May 3, 2020, Easter 3
I’ve been reading and hearing a lot this week about the type of leadership the world is experiencing during this pandemic. And it’s really as you might expect: some leaders are doing a really great job. And some leaders are suggesting we inject ourselves with bleach. So, you know. There’s a range out there.
I wonder if any of you have heard the quote from Silveria Jacobs, the prime minister of Sint Maarten that’s been making the rounds of the internet lately? She sounded like every mom ever, and it was just so comforting in its familiarity. “Stop moving,” she said. “Simply: stop. moving. If you do not have the type of bread you like in your house, eat crackers.”
It’s in our nature as humans to cherish our independence. Any parent of any toddler knows what it’s like when your child begins to want to feed themselves, to walk on their own. Our culture in North America has made a fetish out of guarding our independence. We don’t like being told what we can and cannot do; where we can and cannot go. It has become the role of governments to try and find the balance between propping up a society that can provide its citizens with food and shelter, law and order, and not stepping so far onto the independent toes of those citizens that they rise up and rebel.
Christians are supposed to look at the world differently. We believe that the result of humanity’s pursuit of independence led directly to sin and death. We believe we owe our very existence to the Creator, and our salvation to the Messiah. Our essential dependence on God should colour how we look at the role of leaders in our lives.
This pandemic is causing everyone to have to adjust their relationship to the leaders and authorities in their countries. When the enemy is unseen, and we have no defence against it, we are much more willing to look for comfort and security in our collective society and its leaders. It matters a great deal more when things are going so badly that we be able to trust our leaders.
And we are seeing a wide range of responses to the challenge from the world’s leaders. Clear, firm direction from Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs. Empathy and compassion from Jacinta Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. A solid, understandable explanation of how infection rates work from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Evidence-based decision-making from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, even in the face of protests at home and online trolling from President Trump. To say nothing of the doctors, epidemiologists, and public health specialists who have stepped up to provide people with good advice.
We are also seeing leaders refuse to take the pandemic seriously, like President Bolsonaro in Brazil. Still others are using the present crisis to seize yet more power over their countries, like President Victor Orban of Hungary.
Being given a position of leadership can bring out the best or the worst in people. Imperfect people will lead imperfectly — that is inevitable. And I am very grateful for the generally good leadership we’ve had in Canada during this pandemic. (You may wish to argue with me about that, but at least we haven’t devolved into complete chaos yet!) However, much more than I am grateful for decent human leadership, I am grateful that we follow a God who is perfect, and who gives us his example of leadership to aspire to.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday, because in the Revised Common Lectionary we always read from John chapter 10, in which Jesus teaches the people about what it means that he is the Good Shepherd.
There is so much wonderful context in the Bible for this idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. All of it greatly enriches our understanding of what Jesus is saying in this passage about the sort of leader he is to us.
First of all, in the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking in this passage to the Pharisees. This conversation comes immediately after Jesus healed the man who had been born blind. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because we had that story as our Gospel reading just six weeks ago, in the fourth Sunday in Lent. The disciples asked Jesus whether it was the man’s sin or his parents that caused him to be born blind. Jesus replied that it was neither, but so that God’s glory would be seen in that very moment. Then he healed the man. The Pharisees were angry because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, and they harried the man with questions about his healing until he got snarky with them, and they kicked him out of the Temple. Jesus heard he had been kicked out and went to find him. He invited the man to follow him instead.
This conversation happened in public, and some Pharisees were there to hear the exchange. Jesus said, “For judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” The Pharisees who heard him knew he was talking about them. “What? Are we blind too?” they asked. Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
This is the point at which Jesus launches into the metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd. This is the context in which he talks about entering the sheepfold by the gate, as opposed to climbing over the wall like a thief. This is the context in which he speaks about his sheep knowing his voice, and following him, but running from the voices of strangers trying to lure them away.
The image of leader as shepherd would have been entirely familiar to Jesus’ audience that day. In the Old Testament the leaders of the people are often thought of as shepherds, particularly Moses and David. But God is the shepherd “par excellence.” Consider Psalm 80 verses 1 and 2:
“Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might; come and save us.”
Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular develop the shepherd motif to express how God cares for his people and his condemnation of false and evil rulers. For example, Ezekiel chapter 34 says, “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.” The prophet goes on to say, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says, ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” And then, in a prophecy about the coming Messiah, it says, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them.”
Jesus is therefore claiming in this passage to be more than another Moses or David. He is claiming to be the prophesied Messiah, God himself, come to care for his sheep.
We see also in this passage the reaction of the sheep to the true shepherd. When they hear his voice, they follow him. Why? Because they love and trust him. The sheep know from experience that the shepherd leads them, as the Psalm says, “beside still waters.” They love and trust the shepherd because the shepherd protects them and cares for them.
There is another aspect to this relationship which comes out in another of our lessons today, from 1 Peter. Peter says, “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
That word “overseer” in Greek is episkopos, from which we get the English word “episcopal”. In the King James version of the Bible, it is translated as “Bishop” instead of “Overseer”. Jesus is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. I like that. This is the only time in the Bible this word is used to refer to Jesus. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is used to describe leaders in the church.
R.C. Sproul makes the connection between Jesus the Bishop of our souls and the Benedictus, which we sing in Morning Prayer: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” This divine visitation Zechariah is talking about is the verb form of the noun episkopos. God visits his people as their bishop.
In ancient Greece, the episkopos was a high-ranking military officer who inspected the troops to make sure they were ready for battle. Jesus, then, has been given oversight of the state of our souls. Are we prepared to live the kind of life Peter describes in his letter? “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
This, of course, leads back to that old human problem of our desire for independence. We may like the image of Jesus as shepherd, caring for us and protecting us, but we are less happy with the image of Jesus as soul inspector, checking to see if we’re battle-ready. R.C. Sproul says, “The Jews in Old Testament times looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. But the prophets warned them that the day of His appearing might not be the wonderful experience they expected. They hoped to see God judge their enemies, but the prophets said that the Episkopos would judge His own people if they were not ready to receive Him, if they were faithless and disobedient.
But Zechariah sang his song from the perspective of a child of God, one who was glad to see the coming of the heavenly Visitor and who welcomed His scrutiny. For all who are ready, a visit from the Episkopos is a welcome thing, for they understand that His scrutiny is directed toward the care of the souls under His supervision.
The Bishop of our souls knows us better than we know ourselves. Although ministers and bishops are called to follow our Lord’s example, we will never have a pastor or elder who cares for our souls anywhere near the degree to which Christ, our Bishop, does.
Do you want God to know you? Do you pray as David did: “Search me, O God, and know my heart”? Those are the words of a person who knows the forgiving grace of God. Once we experience God’s grace and tender mercy, we want more. The Christian delights in being known by the Bishop of his soul.”
We are never more aware of our need for good leadership than during a crisis. It is also at such times that it becomes clear who can be trusted and who cannot. Whose voice, when we hear it, makes us want to run toward it? And whose voice sounds alien and scary? I am so grateful at such a time to have a shepherd like Jesus to follow. It’s a big, scary world, and there’s a lot of competition for our attention. Be thoughtful and intentional about what you give your attention to. Seek out the leadership of Jesus our Shepherd and Bishop, in Scripture, in prayer, and in fellowship with other Christians. And you will experience the fulfilled life Jesus promised in John’s gospel, a life that looks like Psalm 23. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.