Fourth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b
Sunday, April 21st, 2024
ACTS 4:5-12; PSALM 23; 1 JOHN 3:16-24; JOHN 10:11-18

I am the good shepherd

But what about the mediocre shepherds?

“The Lord is my shepherd,” writes the Psalmist. But what kind of shepherd? Is this shepherd a good shepherd? Well, we don’t know. Or at least the Psalmist didn’t feel the need to add such an unnecessary adjective. Psalmist just goes on to say, how the Lord is good. The Lord provides food and water, the Lord cares for the soul, the Lord guides us in goodness, the Lord accompanies us in grief, and sorrow, and even when we feel surrounded by every ill-mannered thing. The Lord invites us home.

So how do we know the Lord is a good shepherd? Because this shepherd does the shepherdy things.

Jesus uses the adjective though. “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. I don’t think Jesus is asking us to recall Psalm 23 though. Maybe a little bit. But I figure Jesus wants us to have in mind the bad shepherds, the evil shepherds that Ezekiel goes on about.

If you haven’t read it—Ezekiel gets dirty on the failed leaders of Israel. He chews them out, dresses them down, and only then does he rake them over the coals. ‘You call yourself a shepherd? You ruled with cruelty. You got fat while the people starved. And then you ran away. And now God is your enemy.’

Jesus is saying, in part, ‘I am not that. I am not the bad shepherd; I am the good one. I will not run away from you. I will protect you from those who would devour you. I am the shepherd that will lay down his life for you.’

So we have the Lord of Psalm 23, the shepherd who is good because this Lord does the shepherdy things; we have the evil shepherds who care only for themselves and despise their people; and we have Jesus, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

But what about the mediocre shepherds? The mediocre shepherd who will try, but probably not actually pull it off. The mediocre shepherd who might give a bit, but gave up giving it all a long time ago. The mediocre shepherd who would rather relax a bit already.

Truth is though most of us are mediocre. There’s always a better salesman on the floor, a better player in the orchestra, a better student in the class. Or maybe someone else has the bigger salary and the nicer house; someone else got in when the market was good; someone else is fitter, happier, more productive … and getting regular exercise at the gym. Someone else is the best.

Thankfully when Jesus is speaking about being the good shepherd, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and thankfully when First John riffs on this, saying that we ought to lay down our lives for one another just like Jesus lays down his life for us— this goodness of Jesus, and the goodness we offer one another, isn’t the sort of good that implies some comparison to others who are worse or better.

It would sound a bit odd though, wouldn’t it, if we were to hear Jesus say “I am the best shepherd, better than all the rest of the shepherds. That other guy? You know, one field over? He’s the worst. Come to me, for I am the best.” What would that even mean?

When Stanley Hauerwas was called the “Best Theologian in America” by Time Magazine he said “best is not a theological category.” And he’s right, and that’s why it sounds weird to imagine Jesus saying “I am the best shepherd.” And why it would be odd to call yourself the best Christian. Or that would even be odd to say that you go to the best church, you know, the one with the biggest parking lot.

This is more about good and evil—good here when Jesus says it means that he is not like those other shepherds who are on the take. The shepherds who will defraud you, who will take your money under false pretences, the shepherds who would rather you starve so they can be fat. The shepherds who look out only for themselves.

This isn’t a matter of good, and better, and best, or of mediocre. It is a matter of not doing evil, and instead doing what is good.

And you know how we recognize what is good from what is bad in this sense?

First John puts it well. The good is a matter of love. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” says Jesus; and First John draws out the implication, saying that “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” Jesus has acted on our behalf, Jesus has done what love demanded of him: and it wasn’t about being better than mediocre, it wasn’t about competing with the other shepherds, it wasn’t about being the best—to be good to us meant giving his all for us, and laying it all down—love, not greatness, is what leads Jesus to lay down his life, and not for himself either, not for his cronies or his business partners or for the sake of shareholder return on investment. We know he is good because he laid down his life, as an act of love for your sake.

“We know love by this,” we read in that letter, “that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We aren’t called to be best. Don’t worry about your feelings of mediocrity. Comparison is no concern here; comparison begets envy anyway. Here, it’s about what is good, it’s about serving the one who lays down his life for us by laying down our lives for one another. Love leads to love; a love made real and possible in Jesus, and in the God who first loves us, the Lord Jesus, the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life  for each of us: the best of us, the worst of us, and even the most mediocre among us, in order that in him, he would make us good.

The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD