Providentially, the readings assigned to meet clergy returning from GAFCON were those for “Good Shepherd” Sunday.
Jesus is, indeed, the Good Shepherd. But there are other characters in John 10, aren’t there? Other things creeping around the sheep pen. There are thieves and bandits, hired hands and wolves. Wolves, who will devour the sheep. Hired hands, who will abandon the sheep at the first sign of trouble. But even in the midst of these adversaries—even while Jesus acknowledges the truth of the situation—that there are wolves, that there are hired hands, that there are thieves and bandits—there is Good News: Jesus talks about the sheep—his sheep—as though they are safe with him. As though he is in control—utterly confident—and able to protect, from beginning to end. That he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. That no one can snatch them from his hand. And this Good News speaks volumes about the relationship of this shepherd to his sheep. About your savior’s relationship to you.
Jesus will, of course—in the parable of the lost sheep—allow for the fact that sheep do become lost. But there, as here, it’s the shepherd that takes action. It’s the shepherd—Jesus—who readily leaves the 99 who are not lost to recover the one who is. Here, Jesus says that he will lay down his life for his sheep. This is the Good News in the midst of a world full of wolves and thieves: these sheep are protected because of just how good a shepherd Jesus is. Because of just how open a gate Jesus is, and how clearly he speaks to his sheep. They hear his voice, and they know he is good. That he is protecting them. That he will die for them. That’s why Christ’s sheep—you and me—can have peace.
But—as Jesus acknowledges—there are wolves. There are hired hands who abandon the flock. There are those who would break in and steal, who would attack and destroy. And, as sheep in this world, we may find ourselves in the midst of wolves. We may mistakenly submit to hired hands. We may be waylaid by thieves and bandits. We, as sinners, are particularly susceptible to these things. In fact, we often seek out these things! The wolves and thieves of life sometimes seem to make awfully attractive offers! “You don’t need a shepherd!” they tempt. “Come with me! Be your own boss! You do you!” And such offers are awfully tempting to our ears. And in our temptation, it’s easy to forget that thieves and wolves both desire to kill the sheep.
This is actually what that Kigali meeting was all about. Anglicans gathered from all over the world to remind each other that we are prone to seek out hired hands and thieves. That we have all too often followed after false shepherds. We came together, in fact, to point out some of these thieves. Some of these false shepherds. Even, tragically, some who are inside the fold with the sheep, actively leading some astray. We came together to help each other recognize them, to call them to repentance, and to remind each other what our good shepherd—Jesus Christ’s—voice sounds like.
The theme of the GAFCON meeting was “To Whom Shall We Go,” a reference to John 6, in which many of Jesus’ disciples—after some difficult teaching—depart from him. They leave the voice of their good shepherd behind. Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you want to go away as well?” And Simon Peter answers him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
To whom shall we go? This is just another way of saying, “whom shall we make our shepherd? To whose voice shall we listen?” To submit ourselves to anyone but Jesus and his word is a grievous error. To some other teacher, to the philosophies of this age, to our own hearts. Only Jesus is the good shepherd. We hear his voice today, in the Bible—the Holy Scriptures—the apostolic witness and God’s holy word, given to the church.
Our time in Africa was a powerful time of confession and repentance, which is the cornerstone of our Christian faith. In our service of Morning Prayer, for instance, these are the first words out of our mouths: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us.”
We have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep. There is no health in us. But even sinners like us need not fear. For we have a good shepherd. We are not apart from his grace. A shepherd who will leave the 99 safe sheep to rescue us, the one who is in trouble. We need not fear. We have an open gate. A gate that will welcome us home no matter how far from the fold we’ve strayed. Indeed, the reason Jesus can leave the gate open is that he is 100% certain of his ability to not only save his sheep, but sustain them in their salvation. And how is it that such grace and mercy, forgiveness and rescue are possible? Because Jesus has laid down his life for us. Jesus, whose love for us is more powerful than any wolf. Whose care for us is more profound than any hired hand. Whose blood is more binding than the promise of any thief or bandit. Without him, we are lost. But with him? There is absolutely nothing to fear.
You may feel set upon by wolves. Lured by thieves and bandits. Tricked by hired hands. But to whom shall you go? You have a good shepherd, Jesus Christ. He, and he alone, has the words of eternal life. Listen to his voice. You have an open gate, Jesus Christ. Confess, repent, and come home to him. He is full of grace and mercy. You have a savior, Jesus Christ, who gave his life for you. He knows you. You are his. And in him, by his grace, you are safe. Now, and always.