How would you describe or define your relationship with Jesus? We might say: he’s my Savior, my Lord, my God – which are all true and accurate. But those things say more about Jesus than our relationship to him, don’t they? He’s Savior, Lord, and God whether I hate him or love him. You may or may not know that having a personal, intimate relationship with God and with Jesus is a hot (and convoluted) topic in Christian circles today. Some say that the average person can’t possibly have a personal relationship with God – he’s a mysterious, distant being – and so you must go to a spiritual guru, a modern day “prophet,” a pope or a saint who can mediate on your behalf. Some say that having a relationship with Jesus is an indefinable, mystical thing – and you know it when you feel it in your gut and tickling your spine. Some modern Christian music describes our relationship with Jesus in almost romantic terms; as if Jesus wants to snuggle up with you on the couch to watch a movie with a big bowl of popcorn. There’s a lot of confusion about how we can actually define our relationship to him. In a way that’s not surprising, given that today we can’t see him, touch him, or talk to him face to face. But it doesn’t have to be a mystery, because Jesus himself has defined our relationship in terms even a child can understand: a shepherd and his sheep. It might not be a good thing to hear in the context of any other relationship, but it is good news when Jesus tells us “trust me: it’s not you, it’s me.” We are his possession, which he purchased with his own life, and we are led by his voice.
In the context of John’s Gospel, this “Good Shepherd” section appears on the heels of a confrontation between our Lord and the Pharisees. Jesus had healed a man who had been blind from birth. The Pharisees investigated this miracle. They were jealous and angry that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath Day and demanded that he expose Jesus as a sinner. He is an honest witness. He says the only thing he can: One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! (John 9:25) They insulted him and excommunicated him. Jesus responds by clarifying the distinction between faithful spiritual leaders and their unfaithful counterparts.
Jesus calls himself the good shepherd – a statement by which he equates himself with the LORD of Psalm 23. He is saying that we should think of our relationship to him in terms of a shepherd and sheep. As our shepherd, Jesus lives with us; he is with us round the clock; he is, for all intents and purposes, one of us. The sheep know him and he knows each of his sheep by name. Unlike the cowboys you see on old Westerns, who drive their cattle from behind with fear and terror, Jesus goes in front of us, leading us, facing any danger or any enemy for us. Like sheep, we follow him because we trust that he cares more about us than he cares about himself. We trust that he won’t lead us anywhere that would lead to eternal death and destruction. This means that we will even follow him down paths that are unpopular with the world, that make us emotionally or rationally uncomfortable, that may be painful – because we trust that he knows best. Is there any more comforting image of Jesus and us than this? This image is comforting to toddlers at bedtime, to young people who feel like they are lost or simply wandering through life, to those who are sick or suffering and those who know they are standing on the brink of death. Jesus says that this relationship is as intimate as that between him and his Father: I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. When you’re hurting, sick, scared, alone, and even when you intentionally stray into sin – Jesus knows. He knows and he loves you anyway. He loves you even when you’re unlovable, even when all you want to do is run away from him. Because you belong to him, you are his possession. It’s no surprise that this picture Jesus paints is one of the most prominent and popular among Christians.
But it does force us to acknowledge something our sinful nature doesn’t want to admit: we are sheep. Jesus calls us sheep, and being called a sheep is never a flattering thing. Sheep are stubborn, self-centered, high maintenance creatures who require 24/7 care or they will die. Sheep are defenseless. They aren’t fast enough to run away from danger, they don’t have sharp teeth or claws, their white wool provides no camouflage, and (if you’ve ever been around sheep) they sound like a bad imitation of a sheep. Having grown up in South Dakota, I learned that many farmers and ranchers despise sheep, because left to themselves they will mindlessly mow down every blade of grass in a field – not only destroying the field but starving themselves. Sheep are foolish and stupid.
Like it or not, that’s what Jesus calls us. He calls us sheep. He’s saying that left alone, we would destroy ourselves and others. We foolishly stray into dangerous places and situations. We eat (read, watch, and listen to) things that poison our faith. We bicker and argue with one another and we stubbornly insist on having things our way. We even claim that we don’t need a shepherd, that we are just fine on our own – ignorant of the fact that the lone sheep is the devil’s ideal target, that on our own we are as good as dead. (Would any one of us say that he’s wrong?) And in order to have a relationship with Jesus, we must own this fact. And, practically speaking, we do own this fact when we confess our sins, when we admit that we are as good as dead without Jesus.
Because taking care of stupid, defenseless sheep like us is dirty, thankless, tiresome work, many false shepherds appear who are not faithful caretakers. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. The hired hand doesn’t really know the sheep and doesn’t really care for them. He’s just in it for the power, the prestige or the money. When danger comes he abandons the flock. In the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus was calling the Pharisees “hired hands.” Instead of guiding, leading and feeding God’s flock, they pointed people to their own obedience to the law, their own good works for comfort. They assaulted the flock with manmade rules and regulations – effectively teaching them that they needed to save themselves. And then they fleeced the flock, living the good life while the flock starved.
You don’t have to look too far to see “hired hands” today. They can tell people how they should live and give advice for self-improvement and they write NY Times top ten best sellers and are happy to take your money so that they can drive (or fly) around in luxury – but don’t bother calling if you get sick or lose your job or have a falling out with your spouse – they are far too important and busy to worry about the problems of little lambs like you. Hired hands today will seek out the path of least resistance in their preaching, teaching and practice. Instead of preaching the truth no matter how controversial it may be; instead of pointing out and defending the flock against the deathtraps of sin and false doctrine, they modify their doctrine and practice to accommodate the world’s ever-changing appetite, to scratch itching ears. (2 Timothy 4:3) The hired hand’s highest priority is being popular and well-liked. Instead of faithfully using the only tools that God has given him – the Law and the Gospel – the hired hand uses his own wisdom and manmade philosophies and strategies to increase the size of the flock – (because they believe the flock belongs to them, not to Christ). The hired hand won’t personally instruct the young or comfort the sick and dying – and when his members stray through neglect of the Word or ungodly living, he won’t admonish or discipline. His only interest is in attracting fat, fluffy sheep that can benefit him personally. He will simply let the lost sheep wander all the way to hell.
But Jesus is different. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus doesn’t demand your life and livelihood from you, he gives his life for you. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep…the reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. Our relationship to Jesus is not based on who we are, how worthy we are, how well we behave or how firmly we believe. The basis of our relationship to the Good Shepherd is not about us, it’s about him. He laid down his life for us – the stupid, disobedient, self-centered, high maintenance flock. In a world that is filled with hundreds of different religious philosophies and teachers – this is what sets Jesus apart. Jesus’ primary mission and message is not about telling us what to do or how to live. Jesus’ mission and message was to suffer, die and rise again for sheep were not following him, for those who hated him, for those who were by nature his bitter enemies.
And that was the plan all along. Jesus says this command I received from my Father. God’s will was that his one and only Son would take human flesh (become a sheep), live in perfect obedience to the Law, suffer and die for the sins of the world, and then, three days later, take his life up again – rise from the dead. You will never find another shepherd like him. This is one relationship that doesn’t depend on your feelings or efforts. The basis for your relationship to him is not your faith, your confession, your good works or your commitment. You are Jesus’ little lamb because he died for you. The relationship is not built on you, it’s built on Christ’s life, death and resurrection – and that’s good news, because that foundation will never change.
So the nature of our relationship to Jesus, in his own words, is one of sheep to a shepherd – we are his possession, the basis is the fact that he laid down his life for us and took it up again in accordance with his Father’s plan and command – but we all know that there are many people in this world who do not see Jesus as their shepherd, people for whom he died and yet who reject his sacrifice as foolish or unnecessary. So, the final question is: how is this relationship created, nurtured and sustained? Jesus clarifies this as well: I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen (a reference to non-Jews; Gentiles). I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
A healthy, vibrant, living relationship with Jesus begins and ends with his voice: the living and enduring Word of God. (John 6:63; 1 Peter 1:23-25) The Word is the rod and staff with which he guides and chastens and comforts us. This means that if you are not hearing the Savior’s voice, if you or anyone you know is not hearing, reading, and meditating on the Word of God – your relationship with Jesus will die. Naturally, this is offensive to sheep who think that they know best and who want to take the credit for building their relationship with Jesus. We all know people who claim to have a relationship with Jesus because they call themselves Christian or because they belong to a Christian church or because they speak to Jesus in prayer. But that’s not the way it works – with sheep or with Christians. Sheep don’t choose their shepherd, the shepherd chooses his sheep. (John 15:16) Sheep who ignore or neglect or reject the voice of the shepherd cannot have a relationship with him. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is leading the way to heaven with his voice in Word and Sacrament – but when he turns around on Judgment Day only those who listened to and followed his voice will be able to enter the gate.
The Good News is that he has already bought every single human soul with his precious blood and he is still inviting one and all to come to him for rest. He is still proclaiming that a relationship with him is not based on our decision, desire, or effort (because that would make it uncertain) – but on his perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. He is still sending out faithful under-shepherds to proclaim this good news to all people, who will seek out the strays to bring them back, who will point out and condemn false teaching, and who will preach and teach the truth regardless of how many people it angers or offends. He is still leading us through the dark valley of this world to the green pastures of heaven. He is still risen and is still the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us and we are still his weak, foolish, defenseless – and yes, oftentimes stupid – sheep. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Amen.