those titles simultaneously. King David was a shepherd, that’s true, but the humility of his beginning only serves to demonstrate the Lord’s power to exalt his chosen servant from even the lowliest circumstances. David is not a shepherd and a king. He is a shepherd who, by God’s might, becomes a king. But Jesus our incarnate Lord, Jesus our triumphant Ruler, Jesus our mighty King, is also, always, at the same time, Jesus our humble Servant, Jesus our patient Friend, Jesus our Good Shepherd.

The astonishing range of this contrast is more powerfully realized when we remember just how low shepherds were in the social structure of Jesus’ day. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is so cherished, so sacrosanct—and so saccharine—that it can be very hard for us to recover the original scandal of Jesus’ claim. For us today, Jesus the Good Shepherd calls to mind the beautiful stained glass depictions we all have seen—most especially the window over the high altar in our own church: a strong, handsome Jesus gently carrying a little lamb, and confidently leading his flock. In our window, Jesus is surrounded by prophets and sages, by a mother with her child—by every sign and symbol of admiration and dignity; of respectability and piety.

The reality of shepherds’ identity in Jesus’ own time and place could hardly be more different. Shepherds were scum. Shepherds were lowlifes. Shepherds were the kind of people that good, decent, upstanding citizens would avoid if at all possible. Shepherds lived out on the mountainside away from the civilizing influence of villages and towns. Shepherds were dirty, untrustworthy. Real shepherds, in spite of our stunning Good Shepherd window, would be decidedly out of place in the high and holy sanctuary of Christ Church Greenwich.

In calling himself “the Good Shepherd,” Jesus claims this humble identity. All week I have been racking my brain, trying to come up with a decent contemporary comparison. Who are the people in our society without whom we could not function, but with whom we would rather not associate? I am the Good Garbage Man? I am the Good Sewer Worker? I am the Good Cab Driver? I am the Good Prison Guard? I do not mean for one moment to denigrate the people who perform these jobs. Each of these hardworking professions is as essential to the continuance of our way-of-life as shepherding was for Jesus’ society and culture. And yet each of these professions—and so many others—also places a person somehow outside the strict boundaries of acceptability and social worthiness. When he takes up the mantle of the Good Shepherd, Jesus crosses over those same boundaries and takes up his place not with the high and mighty but with the lowly and the least.

And yet, in the end, none of our modern low-status jobs can express the full significance of the title “Good Shepherd,” because that title doesn’t describe the shepherd only. That title also forces us to consider the sheep. Beloved, if a shepherd in ancient times was not an especially respectable profession to claim for oneself, then we must remember that sheep in every time and every place are not an especially flattering animal to be compared with. Sheep are stupid. Sheep are helpless. With their eyes downcast and their mouths endlessly munching, sheep will follow their own appetites over hill and dale until they are quite lost, completely cut off from the rest of the flock, and far from the protection of the shepherd.

The difficult truth we must not forget is that when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he calls his followers the sheep. And if we are honest, we must confess that that is an apt metaphor. The Prophet Isaiah declares that “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” The Rite I General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer admits that “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” And St Peter, at the end of today’s epistle reading, tells us “You were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” If Jesus has become the Good Shepherd, it is because we are his straying sheep. The humility which he gladly endured, he endured in order to seek us in our wandering, worthless ways.

Behold, then! The Cross of Christ is the true shepherd’s crook. On it, our Good Shepherd has endured the very depths of human lowliness. With it, he has caught us in our erring ways, called us from our wanton paths, pulled us up from those places where we were lost and fallen. By it, he has won for us life and immortality, through his saving passion and death.

But here is a great paradox. Here is the significance of the two Sundays named for titles of Jesus—Good Shepherd Sunday and the Feast of Christ the King. The Cross is not simply Christ’s shepherd crook: it is also his royal throne. In his great lowliness, in his agonizing humility, in his deep shame, our Good Shepherd is also revealed to be our mighty king, our conquering champion, our everlasting Lord. The lowly herder is also our triumphant monarch.

For though he has known all the darkness, all the pain, all the sorrow that degrades the human heart and soul, yet he has not remained bound by those things. The King crowned on Calvary’s tree has been vindicated, exalted, and received in glory through his mighty resurrection. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, and he has taken it up again. Christ the King set aside his majesty and dignity, to receive a greater authority: the authority over death itself.

So, fellow sheep: will you hear and heed his voice this day? Today, the Good Shepherd calls to you. Today, Christ the King claims you. Today, Jesus speaks to you those same thrilling words of promise spoken to his earliest followers: “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”

Follow him to verdant pastures, beside the living stream. Follow him in lowliness and humility. Follow him in triumph and majesty. Receive at his hand the glorious gift of abundant, everlasting life. AMEN.