Sermon: The Good Shepherd

“The practice of leadership within humanity rather than by humanity is another aspect of the way sin came to spoil human life The distortion of leadership began with the activity of the serpent who was supposed to be led but was clever enough to be the first leader in scripture apart from God… Leadership is thus toxic in its origin and is generally portrayed as toxic through scripture…. Initially a theology of leadership is a subset of the doctrine of sin because it has its origin in sin; instead of exercising leadership over the creation, humanity let itself be led by creation….  It is so because the necessity of leadership issues from the fact of sin in the community see Judges and the development of leadership in New Testament and post New Testament churches). It is so because the desire to be a leader is an expression of sin (see Abimelech’s story, and many others).  It is so because the desire to have leadership is an expression of sin (see the story of the introduction of the monarchy).  It is so because a leader has opportunity to be much more sinful than ordinary people (see David’s story).  It is so because leaders have opportunity to lead their community in sin (see the stories of many priests and prophets).  Continuing the pattern in scripture, Christian history provides many stories of Christian leadership being a main means of expressing and encouraging sin.”

— John Goldingay, Key Questions about Christian Faith

“The perspective from which Jesus taught stretches from creation outward to the whole cosmos and encompasses all of human history. From that vantage point, he tells us we don’t need to be anxious about anything. There is a divine life, a rule and reign, available to us that is the true home of the human soul. We can enter this realm – the heart of God – by simply placing our conficende in him, becoming his friend and following him. In doing so we can be renewed from the depths of our souls, becoming the kind of leader we would like to follow: one who gets the right stuff done, but does so in the most humane way possible.”

— Our Bishop, Todd Hunter, Our Character at Work

THE GOOD SHEPHERD

Throughout our history, American culture has had a deep ambivalence about leadership. Our nation’s founding was in rebellion to the king of England. And in forming our constitution, our founders had a deep distrust of centralized leadership and the temptations of power, and that distrust has stuck with us throughout our history. And yet, quite in contrast to our distrust of leadership, Americans also love the idea of powerful leaders. Americans have long nursed a quiet obsession with leaders in business, military, and politics who project an authoritarian aura. 

And this ambivalence about leadership has been visible in the church as well. In American history, many Protestants have harbored a kind of phobia of the pope’s authority and influence, and Protestant pastors are well known for criticizing Roman Catholic hierarchy. Accordingly, the organization structures of many denominations are designed to limit the power of pastors. And yet, in practice, American churches have gravitated toward giving increasing amounts of power to a small number of charismatic leaders. 

So, there seems to be some tension in our feelings about leaders. But it’s interesting, that this ambivalence is not reflected in the Bible. The Bible’s attitude toward human leadership of other humans is, from start to finish, highly skeptical and typically negative. Not because of any biased pessimism, but because of its extreme realism about the human heart and the temptations of power.

Old Testament

The Biblical view of leadership starts in the story of Adam and Eve’s sin. God gave humanity dominion over fish and birds and livestock and every creeping thing. They were to be like shepherds to the animals, and there was nothing said about them having authority over one another. But then instead of leading the animal kingdom, Adam and Eve allowed the snake to lead them in rebellion against God’s ultimate authority. The first sin is (at least on one level) a failure of leadership.

Genesis then shows us that a large part of the consequence of this sin and rebellion is that now humans will seek to exercise dominion, not just over animals, but over one another. And the Bible is not shy about showing the negative effects of that tendency proliferating down through the successive generations, poisoning marital relationships and creating social injustices and inequalities throughout human culture. Even where we might expect the stories of Abraham, Moses, or David to lionize these figures as great leaders, the Bible never hesitates to show us their sins and failures in leadership.

And it’s interesting that the Bible almost never refers to these figures as leaders. But instead calls them servants of Yahweh. For instance, the point about Moses is that he doesn’t have any great leadership skills, but he serves Yahweh. So, when Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’ authority, Yahweh defends Moses by saying, “my servant Moses is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face.” Because Moses serves Yahweh and communicates with him directly, Aaron and Miriam’s challenge is actually against Yahweh, not Moses.

David has more natural leadership skills, but that’s not why he gets the job of king. David’s brothers had seemed to Samuel like great leadership material, but David is chosen because he is a man after God’s own heart. It’s his service to Yahweh, not his leadership abilities that make him the best fit to be king. And note that, it is later in the story when David is at his most kingly that he gives into the temptations of power and fails as a leader. 

Upon closer inspection, it’s surprising how much of the Old Testament concerns issues of bad human leadership. And in fact, the entire story can be read through this lens: will humanity accept their Creator God as their king, shepherd, and leader? Or will they continue to follow human leaders and gods of their own making?

New Testament

So, that’s the Old Testament, what about the New? Aren’t the apostles held up as examples of leadership? In a way, they are, but they are at least as often negative examples as they are positive. For example, the most widely reported stories about the head apostle, Peter, are those in which his commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom mission fails and his leadership is in the wrong direction. Even after Jesus’ ascension and years into Peter’s ministry, the Apostle Paul if forced to publicly oppose him to his face for bad leadership (Galatians 2:14).

And the Apostle Paul is an interesting case too. If you look carefully at all of Paul’s writings, you can see that he clearly recognizes his own apostolic authority, but he almost always avoids using it. Like Moses and David, Paul sees his role as one of a servant. As he says to the Corinthians:
“When one [of you] says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants [of the Lord] through whom you believed.”
Paul is very wary here of the Corinthians’ cultural tendency to elevate him and other Christian leaders to high status or judge them by appearances. And he wants them to know that the ultimate authority in the church is God.

Good Leaders are Hard to Find

The Corinthians and the ancient Israelites were not unlike contemporary Americans in their attraction to the idea of a charismatic and powerful leader. But, of course, in any of these times, good leaders are very hard to come by, and examples of bad leaders abound.

Both the Bible and human history leave us asking: where can good leadership be found? And yet, even as we remain highly skeptical of leaders, there is something deep inside us that longs for a good leader.

John 10

But all that very long introduction brings us to a fairly short point, because Jesus’ words in John 10 say it all: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus recognizes that we have known many bad leaders. He calls them thieves: 

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus’ use of the metaphor “shepherd” is pregnant with meaning. It is a metaphor often used in the OT to mark the contrast between God’s kingly leadership and that of human rulers. As in Psalm 23, Yahweh is my shepherd. The point of this psalm is that there are a lot of other shepherds out there, but Yahweh is my shepherd, and I am well-loved by him.

Another important example is Ezekiel 34: where Yahweh roundly criticizes Israel’s leaders, both political and religious, by calling them bad shepherds, who eat the sheep rather than feeding them. And God’s solution to this problem is that He will be the shepherd of His sheep:
“I myself will shepherd my flock… I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.”
Note the way that this image mixes tender, compassionate care with righteous judgment. God does naturally in his kingship what human rulers can never accomplish, perfectly expressing both merciful love for his people and dispassionate justice for all.

So, Jesus uses this shepherd metaphor to say that this rule of God is now coming about through his ministry. Many others have tried to rule God’s people, but they were thieves or hired hands, who would either harm or abandon the sheep. But now Jesus, God’s word made flesh, is here to call his sheep back to God. God’s solution for the leadership crisis of humanity is to make Jesus king of the world. “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.”

The proof of that is Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John 10, Jesus points to his sacrificial death as the thing that separates him from other shepherds. Where the thieves kill and destroy, and the hired hands abandon the sheep to the wolves, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Human rulers have always taken from their people to increase the abundance of their own lives, but Jesus does just the opposite. He lays down his life for his sheep, to pay for their sins and set them right with God. 

Church Leadership

As a final note, I think this reflection should shape the way we think about leadership in the church. 

As we saw, both the Old and New Testament avoid the word leader in preference for servant. There’s been a lot of talk about servant leadership in Evangelical circles in recent years. The message there is often that the biblical model of leadership is one in which the leaders serve the followers. That is of course right (“the one who wants to be first must be servant of all”), but it’s missing something, because Moses, David, and Paul weren’t called the servants of God’s people; they were called the servants of God. Their leadership and service to the people was a proxy for God. Just as in the great commandment where love for neighbors is secondary to and included in love for God, servant leadership in the church is first and always service to God. And it is in that spirit, and through the blood of Christ, that human leadership is redeemed and used by God for his Kingdom purposes.

Conclusion

Therefore, let us not base our hope for the world in any human authority, but Christ. The shepherd who used his ultimate power to lay down his life for his sheep. And gave us an example to follow:

“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness... For you were all straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”