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4th Sunday in Easter – 2024b

Old Testament – Psalm 23

New Testament – John 10:11-18

 

“There Was This Teacher…” 

 

INTRODUCTION: So in the Gospel of John Jesus spends a lot of time talking about himself. 

 

So much so, a person unfamiliar with John’s Gospel, or Jesus’ teachings as a whole, might make the mistake of assuming Jesus was a bit self-absorbed and kinda full of himself. But, of course, that’s really not what’s going on with all his chatter about himself.   

 

Instead, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about himself in the Gospel of John so people will know exactly who is, as well as his purpose. 

 

It’s a form of speech that scholars actually refer to as the “I am sayings.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in chapter 6. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” And then just 2 chapters later, in chapter 8, he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” 

 

All told, there are seven of the “I am statements.” “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and “I am the true vine,” being just two more.  

 

ONE: And then there is, of course, the “I am statement” from our reading for this morning:

 

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them…I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

 

Well, it’s classic imagery, isn’t it? After all, the notion of Jesus as the good shepherd is about as basic and fundamental as it gets for us as people of faith. 

 

Underneath the city of Rome and in the outlying areas, there are at least forty different catacombs that were built and used by some of the earliest Christians for burying the dead. Turns out, the rock under the city is made largely of hardened volcanic ash, which is highly porous making it ideal for tunneling.

So under Rome there are assorted burial sites, some of which stretch out for kilometers while others, much more compact, run vertically containing up to four different stories or levels. 

 

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, the catacombs underneath Rome also contain some of the earliest depictions and drawings of Jesus. 

 

And in one such catacomb, the Catacomb of San Callisto, there is a rough and faded fresco of Jesus that many believe is one of the oldest depictions ever made of him. And guess what it is? Well, it’s an image of Jesus in a white tunic with a lamb slung over his shoulders while carrying a pitcher of water and being followed by other lambs. 

 

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “I am the good shepherd.” 

 

TWO: In the early part of the 1990s, seven Trappist monks living in the small village of Tibhirine, Algeria found themselves facing a quandary of sorts. 

 

With the Algerian military engaged in a bloody war against Islamic extremists seeking to take control of the nation, the monks were asked by the government to return to their home country of France for their own safety and protection. 

       

But the monks, it turns out, were torn over what to do. You see, over the years they had developed close ties with Tibhirine and the surrounding Muslim population. 

 

Despite their religious differences, the monks had lived in peace and harmony with their more moderate Muslim brothers and sisters for decades. 

 

What’s more, the monks regularly offered free food, medical care, and other much needed forms of assistance to people in the surrounding countryside. And because of their generosity, the monks were beloved in return by the villagers of Tibhirine.

So despite the dangers and the potential troubles, the monks of Tibhirine eventually decided to stay. Tibhirine, after all, was their home too, and her people, even though Muslim, their friends and family.   

 

However, on the night of March 27th in 1996, roughly 20 well-armed Islamic extremists broke into the monastery kidnapping the monks. And sadly, just a little over two months later, the Algerian government ended up reporting that the dead bodies of all seven of the monks had been found.     

 

Needless to say, the people of Tibhirine mourned right along with the rest of France and the Catholic Church. For the monks were far from strangers to them. Instead, they were known as kind, caring, loving people of faith who went out of their way to tend the people of Tibhirine even in the face of great personal danger. 

        

Or as one Catholic Bishop said of the monks on the day of their collective memorial service, “A good shepherd does not abandon his flock when wolves come.”

          

THREE: Is it any wonder, then, why shepherding is considered to be a central metaphor for anyone who would seek to follow Jesus Christ?

 

Yep, in the same way Jesus was a shepherd, in the same way Jesus sought to lead, teach, guide, and nurture those around him, his followers, not surprisingly, are asked to do the same thing.

 

After all, at the end of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Peter three successive times to feed his sheep. “If you love me,” Jesus more or less says to Peter three times, “then you’ll feed my sheep.” 

 

Sure, we often associate such duties and tasks with preachers and other ordained folk, like those Monks in Algeria, but as Reformed people who believe in the notion of “the priesthood of all believers,” we should hardly be content with limiting such imagery to clergy alone.

 

For while “the priesthood of all believers” certainly means we all have equal standing before God, we therefore, do not need a priest in robes to act as an intermediary between us and God. We too often overlook the idea that “the priesthood of all believers” also means we all share in the common work of being God’s representatives in the world.   

 

After all, every Sunday at the end of our bulletin we have that line which states, correctly I believe, that the ministers of this church are the entire congregation. For that is indeed what we all are, isn’t it? We’re all ministers for Jesus Christ called to be shepherds - shepherds who are to offer guidance, instruction, encouragement, and leadership to those around us.

 

There is that old bit about Billy Graham that I have always loved. As the story goes, someone once asked the aging Graham who was going to carry on his ministry when he was no longer able to do it himself. Graham, looking at the person reportedly pointed at him and said, “You are. You are.”   

 

Well, so much more the case when it comes to Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you say? We wonder who is to carry on his ministry and suddenly we realize we are the answer to our own question. 

 

FOUR: Many years ago a professor at Johns Hopkins gave a group of graduate students an assignment.

 

Charging them to go to the roughest slums in Baltimore, the students were to find 200 boys, interview them, and then make a determination about their chances for success in the future. 

 

Well, after doing the research and compiling various graphs and charts, the graduate students estimated that 90 percent of the 200 boys were going to spend at least some time in jail during their lives. 

 

Time passed and a full 25 years later another group of graduate students were charged with testing the predictions made all those years earlier. Going back to the same rough slum, they tracked down as many of the boys as they could. While some, of course, had died, and others had moved away, they were eventually able to track down 180 of the 200 boys that had been part of the initial study. 

 

And amazingly, the graduate students discovered that only 4 of the 180 boys had ever spent any time in jail. And as they interviewed the boys again, now grown men, they kept hearing the same refrain, “Well, there was this teacher…” the men would say, “There was this teacher…” 

  

Turns out, after doing even more research, the graduate students learned 75 percent of the boys actually had the same teacher when growing up. And so tracking her down in a retirement home, they set out to learn from her what she had done to have such a lasting impact.

 

When asked to give some reasons for why she had exerted such a remarkable influence on so many kids, the teacher responded, “I’m sorry, but I really can’t think of any reason in particular.” But then, after a long pause, the teacher, clearly lost in her thoughts, added musingly, “I sure did love those boys, though. I sure did love those boys.”

 

CONCLUSION: Well that’s about it, isn’t it? Turns out, the imagery of shepherding is more than just a way of talking about Jesus Christ. It’s also supposed to be a way of talking about us as his followers.

 

For in going to that cross all those years ago, in laying his life down for his sheep as the Good Shepherd, Jesus did far more than just redeem us, as important as that was. 

 

For he was also showing us what a redeemed life lived under his grace is actually supposed to look like. And shepherding, it turns out, is in the job description for all of us.      

 

And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

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