But in the art that remains from those first generations, Christians virtually never portrayed the cross. Instead they pictured Christ as the good shepherd, caring for his flock. That image of Christ as the good shepherd comes from our readings for this morning.
As our gospel reading begins, people are struggling to make sense of who Jesus is. They ask Jesus if he is the messiah. But apparently their question was not sincere. Jesus says he has told them who he is, and they have not believed, despite the works that they have seen him do.
That somewhat heated exchange sets up a contrast between the people who are not part of Jesus’ flock and the people who are part of Jesus’ flock. Jesus says the people questioning him do not believe because they do not belong to his sheep. On the other hand, Jesus’ sheep hear his voice. Jesus’ sheep recognize him as their shepherd. Jesus’ sheep follow him.
So we have the flock and the non-flock.
Presumably, hopefully, we are part of Jesus’ flock. We hear the call of our shepherd. We recognize our shepherd for who he is. We follow our shepherd.
And we follow because we know that our shepherd will take care of us. We can say, along with our Psalm, that our shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures. Our shepherd leads us beside still waters. Our shepherd revives our souls. Our shepherd guides us along right pathways, even when we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
That is a reminder, if we need it, how good it is to have a good shepherd, to be part of Christ’s flock.
And today, at our 10:00 service, Christ’s flock will grow. Today we will baptize three new members of Christ’s flock: Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra. Today Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra will “be sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, 308). Today Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra join us in following the good shepherd. Thanks be to God!
All that is true. And, life is complicated. It turns out that the distinction between flock and non-flock is not always quite as clear as it might seem.
Jesus’ first sheep—the twelve apostles—did not always act they belonged to his flock. They did not always follow their good shepherd with trusting love. Those first sheep betrayed Jesus and denied Jesus and abandoned Jesus.
We are Jesus’ flock in this time and place. But like the apostles, we do not always act like we belong to Christ’s flock. We do not always hear Christ’s voice. We do not always follow Christ. We cannot always say, “The Lord is my shepherd; I will fear no evil.”
Even the sweet, innocent, new members of Christ’s flock are imperfect sheep. They are all young enough that they will have little or no idea what is happening to them today. And, we can be pretty sure that, as they age, these sweet, wonderful, newest members of Jesus’ flock will not always act like they belong to Jesus’ sheep.
So we are Christ’s flock. Jesus calls to all of us as his flock. And in theory we hear his voice and recognize him and follow him even through the valley of the shadow of death. But in fact we waver. We do not always hear and understand what Jesus is calling us to do. We hesitate when we see our good shepherd leading us into scary places.
And, ironically, that fact points to the true meaning of baptism.
In baptism, Ayla and Mason and Alexandra will be touched by God in a special way, just as all of us who have been baptized were touched by God at our baptisms.
But baptism is not a magic cure for everything that ails us. Baptism does not take away all our anxieties and all our struggles. Baptism does not take away our tendency to sin.
Baptism is hugely important step. But important a step as it is, baptism is only the first step in a life-long journey. In baptism, we are brought into Christ’s flock. And for the rest of our lives, we work at living rightly as sheep in Christ’s flock, with God’s help. We call that “living into our baptism,” becoming the people that God calls us to be in our baptism.
In our gospel reading, Jesus makes this point when he says that his sheep hear his voice and follow him. The key word is “follow.” Discipleship is a journey, following Christ’s lead. Baptism is how the journey begins.
In baptism, we express our desire to grow into the full stature of Christ, to become perfect followers of Jesus, perfect members of his flock. It is a daunting goal and takes a lifetime. Thankfully, Christ helps!
In our baptismal covenant, we have a picture of what it means to follow our good shepherd. We accept Jesus as our savior. We put our trust in his grace and love. We promise to follow—there’s that word again!—and obey him as our Lord.
Following Christ means continuing in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. Following Christ means proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Following Christ means seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Following Christ means striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. Following Christ means protecting God’s wondrous creation.
And of course we sometimes fail to live up to our baptismal commitments. We stumble along the way.
But we repent, and we return to the Lord. We commit to keep on following Christ as best we can, with God’s help. That is what it means to be baptized into Christ’s flock.
Today, as Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra set out on their baptismal journey, as they begin to follow the good shepherd, we all have an opportunity to reflect on where we are in our own journeys. In just a minute, we will all renew our baptismal covenant. We will recommit to listening for Christ, to following Christ, to taking the next step in our baptismal journey toward the full stature of Christ.
Perhaps as importantly, the baptism of Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra reminds all of us of the joy that comes with answering Christ’s call, and following our good shepherd.
So today we rejoice. We rejoice as three more people join Christ’s flock. We rejoice that we too are part of Christ’s flock. We rejoice in the good news that we have a good shepherd whom we can trust, even in the hard times.
And so, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, as we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, on this day of new birth by water and the Spirit for Ayla, Mason, and Alexandra, I give thanks to God for the gift of baptism, for the leadership of our good shepherd, and for God’s help as we grow towards the full stature of Christ.
In the name of our Good Shepherd. Amen.