4th Sunday of Easter/Good Shepherd Sunday
April 17, 2016
“The Good Shepherd”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson from John chapter 10.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
By the end of July 1941, The Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz was working like the well-organized killing machine it was designed to be. About the only problem was the occasional prisoner from the work side of the camp who would escape. When these escapees were caught, as they usually were, they would be hung with special nooses that slowly choked out their lives as a grim warning to others who might be tempted to try and make a run for it.
Then one July night, the air was suddenly filled with barking dogs, the curses of soldiers, and the wail of a siren. A man had escaped from Barracks 14; the work side of Auschwitz.
The next morning there was a peculiar tension as the ranks of grotesquely thin prisoners lined up for morning roll call. Their eyes were fixed on the large gallows before them. Why? Because caught escapees were returned to the camp and hung. But on this morning there was no condemned man standing there with his hands behind him, his face bloodied from punches and dog bites. That meant the prisoner had actually made it out of Auschwitz!
But…that meant death for somebody else. That was the Nazi policy; if one made it out alive, 10 would die in that person’s place. Soon there were 10 numbers – 10 men – newly listed on the death roll. The chosen groaned over their hideous impending fate. Suddenly there was a commotion in the ranks. A prisoner had broken out of line, calling for the commandant. Stepping forward was prisoner #16770, and that prisoner was Priest Maximilian Kolbe.
The frail priest spoke softly, calmly: “I would like to die in place of one of the men you condemned.” “Why?” snapped the commandant. “I am an old man, sir, and good for nothing. My life will serve no purpose.” Father Kolbe’s place on the death ledger was set. He would be put in a starvation cell with 9 others until they all died.
A Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz later reported for history what happened next. “The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. Yet, from the underground cell, there continually arose the echo of prayers. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. Father Kolb gave them hope even in a terrible place like Auschwitz. As the hours and days passed, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening in the death cell. Coming from the death box, those outside heard the continual yet faint sounds of singing.
Two weeks passed in this way. Hope is a powerful thing, but it only goes so far against starvation. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This, the authorities felt, was too long plus the cell was needed for new victims. Father Kolbe was given an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm.” So it was that prisoner #16770, Father Maximilian Kolbe, was executed on August 14, 1941 at the “old” age of 47. At that time, in that horrible place, the prisoners had a true shepherd to gently lead them through the shadows of the valley of death. There was a shepherd who did not point to himself, but instead pointed others to the Good Shepherd.
Granted, that’s kind of a long story, but it’s a story that has a point for all of us. Unlike so many modern preachers and spiritual leaders who crave attention and the spotlight like so many addicts, Father Kolbe was following the example set for him by Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus tell the people, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” Earlier in John chapter 10, Jesus had told the Jews and the Pharisees, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus is the Good Shepherd; Jesus as Good Shepherd goes beyond being our namesake; that reality means everything fir your daily and eternal existence!
In today’s Gospel lesson and in the verses leading up to it, the Good Shepherd explained His mission and His purpose to the sheep, but they didn’t get it. The crowds didn’t quite comprehend a shepherd who dies for the flock. Jesus as the Good Shepherd calls out, and His flock hears His unique and loving voice over the voice of the Pharisees, the false shepherds of that time. Those whom Jesus spoke to that day didn’t “get” a dying shepherd, and they also didn’t get the purpose of a dying Savior or Messiah, but He is the Shepherd who dies for the sake of the sheep; a Savior who dies for the sake of humanity.
In one of the most important realities for you in life, Jesus goes through the door of death and the grave to become our door of life. That’s important because a day will come when we ALL die! But by His dying and rising for us, He dies to sin and rises from the grave for us and in our place. Now, in and through Baptism, the Good Shepherd calls us by name to follow Him and to follow His voice. But even after our Baptism, we constantly are assailed by more “false shepherds” – those who would have us follow them instead of following the voice of the Good Shepherd.
So how do we know what to do and who to follow? How can we hear the call of the real Shepherd in today’s world of competing voices? Who are we supposed to trust? How do we know which shepherds to follow and which false shepherds to avoid? These are good questions, right?
The flock of Christ, that is, the Church is led by the Good Shepherd, Jesus our risen Lord, and He desires that we be discerning sheep. Where you find the “marks of the Church” – faithful Word and Sacrament ministry – you will find the Good Shepherd. If you hear no Gospel, you will find no true or good shepherd. A discerning sheep is one who hears the Good News of the Gospel and follows the voice of the One who calls out to them in true love and faith and hope, and not to follow the voices that call us toward genuine hurt, harm, and destruction in this life. Are those voices out there today? Absolutely! But the Good Shepherd, the One who willingly lays down His life for His sheep, became the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6) for you to enable you by faith to pass through “the gate” – the gate that leads to life everlasting (v. 28). Why? Because your Shepherd shows you grace, and mercy. In short, He truly CARES: He leads, loves, and listens. He provides, points, and promises.
Do you really believe that He is there to help and sustain you during tough times? Father Kolbe believed it right up until the point the Nazi’s killed him. The pain and trials and difficulties of this life bear down on you like a Nazi SS trooper set on your destruction. Have no fear, my friends, for God will “wipe away every tear from (your) eyes” (Rev. 7:17). As sheep our security, our eternal security, lies solely in the power of the Shepherd, a shepherd who gave His life, that you might have life to its fullest.