The Pain of Being a Good Sheep

Heritage Presbyterian Church

May 3, 2020
4th Sunday of Easter
Scripture readings – 1st Peter 2: 19-25 and John 10: 1-11

There’s two sides to every story,” the old saying goes.  We all know that…even if we would prefer to only listen to or believe just the one side that is easier, clearer, or is our favorite part.  But in order to truly get the whole picture, we need to know both sides of any story.

This is vital to today’s message: there are two sides to the whole shepherd/sheep relationship, but we tend to focus on either the Jesus/Good Shepherd part or we focus instead on the sheep part – since that’s where all of us are.  Let’s see if we can expand and explore both sides to this, and see what we might learn.

In John’s Gospel reading, for once John is crystal clear when he tells the story of Jesus talking to the Pharisees and comparing himself to a good shepherd.  Even the city-dwelling, rich and powerful Pharisees could easily understand the analogy Jesus was using.  First, he identifies the fact that there are some shepherds who aren’t worth anyone’s time…they are false or lazy shepherds.  Some so-called “hirelings” don’t really care… they’re just going through the motions because of expectations from the owner – or perhaps because it’s a family tradition.  Whatever the reason, some shepherds can’t and won’t truly care about the sheep.

Next, Jesus identifies the role of the “gatekeeper” as vital to the safety and protection of the sheep.  If the gatekeeper is doing his job and watching that gate carefully, nothing will happen to the sheep.  Wolves and thieves won’t get past that an gatekeeper and steal or destroy the flock.  The sheep are secure.  The owner of those sheep – in other words, God the Father – knows that He can trust that gatekeeper.  

But there is another reason why that gatekeeper can be trusted: he has done such a good job caring for the sheep over time that the sheep know his voice and they trust him when they hear it.  If they hear any other voice, they won’t trust it at all.  That shows what a careful, wise gatekeeper can do.

Finally, Jesus says that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  This is more than just going through the motions of the job; this come from diligent, consistent work and care.  This takes time.  This also takes what any rancher would know as “herd mentality.”  In this context, this phrase means that even if other animals have been added to the herd recently, they can look to the long-standing members for guidance and leadership.  Virtually every single sheep will follow a herd if it is place in there for even a short time.  Herds know what is going on, so individual members can trust their direction and actions.  This is often true of groups of people too; if you are new to an organization or a group, look to other members around you to see what to do – or ignore them and risk looking pretty clueless.

Still, in all, it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  The Good Shepherd, who is our Savior, Jesus Christ, will take care of us, his sheep, the same way a real good shepherd would protect his flock of sheep from danger.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has our back, in other words.  What a relief that is!

And yet…let’s remember the way today’s message began: there are two sides to every story. 

And the perfect person to tell us about this other side is the Apostle, Simon Peter.  

At the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus met the Apostles on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee and they all had a fish fry, Jesus took Peter off a little ways and had a conversation with him.  Do you remember it?  We didn’t hear it in today’s reading.  Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, do you love me?”

And three times, Peter answered, “Yes, you know that I love you.”

Then the Lord said three times, “Take care of my sheep.”

So Peter became the first non-Jesus shepherd for the sheep of God’s flock.

And today’s message from Peter, who was first a sheep himself, reminds us that sometimes being a sheep of Jesus Christ is not all green meadows and soft grass and careful shepherds.  That’s the ideal.  Sometimes that’s not what happens.

In Peter’s first letter, which he probably wrote to believers in Rome during Nero’s persecution of the early Christians, Peter had little to say to the masters; instead, as he spoke to the common people, he told them that sometimes they may suffer for stupid, foolish acts, but they will also suffer for no fault of their own…they will suffer because they chose to follow Jesus.   

Because sometimes being part of THAT flock will mark you for trouble.  The world doesn’t usually accept that Christians will choose that  “trouble” rather than obedience to other so-called shepherds.

And Peter told believers that sometimes they must make that choice, and trust that in the end, it will all work out someday; God will settle all scores that were inflicted on earth on behalf of His Son, Jesus Christ.

That is a tough thing to know, but it’s an even harder thing to follow.  To trust the Good Shepherd – no matter what – is not what the usual world will do willingly.  

Despite Peter the sheep/shepherd being pretty clear about this, it has somehow crept into some Christian thinking over the centuries that if one becomes a member of the flock of Christ, one cannot be harmed in any way.  

In other words, “I’m a Christian…nothing bad will happen to me unless I disobey the Good Shepherd.”

This is false doctrine taught by hirelings and poor shepherds.

If that idea was true, then this is the explanation for why bad things happen to good people…but there is no explanation why good things happen to bad people.  

Sometimes things just happen – to the good and to the bad.  Sometimes there IS a clear-cut explanation.  But often, believers are left scratching their heads in confusion as bad things happen to them for no reason of their own.  

We can all list those types of things, can’t we?  

No need to do so here.

And sometimes even if we try to be good and obedient sheep, it can be a strain to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd over the chaotic voices of this world that can sound so enticing – and so much fun.

Fear can also overtake a flock, which causes it to go in no clear direction, with no purpose, seeking in vain for rest, direction, and especially peace.

In the end, it comes down to a word we just don’t like: submission.  This word clashes with our need for “control.”  Submission to the oversight of the Good Shepherd paints us as mindless, silly sheep who can’t think for ourselves or act for our own good.  Yet, we conveniently forget that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was the greatest act of submission in human history.  Without it, none of us would be a part of any Christian community at all – because they would not exist.  

So, we are all sheep – if we accept that role.

Jesus is our Good Shepherd – he’s earned that right and that role.  It’s up to us to remember always that Jesus did not heal the flock in order to sacrifice the sheep.  

So we have a shared responsibility to protect and to guide all the sheep around us.  

We have a shared responsibility not to allow any member of our community to suffer alone. 

We have a shared responsibility to be good sheep – the very best we can – no matter what happens.

No one has lied to us about this:

We are the sheep…Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  

Either we accept this and try to live our lives in a way that serves all the members of his flock, and follows the example Jesus set for us in his suffering and his death…

Or we should get out of the way and let the Good Shepherd continue to gather His sheep that have gone astray.