Jesus's Under- Shepherd
A Sermon on John 10:11-18
Victoria Leigh Soto was a young 27 year old, who was reared in a loving bicultural home. She had degrees in education and history, and was enrolled in graduate school. Her future appeared to be bright and beautiful. Victoria got a job as a first grade teacher, and as most teachers I’ve met, I know she loved her students as if they were her own children. Her actions proved that to her students, as well as to our nation and the world.
On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza made his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut, where Victoria taught. Lanza began to shoot staff and students, as he made his way through the school. After killing two administrators upon entering, as well as fifteen students and two teachers in the first classroom, Lanza entered Victoria's classroom. Victoria had hidden several students in a closet. According to reports, when Lanza entered her classroom, she told him that the children were not there, and that they were in the school gym across the building. When several frightened children ran from their hiding places, Lanza began shooting at them. Soto was apparently shot after she "threw herself in front of her first grade students.”
Victoria’s funeral took place at Lordship Community Church, in Stratford, Connecticut. Other than information about her family, I couldn’t find much about Victoria’s upbringing. However, her family, friends, students, parents, and others close to her consistently described her as a selfless woman.
I’m not telling you this story to suggest that Victoria, or Vicki, as those close to her called her, was the Good Shepherd. Only Jesus can claim that title. But, she certainly wasn’t the hired hand who leaves the sheep and runs away. She wasn’t the wolf either, for we can clearly identify who that was in this instance. I’m also not implying that we literally need to die for others to be a good person. Vicki’s experience was extreme, and the chances that we’ll find ourselves in that kind of situation are slim to none. However, Vicki is certainly an example of what it’s like to live our lives like Jesus.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, and I’m summarizing, “I am the good shepherd; and... I lay down My life for the sheep… I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father… I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also… For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.”
As we read these words, we know he’s referring to his crucifixion to come. We know he died to redeem us from our sinfulness. We know that through this selfless act he bestowed upon all those who believe in Him eternal life. This was certainly Jesus's crowning life achievement as the Shepherd of the Sheep. However, it would be a big mistake to think that Jesus' “shepherdness” is confined to this one event.
Although there are times when a shepherd is called to die for his flock, most good shepherds’ labors are far more mundane and routine, more persevering in one direction over a long time. To lay down one's life for the sheep most commonly amounts to doing the work of a shepherd all one's life, to labor for the well-being of the flock for all one's life, to live not for one’s self, but for the life of the flock.
Psalm 23, which we also read today, gives us a lot of examples of what shepherds do. As our shepherd, our Lord is a provider; He wants to soothe us at all times; He illuminates our pathway at all times; He is with us through troubling times; He comforts and gives us courage in the presence of our oppressors; He strengthens us through the Holy Spirit to endure all obstacles in our lives; His love and grace is with us to eternity, where we’ll dwell with Him. That’s the full definition of what it means to be the Good Shepherd!
That’s also what we’re called to do as his followers. If you’ll recall, he told Peter, “feed my sheep,” as he commissioned him to carry on the work of the Lord Himself. This is what John the Evangelist is referring to when he said in today’s Epistle, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? …let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Therefore, as his followers, we are to be Jesus’s under-shepherds and care for all our neighbors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, said it well, “The church is church only when it is there for others… not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling what a life with Christ is, what it means ‘to be there for others.’” Furthermore, Dietrich says of Jesus, “He comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor.” I don’t know where God is calling you, but I know He is through everyone you encounter. This is why Christly discernment in everything is of utmost importance.
So on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let us feel the comfort of Jesus entering into our sheepfold. Let us remember that he loves every single one of us. Let us remember that he knows us, and we are members of his flock. And may we never forget, that as his under-shepherds, we are to lay down our lives for others as we extend the same selfless love, grace and compassion to all other sheep that do not belong to this fold, so that we may help Him bring them into the flock.
Your servant in Christ,
The Rev. Arnoldo L. Romero, MLA