Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (4/22/2018)
1 John 3:16-24
Jesus is the only good shepherd. The rest of us, no matter how steadfast or seemingly indispensable to the life of the community, are his lambs. And this is “the sum of the gospel.” We take comfort in the promise of his loving care, and rest on his shoulders.
The Sunday liturgy is rich with meaning. The gathering of sinner-saints, the order of service, the scriptural narrative, the sacraments, the music and lyrics, the liturgical art, the furniture – every detail has something to say about who God is for us, and who we are as people of God. The classic liturgical attire is no exception. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself, “What’s with the robe?” I’m sure you’re not alone. It may be that the leader’s robe, or alb, is such a longstanding symbol in churches like ours that we simply take it for granted. But, what does it mean?
One explanation I’ve heard is that the alb is reminiscent of a shepherd’s robe, signifying that the pastor is like a shepherd to his or her congregation, or “flock.” After all, the English word pastor comes from the Latin for “shepherd.” And, I imagine some pastors prefer to understand their role this way. There’s a certain privilege in being entrusted with the care and guidance of others. It feels good to be needed. Similarly, I imagine some congregants appreciate the idea that the pastor is their shepherd. It’s a comfort to have someone to look to for the fulfillment of your spiritual needs.
But, we should be cautious about the shepherd model for pastors. On the one hand, the pastor who sees herself as the shepherd of her flock may be tempted to believe that she is uniquely responsible for the congregation’s ministry, that she must become all things to all people, and that congregants themselves are not equipped to lead in faithful and meaningful ways. On the other hand, congregants who elevate their pastor to the role of shepherd may come to rely too heavily on her for leadership, to develop unrealistic expectations for her work, and to view ministry as a service the pastor provides rather than the work God calls us all to do.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is an occasion to remember who we all are in God’s sight, regardless of our various gifts and callings. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus proclaims at the beginning of our Gospel from John. It’s a well-loved image for Jesus, and seemingly self-explanatory. But this short statement is brimming with significance, each word playing an important role.
“I am the good shepherd.” The first two words of Jesus’ pronouncement harken back to God’s mysterious self-designation early in the Book of Exodus. “I AM WHO I AM,” God responds when Moses asks for God’s name; “I AM WHO I AM,” because no proper name can capture the fullness of God’s identity. So, in Jesus’ famous “I am” statements in the Gospel of John – “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine,” and others – we hear the echo of God’s own name, and we recall the singular relationship between God the Father and the Beloved Son.
“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is the true shepherd, the model shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me,” he insists, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Unlike the hired hand, who is concerned only for his own well-being, Jesus knows and loves his sheep, and no sacrifice is too great for our sake. For this reason, we trust Jesus to be our guide in good times and bad. He is the one who makes us lie down in green pastures, who leads us beside still waters, who restores our souls. And, through him we come to know the heart of God, whose goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.
But, we should not neglect the definite article: “I am the good shepherd,” that is, “I am the only good shepherd.” Jesus is exceptional, and no one can stand in for him. Although pastors serve the flock in distinct ways, therefore, we are not shepherds. In fact, pastors ought to pay special attention to Jesus’ warning about hired hands. We do not want to presume to be good shepherds, only to endanger the flock by our own shortcomings. And, that goes for anyone in a position of leadership. Jesus is the good shepherd. The rest of us, no matter how steadfast or seemingly indispensable to the life of the community, are his lambs. And this fact, according to Martin Luther, is “the sum of the gospel”: “The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of grace and mercy, in which there is never anything but carrying. Christ bears our griefs and infirmities. He takes our sins upon himself and is patient when we fall. We always rest on his shoulders, and he never tires of carrying us, which should be the greatest comfort to us when we are tempted to sin.”
Jesus is the only good shepherd.
So, what’s with the robe? If pastors aren’t shepherds, then what does the alb mean after all? In the first centuries of the church, the alb served as the basic symbol of baptism. Emerging from the baptismal pool early on Easter morning, the newly baptized were clothed with a bleached white robe, a sign that they had “put on Christ,” in the words of Paul, and joined all those who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” in the words of Revelation. Although this practice has largely been lost, many parents still dress their children in white when they bring them to the font.
So, if it’s a symbol of baptism, then all the baptized might wear the alb, except that we might be mistaken for a cult. Instead, worship leaders wear the alb on behalf of everyone to signify that we are all held in the grace and mercy of God. Dear church, we are the beloved flock of the Good Shepherd. Joined to the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, we are all precious in the Lord’s sight. So, take comfort in the promise of his loving care, and rest on his shoulders.
 Exodus 3:14.
 Barbara J. Essex, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, 451.
 Day by Day We Magnify You, 187.
 Lorraine S. Brugh and Gordon Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 91.