GOOD SHEPHERDS TO ONE ANOTHER
1 John 3:16-24
I once went to a conference overseas that lasted for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy my time there. I didn’t get along well with the other people in the conference and was struggling to adjust myself in a new environment. I felt quite miserable and lonely.
One night, as I was sleeping in my room in the dormitory, I had a dream. In my dream, I was lying in my own bedroom back home. In front of me was the door connecting my bedroom to the living room in my house. Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth and comfort, knowing that, behind that door, there was my family who knew and loved me for who I was. I was home, safe, and secure.
Unfortunately, it was only a dream. As I was gradually waking up, the door transformed itself back into the door of my room in my conference dormitory. The sense of warmth and comfort and security that I experienced in my dream immediately disappeared as I fully woke up to face the real life.
Indeed, we all have a deep desire for a loving home where we feel loved and known. The image of a loving home is also present in our reading today from Psalm 23, which Jim read beautifully today from the King James Version. Now, we often think that Psalm 23 offers us only one image, which is the image of God as the good shepherd; but the Psalm offers us other images as well.
In the second last verse the Psalm (verse 5), the author of Psalm 23 no longer imagines himself as a sheep in God’s flock, but as a king facing his enemies in a battle field. He then ends his palm with a domestic image of home, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long!”
This image of being in the house of the Lord is the climax of the psalm. So Psalm 23 moves from the image of being in the wilderness, to the image of being in a battlefield, to a domestic image of being secure inside one’s home. The author of Psalm 23 declares that even in the wilderness and in the face of one’s enemy, he feels the same way like when he is safe in God’s house. Why? Well, it’s because he knows that God is with him.
But where is this house of God? Well, the author of Psalm 23 talks about dwelling in the Lord ‘s house as long as he is still alive! So he is talking about the house of God here in this life. The house of God is the place where God dwells. It is the place where people find God’s goodness.
Psalm 23 draws a parallel between being in a house where God is the head of the family and being in a flock where God is the shepherd. Whether we are sheep in a flock or people in a house, we will find peace whenever and wherever God is present amongst us.
The church must become such place for everyone. One of the most enduring images of the church throughout history is the image of the church as God’s flock with Jesus as our shepherd. But it is not enough to call Jesus as our shepherd. We are called to be like him. We are called to be shepherds to one another; caring and nurturing one another. According to the first letter of John, when we love one another, God abides in us; and whenever/wherever God is in our midst, we will find peace.
But, remember, we are to be good shepherds, not simply shepherds. Jesus points out the differences between a good shepherd and a hired man in John’s Gospel.
Sickening video footage was aired recently by channel Nine, showing live sheep being transported from Australia to the Middle East in inhumane condition. Thousands of sheep were crowded into small living areas where they had to stand for the entire journey, which could last for weeks. The sheep lived basically in their own excrement because their compartments were not cleaned properly. Pregnant sheep were also illegally present in the ship, giving birth to lambs who were crushed immediately by other sheep. More than a thousand sheep died in two days from a heatwave. A whistleblower called the condition was like being put in an oven.
The people who are responsible for such treatment are good examples of what the hired men in Jesus’ parable look like today. They don’t care about the flock because the flock don’t belong to them.
Jesus says that a hired man will try to save his life first and run away at the sight of danger or trouble. But a good shepherd does not only protect his flock from dangers; he is prepared to lay down his life for his flock. A good shepherd will lay down his life not out of obligation or under duress, but out of his own will. A good shepherd, like Jesus, is ready to do this because his flock belong to him. He and his flock are not strangers to one another; they know one another; they belong to one another. The bond between a good shepherd and his flock is strong.
In other words, the source of a good shepherd’s sacrificial act is love. Love was the most important topic in John’s community; a community for which the Gospel and the letters of John were written for. We hear in John's Gospel (3:16) how God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to the world to save it. And in 1 John 4: 8, we hear that God is love and those who do not love, do not know God.
But, here, love is not a feeling; love is an act; the act of love. We abide in God and God in us not when we feel loving, but when we act in love. True love is demonstrated not in word or speech, but in action.
So, we are all called not only to have faith in Jesus, but also to love one another. For John’s community, faith and love went hand in hand. One cannot have faith in God if one cannot demonstrate the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, demonstrated in his life. The truth of the Gospel can only be revealed when those who follow Jesus demonstrate their love by sacrificing themselves for one another and for the world.
But sacrificing one’s life for others doesn’t have to be dramatic, like loosing one’s life literally. Sacrificial love can and should happen in our day-to-day life in our family, in our workplace, and in our church community. Sacrificial love can be manifested in our simple gesture of putting other people and their need first before ours. We show sacrificial love when we sacrifice our time, our energy, even our wealth to help alleviate other people’s suffering.
Let me tell you a story about Vanessa Ingold of California, USA. She was once run over by a truck while she was riding her bicycle. She had to undergo 18 surgeries and had all of her toes amputated. Yet, Christ showed himself to her in the Christian community of a nearby church. During her six-month stay in the hospital, they visited her and prayed for her daily.
When she was able to walk again, even though she was still very weak, they helped her with transportation to the church; some even carried her into the church building. Their kind arms supported her all the way until she finally regained her strength.
Indeed, the key aspect of the good shepherd in John’s Gospel is his willingness to sacrifice his own life for his flock. Jesus is the good shepherd because he gave his own life for those who had been trusted to him. Likewise, we become good shepherds to one another when we sacrifice aspects our life for the good of others. We are to be like Christ to one another.
There is a story about a church who has lost most of its members throughout the years until there are only five members left in the church. They are ready to close the church, but the leader of the five decides that he will try one last thing. He goes to visit a retired bishop who now lives as a monk in a monastery in a nearby mountain.
The retired bishop is an old man, but he is full of wisdom. Upon meeting him, the leader of the dying church wastes no time to ask the question that he has been dying to ask. “Do you have any advice for our church? Is there any way that we can grow again.” The retired bishop looks at him with his gentle face and says, “I have no advice for you. All that I know is that Jesus has returned and now he lives amongst you!”
The leader of the dying church is shocked by the comment. He immediately returns with the surprising news to his dying congregation, who are equally surprised. Since then, the members of the church start treating one another with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them is Jesus himself.
Other people in the town start noticing the dramatic change in the life of the dying church. They begin to attend the church because they want to be a part of such an extraordinarily loving and caring community. Not long, the church starts growing again and, once again, it becomes a strong community like it used to be.
In this season of Easter, let us remind ourselves that Christ has risen indeed and he now dwells amongst us. And we know that Christ truly dwells amongst us when we love one another not only in words, but also in action. The risen Christ is our Good Shepherd. If we say that we have been risen with him, then we have to be good shepherds to one another and to the people whom he had entrusted to us.