We heard last Sunday how it was that St. Peter first of all needed his dear Lord Jesus to be his own Good Shepherd, before he, in turn, could be and serve as a good and faithful shepherd of the flock under Christ. Now, today in particular, we remember and give thanks that the same Lord Jesus Christ is the great Good Shepherd of us all, and that He has always provided His Church on earth with faithful shepherds under Himself to tend and care for His lambs and His sheep in His Name.
Dr. Luther once wrote that even a seven-year-old child knows what it means for lambs and sheep to hear and follow the Voice of their Good Shepherd. For He feeds and nourishes them with His Word, and by the same means He guards and protects them from all the dangers to their life. And they, in turn, learn to love and trust in Him by faith in His Word, by the grace of His Holy Spirit.
Which means, in practice, that a Christian pastor must nourish the Lord’s flock with forgiveness and with the Body and Blood of Christ, and that he will protect the sheep from all false theology.
That is how it is that Christ Himself is your Good Shepherd, the way and the means by which He cares for you and shepherds you in the green pastures of His Church — in the divine Liturgy of His Gospel — by the preaching of His Word and the regular nourishment of His Holy Supper.
So then, as for Simon Peter, so also for you. To be and to live as a sheep of this Good Shepherd requires that you understand your need for Him, and that you receive His many blessings — of forgiveness and life and salvation — with grateful appreciation for and confidence in His mercy. That is the essence of true faith: humbly to rely upon the Lord and thankfully to receive His help. Which means that you must listen exclusively to His Voice and follow no one but Christ alone.
That is what you must do, if you would be His sheep. Yet, too often you fail to hear the voice of your Good Shepherd or follow Him. First of all, because you fail to recognize the Lord Jesus.
How often do you look for “Jesus” by following your own thoughts and feelings and instincts? But you’ll never find Him that way. That’s precisely how the sheep get lost! But no, instead, you keep track of your Shepherd and stay close to Him by listening closely to His voice. You follow that voice, and no other, to your Shepherd Himself in the flesh, right where He promises to be.
Regrettably, because of the deceptions of sin — in your heart, mind, and flesh — you find it so hard to hear and to heed the voice of your Good Shepherd in the preaching of His Gospel, and harder still to be content and satisfied with those mundane things to which His voice directs you. For He calls you to water applied in the Name of the Lord, and to bread and wine administered with His Word in remembrance of Him. You would so much rather see and hear Him clearly and in person. So you cry out like the Jews in this case: “Tell us plainly, Jesus, if you are the Christ.”
But Jesus responds that He has already told you, that the works He performs in His Father’s Name speak for Him. Certainly, those works include His miraculous signs, all of which reveal who He is and the salvation He obtains by His Cross and Passion. But fallen flesh and intellect cannot see beyond the works to comprehend the Cross or to believe in the Person who does them. In truth, His works are all the proof that is needed, but the crowds are blinded to the truth by their unbelief.
Without the gift of faith, which only God can give, you will never recognize the Good Shepherd nor believe His works. As Jesus says here, “You do not believe because you are not My sheep.”
How, then, do you become and remain a sheep of the Good Shepherd and live by faith in Him?
To begin with, the Good Shepherd does not just let you go, leaving you to wander lost and helpless on your own. He is always coming out to find you, even leaving the hypothetical ninety-nine to go searching for the lost ones. He does not make you come to Him. Left to yourself, that would never happen. By yourself, by your own skills, you could not recognize the Good Shepherd, you could not believe His works nor listen to His Voice. Therefore, the Good Shepherd comes to you.
He does so, first of all, by giving up His life for the sake of the sheep. As we sang on Good Friday, “the Shepherd gives His life for sheep who love to wander.” And as Christ Himself has clearly spoken today: “I Am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
But that is not the end of the story. Even now, and to the close of the age, the Good Shepherd comes to you by giving you the blessings of His Cross — in the Spirit of His Resurrection — through the Ministry of His Gospel and His Sacrament, through all His Means of Grace, and in the work of His servants. That is our profound confession of faith in calling the Ministers of Christ our “Pastors.” For as you may already know, “pastor” is simply the Latin word for “shepherd.”
So does St. Peter write to the pastors of the Church in his First Epistle: “Be Shepherds to the flock of God which is among you.” Notice how that recalls the Word that Jesus spoke to St. Peter: “Feed My lambs, and shepherd My sheep.” And again, you have also heard what St. Paul spoke to the pastors of Ephesus in the First Reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles: “Be on guard for yourselves and for the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own Blood.” Thus, by the Ministry of His Word and Sacrament, the Good Shepherd is always seeking His sheep and bringing them to Himself.
So does the Church pray in the Collect of the Day — not that you should somehow hunt around and find your Good Shepherd out there somewhere, that is, by searching on your own, by your own intellect, emotions, ingenuity, or efforts. Rather, we have prayed that Our Father in heaven would grant us His Holy Spirit, so that, by His grace, we may hear and know the voice of our Shepherd and follow where He leads. We pray in this way, by faith in the words and promises of God, because we rely on Him for everything, for life and health and strength in body and soul, for time and for eternity. And we trust that He hears and answers our prayers in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
You follow the leading of your Good Shepherd, first of all, by recognizing the Lord Jesus as He comes to you in the work of His pastors or “undershepherds.” Not because we pastors look like anything special. Not because we are somehow better or holier than you or anyone else. But you hear and receive the work of your pastors, as a Christian approaches all of life, solely on the basis of God’s Word. For Christ Jesus says to His ministers, “whoever receives you, receives Me.”
You follow your Good Shepherd, then, by trusting and believing the works that are done in His Name, especially the works of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion. As you confess from the Catechism, you thus receive forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself, and no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that by it your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
It is by these works of the Ministry, by preaching and His Sacrament, that Christ gives Himself to His sheep. As He says to you this morning, “the works I do in My Father’s Name speak for Me.”
In all these things, you are a sheep of your Good Shepherd, and you follow Him, by hearing His Voice as He speaks to you in His Gospel. For Jesus says that His Sheep will listen to His Voice: “I know My sheep,” He declares, “and My sheep know Me.” So it is that you know and recognize His Voice by what He says and how He speaks to you: “I love you. I have given up My life for you. Do not be afraid. Your sins are all forgiven. My Peace and perfect rest are yours by grace.”
Therefore, even “though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil.”
For Christ, your Good Shepherd, has already passed through that valley of death on your behalf when He suffered and died for you on the Cross. And by His innocent death He conquered death forever, as He demonstrates so clearly throughout Easter. He has risen, and so will you also rise. For by your Holy Baptism, you already share His death and Resurrection. Now you follow your Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death right on into heaven and eternal life.
As St. John writes concerning those who come out of the great tribulation: “You have washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And in the Resurrection, never again will you hunger; never again will you thirst. For the Lamb who was slain is your Shepherd; He leads you to springs of living water. And so it is that God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
That is your hope and confidence in Christ Jesus. Already He is with you as your faithful Good Shepherd, strengthening your faith by His Word and Holy Spirit, guarding and keeping your life in Himself and with His God and Father. So does He tend His whole flock on earth as in heaven. He gathers the lambs and carries them close to His heart. He gently leads the nursing ewes.
So also do you have the Good Shepherd’s own promise, given to you at your Baptism and every time you feast here at His Table: “You are My own sheep. I give to you eternal life, and you will never perish. No one can ever snatch you out of My hand.” And so shall you dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.