A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2015:
‘I am the good shepherd’, Jesus told the people gathered in the Jerusalem Temple at the Jewish winter festival of lights. ‘I know my own and my own know me’. His own, those who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem and who surrounded Jesus on his journeys, now share with him in the Jewish celebration of light. Those who are his own, sought him out because they saw in Jesus a ‘light shining in the darkness’ (John 1.4).
Early on in their journey with Jesus some of their number had intuitively known Jesus to be ‘the Son of God, the King of Israel’; had felt in their hearts that here was the One who would be God’s light for this world (John 1.49). And so they followed him, and walked with him. And heard him confirm to those who had ears to hear that he was God’s answer to the rising darkness: ‘I am the light of the world’, they heard him say, and heard him invite others to leave the darkness behind: ‘Who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of light’, they heard him tell (John 8.12).
And now it was winter, and the light was at its lowest. As darkness was increasing across the world, they remained with the One whom they knew to be God’s light, stayed close to the One whom they knew to be the life and light of all people (John 1.4). They heard Jesus tell the people that the rising darkness and the absence of light were connected: they heard Jesus tell the people that God’s light would be extinguished because ‘people loved darkness rather than light’ (John 3.19). They heard Jesus tell how the people would ‘stumble, because the light is not in them’ (John 11.10); how when the ‘light of this world’ did not shine any more to guide them, many would fall.
Now the light was still shining, and the world did not need to think about the coming darkness: ‘Those who walk during the day do not stumble’, Jesus acknowledges (John 11.9). But just as certain as the midday sun, was the dark of midnight: ‘There are only twelve hours of daylight’, Jesus cautioned his hearers (John 11.9). Yet even though God’s light would not shine forever, those who had heard Jesus’ voice would be kept safe: ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it in abundance’, Jesus tells them (John 10.10). And the way by which they would be kept safe, Jesus told, was by choosing to follow him as their guide, their light, through life.
For following Jesus was as if they had a good shepherd to guide them on their ways. Was as if they had someone to walk with them when the darkness rises. Someone to ensure that their steps are kept safe, even though it was certain that the ‘darkness will overtake them’ (John 12.35). Jesus cautioned that that those who walk in darkness without the light would lose their way: ‘they do not know where they are going’ (John 12.35). Those who have the Good Shepherd, on the other hand, would be able to walk even through the darkest places: ‘I have come as light into the world’, Jesus assures his followers, ‘so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness’ (John 12.46).
The Good Shepherd would walk with those who hear his voice and know him through the darkest places; even though the darkness of the night that was encroaching. With the Good Shepherd at their side, they would be able to walk even through ‘the valley of the shadow of death, for God is with them; his rod and staff comfort them’ (Psalm 23.4). Where those who loved the darkness would be subsumed in the shadows, and stumble, Jesus’ followers would be able to walk even through the darkness of the valley of death. They would be able to do so because their Good Shepherd knew each stumbling block in that dark valley; knew each right pathway through the place where death was at home. The Good Shepherd knew the way through the valley of the darkness of death because he himself had walked through that fearful place. ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, Jesus told the people, ‘the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10.11).
There would be a time when those who had heard the voice of the shepherd would be bereft of their guide. At the time when the light of this world was extinguished, darkness would fully cover the earth. At the moment when Jesus died on a cross, there would be no guide through the dark places of this life: for the Good Shepherd was laying down his life so that all who followed him might have life; was himself walking through the darkness in order that all who followed him might never again walk in darkness but have the light of life. There would be a time when the light was extinguished, at the moment when darkness was finally overcome. There would be a time when life was laid down, at the moment when death was finally defeated. For the Good Shepherd lays down his life in order to take it up again (John 10.18). The Good Shepherd himself walks through the valley of the shadow of death, so that goodness and loving kindness may follow us all our lives.
The Good Shepherd braves the darkness of death freely. Jesus told the people that the life he would lay down was his to give. Jesus’ life would neither be consumed by the darkness of evil, nor sacrificed to the shadow of death. Jesus’ life was his, as was his death; both are a free choice. ‘No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’, Jesus explained, ‘I have power to lay it down, and have power to take it up again’ (John 10.18). And he added, by way of an explanation: ‘I have received this command from my Father’ (10.17). And because he freely lays down his life for those who hear his voice, and because by his death he gives life to all who obey his call, God loves the Good Shepherd: ‘for this reason my Father loves me’, Jesus told the people, ‘because I lay down my life in order to take it up again’ (John 10.17-18).
At the time Jesus died on the cross, as the Light of the World was overshadowed by death, sun and moon were extinguished. At that time, the Good Shepherd entered the valley of the shadow of death to lay down his life. At the time the Good Shepherd took up his life again sun and moon were still extinguished. ‘It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark’ on the day of resurrection, we read. Between the darkness of Good Friday and the darkness of Easter morning lies the Good Shepherd’s journey through ‘death’s dark vale’. A journey made, so that he might be able to lead all others through the darkness of suffering and death; that he might ‘refresh our souls and guide us’; that he might ‘comfort us with the presence of his rod and staff’; and might sustain us ‘in the face of those who trouble us’ (Psalm 23). A journey entered in darkness and concluded in darkness, so that we might not have to endure darkness forever, but may walk by the Light of Life; may walk at the side of our Good Shepherd.
At the end of our journey guided by our Good Shepherd stands the vision of safe pasture ‘in the house of the Lord forever’ (Psalm 23). Because the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for the sheep, he will bring us to a place of safety, will lead us out of the darknesses of our lives to a place where we might enjoy his presence forever, and finally be ‘one flock under one shepherd’ (John 10.15). At the end of John’s story of the struggle of darkness and light, of the struggle of death and life, we find Jesus standing in the rising sun at the shores of the Lake where the disciples first knew him to be the Messiah and the one who calls—fishermen to fish for people, and flocks to follow the Good Shepherd. Jesus spreads a table before them; those who had once troubled them are now far removed. They share a meal, and know Jesus to be the One who walked through death so that they can live.
And as they share the bread he broke for them, and the fish he grilled for them, the risen Jesus asks Peter, ‘do you love me?’ (John 21.15). And Peter confesses his faith in the Good Shepherd, and is charged to ‘feed my lambs’ (John 21.15). Two times more Jesus asks Peter ‘do you love me’, two more times he is given the opportunity to confess where once he had denied in what, surely, must have been his own valley of the shadow of death. And as he declares his love and loyalty to Jesus, he is told to ‘look after my sheep’ and to ‘feed by sheep’ (John 21.16-17). At so, the end of the story of the Good Shepherd stands the command to love and obey him: by looking out for his flock. ‘I have other sheep also that do not yet belong to this fold’, Jesus had told Peter and the disciples before he walked into the darkness of death: ‘I must bring them also … so there will be one flock, one shepherd’ (John 10.15).
The risen Good Shepherd continues to call people to his flock. And he charges us, the people who have experienced his care, who have experienced his forgiveness, who rely on the presence and comfort of his staff, the light that shines on our paths, and the food that he provides for us at his table, to make that call known to others. ‘Do you love me?’ – ‘look after my sheep, and feed them’, he asks all who have heard his voice.