Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the Church? If someone asked you to define it, how would you answer? Do you feel confident in your answer, or would you want to look something up first? That is a bit more complicated than it might sound at first. The word “church” can mean many things: a congregation, a denomination, a building, or the Divine Service. Luther said that it was pretty simple to define the church. “Thank God,” Luther wrote, “A seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (SA III.XII.2, Tappert). That’s how Luther described the church: sheep gathered around the good Shepherd. That would apply to us gathered here this morning on Good Shepherd Sunday. We are His sheep; He is the Shepherd. But, what does it mean that we are sheep? What does it mean that he is our Shepherd?
Sheep Listen and Follow
Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon during the feast of Hanukkah. This area was in the eastern part of the Temple, and it was protected from the winter weather. The religious leaders gathered around Him. They want him to stop beating around the bush. They do no longer want Jesus to respond with clever parables. They want him to admit openly whether or not he is the Messiah.
Jesus responds that he has already told them and that the works he has done in his Father’s name give apple evidence, but they do not believe. The works speak for themselves, Jesus says. The problem with the religious leaders is that regardless of what Jesus says or does, the debate does not end. They do not know the voice of the Shepherd. They refused to be part of His flock, they rejected Him as their shepherd, and in their refusal, they were blind to Jesus’ identity. And so, instead of hearing His voice and following Him, they took up stones and plotted to kill Him.
Jesus responds by telling us who his sheep are. Jesus’ sheep are those who hear and recognize his voice and follow him. Many other voices clamour for your attention. Many of those voices claim to speak for God. Although there are many voices, we do not always recognize how contrary they may be to the Good Shepherd’s voice. For instance, many voices try to convince us to grow closer to God by having a specific religious experience, believing the false doctrines, and reaching a higher level of sanctification.
The Good Shepherd tells us that his sheep listen to Him: “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:28). The sheep are those who hear Jesus’ voice and recognize it as the voice of ‘their’ shepherd. What is the voice of the shepherd? “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name throughout all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” There is the voice of the shepherd.
The Good Shepherd gathers his flock through his word. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus in the gospel, proclaiming forgiveness, peace, and eternal life. Recognize it. Follow it if you are a sheep. Jesus speaks, and the sheep pay attention to his voice. The sheep don’t trust just any voice. They recognize their shepherd’s voice and won’t listen to another.
The Good Shepherd’s voice is the voice of the Crucified and Risen One. He’s the One who bore your sins in His body on the tree, the One who is the Shepherd and Bishop of your soul, the One whose wounds are your healing, life, and salvation. The weekly divine service of the church is where the baptized sheep hear the voice of their Good Shepherd Jesus. The church is where you hear his voice. Listen to His word as it is preached and taught. Listen to his voice speaking to you. You listen to it when Christ’s minister declares to you privately: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” You hear our Lord’s voice when he says: “Take, eat. Take, drink. This is my body; this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Good Shepherd’s voice is heard in the pure preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments. Jesus, who died and rose to redeem his sheep, setting them free from sin and death and the devil’s control, cares for his sheep through the ministry he has established in and for his church.
Yet, Jesus says that it takes more than just hearing Him to be a disciple. He also says that His sheep follow Him. That means we must integrate what we believe, teach, and confess into our lives. Everyone follows something: friends, popular culture, family, selfish desires, or God.
Following Jesus means trying to be like Him. He always obeyed His Father, so that’s what we strive to do. To truly follow Christ means to recognize that he is Lord. Every decision and dream is filtered through His Word. Christ first speaks, and then we hear. Grace begins the work: we, through grace, obey His calling and willingly do as He tells us. Jesus calls, and the sheep come. Jesus chooses the path, and the sheep trust and go after him. Christ commands in love, and sheep respond in obedience and love. If this at times means the cross, the sheep do not waver. The Christian faith is not just about how to get to heaven when you die. It also is about how you live your life here and now. The Christian life is not rest here. It’s a continuous movement towards Christ. He is the goal, and his disciples press on towards it, and they get nearer every day.
Jesus Knows The Sheep and Gives Them Life
But the discussion doesn’t stop there. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd describes what he does for his sheep. Your Lord Christ says, “You belong to me. I give you eternal life, and you will never perish, and no one will snatch you out of my hand.” Jesus says He will not let you go. The devil and the world claim God’s people. They fight and try to snatch them from God’s hand. Yet, whatever suffering you see, whatever tribulation you touch, whatever evil you endure, Jesus will be there. He will hold on to you and carry you through, and not even death will stop the Good Shepherd.
Giving us eternal life? Now that’s truly incredible, for everyone dies. It is simply a fact. Your hold on your life is tenuous at best. In the present, all we can manage is a slight pinch grip on life. You realize that every time you get a taste of your own mortality. A health scare, perhaps, or a near accident. Or one of those “life flashes before your eyes” incidents. Or just the dawning realization that “dust you are, and to the dust, you return.” All you have is this present moment, and that isn’t much. One day, you will lose your grip on your life. We all eventually will, like it or not.
But, the sheep will be safe because Christ will look after them. The sheep will have eternal life because Jesus himself will raise them to life on the Last Day. Yet before Jesus can give you eternal life, He must have it. In His resurrection, Jesus showed He has it. Not even death can take it from Him. This is what makes His promise of eternal life so comforting. Jesus can be so confident of this because the promise is based upon his relationship with God the Father. Jesus is one with the Father, the eternal Lord and Ruler over all things. The ‘sheep’ are the ones that the Father has given him. That means Jesus knows you better than you know yourself. He calls you by your name. The ‘sheep’ have been given to the Son by the Father. Jesus gathers all whom God has given to him, and God protects those whom Jesus gathers.
Jesus holds your life wholly and entirely in a way that you cannot. He is one with the Father, willing and able to give us eternal life. The eternal life that Jesus promises his followers is a gift. It’s bestowed by free grace alone. It is our possession by free grace “without any merit or worthiness on our part.” We will indeed have to struggle, suffer, and eventually die in this world. But if you stay united to the Good Shepherd, nothing and no one will snatch you from him because our Father, God, is stronger than the Evil One. Our hope that God will grant us final perseverance is not based on our strength but God’s mercy.
Today, Jesus comes as your Good Shepherd. He is the risen Son of God. You recognize His voice. He kneels down, looks you in the eyes, and says, “You are mine. You know My voice. I hold you in My hand, and no one can snatch you out of My hand.” Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice, and they follow him. Sheep gather together to hear Christ’s Word and then seek to follow him in their lives. Draw near and listen to His voice. It offers a word which sustains the weary. It is a promise that leads to eternal life.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.