April 15, 2018
Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ said, "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." This one flock is the holy Christian and apostolic Church. But it doesn't look like one flock, does it? It looks like a bunch of different flocks that teach a bunch of different teachings and follow a bunch of different shepherds. Even in our town there are more churches than we care to count, each with a different message. So, it is important for us to remember that to confess that there is one Church is a matter of faith. We don't see one united Church. Yet, we believe that there is only one Church, because holy Scripture clearly tells us that there is only one Church, even as there is only "one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism." (Ephesians 4:5)
Only those, who belong to Christ's one flock will receive eternal life. This is why Jesus warns so often to beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15-16) Jesus tells us that we will recognize false prophets by their fruits, that is, by what they teach. Likewise, you will recognize the true Good Shepherd by his voice, that is, by what he teaches. This is why our Lutheran confessions define the Church as where the word is taught in its truth and purity and where the Sacraments are rightly administered (Augsburg Confession VII) and also as "the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." (Smalcald Articles XII)
Yet, the word of God is often not preached purely and the Sacraments are often not administered rightly. Yet, even in places where the Word of God is not always taught correctly, Christ's sheep can still be found. Just consider the many centuries before the Lutheran Reformation under the Papacy when throughout the world everyone was taught to trust in their own good works, in relics and indulgences, and to pray to saints. Yet, we know that God still kept his faithful remnant even then, as he promised, and as we have evidence from the beautiful hymns and sermons written even in that time, which confessed the unadulterated Gospel.
And so, we learn that the one true Church is invisible. We can't see it with our eyes, yet we believe in it by faith. The Church is invisible, because we cannot see into peoples' hearts. There are people, who belong to churches that teach falsely, yet they still have true faith in Christ. And there are people who belong to churches that teach correctly, like Trinity Lutheran Church does, yet in their hearts is hypocrisy. There are true sheep within unorthodox congregations and false sheep within orthodox congregations. In this sense, they are in the true Church, but they are not of the true Church.
This also can give us comfort when we consider the many who belong to unorthodox and heretical congregations. Our Good Shepherd Jesus says, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice." (Matthew 23:2-3) What Jesus means by this is: The scribes and Pharisees read to you the words of Moses and the Holy Scriptures. So, listen to the word of God, which they speak to you. But, the scribes and Pharisees teach falsely about God's Word, so do not do as they teach and practice. This is, sadly, how Christ's true sheep have often had to live in this sinful world. The priests and bishops were wolves in sheep's clothing. Yet, they still read the Gospel in the Divine Service. So, God has preserved the faith of his Christians through his Word, even in the midst of false teachers.
And this can give you comfort if your loved ones belong to an unorthodox congregation. The ELCA teaches much false doctrine. They claim that the Bible has errors, they call good what God calls sin, and they even compromise on the very Gospel of justification by grace through faith alone. Yet, if the Scripture readings are still read in their churches, God's holy lambs can still live among them. And the same can be said of many congregation, which still permits the Word of God to be read in their services. For where the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard, there his sheep will gather.
Yet, this does not mean that it doesn't matter whether you go to an orthodox or unorthodox congregation. Jesus still warns us to beware of false prophets. It is your duty as a Christian to mark and avoid false teachers. And Christ's lambs, who currently live within heterodox congregations should flee, so that they can drink of the pure water of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does not teach two different and conflicting things about Baptism, the Lord's Supper, or the very Gospel of how you are saved. The reason why there are so many different churches that teach so many different things, is because the devil has sown seeds of discord. If churches only taught what Jesus teaches, all churches would be in agreement. While it is possible for a Christian to survive where the Word is not kept in its purity, God warns against it. It is the duty of every Christian to find where God's Word is taught in its truth and purity and be joined to the one flock.
The Christian Church is invisible, but that does not mean that it is impossible to find. The Christian finds the one true flock, by finding the one true Shepherd. Jesus says, "My sheep listen to my voice." To know the Good Shepherd, you need to listen to what he says about himself. Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd." With this statement he claims a lot about himself. When Jesus the man calls himself the Good Shepherd, he claims to be God himself. Our Old Testament lesson states, "For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep." And the most popular Psalm begins, "The LORD is my shepherd." When Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, he calls himself the LORD.
Jesus, the man is also true God. He is the Good Shepherd. What does the Good Shepherd do? Jesus tells us "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." There is only one Good Shepherd. And he lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus suffered and died, so that he might save his sheep from eternal death. We wandered like lost sheep, yet he bore the consequences. If you find a Jesus, who is not true God and true man, you have found a false Jesus. If you find a Jesus who does not die for his sheep, he is not the good shepherd. Jesus tells us how we will know him. He lays down his life for us.
This is also how you identify whether your pastor is a true servant of God or a false preacher. Does he preach Christ crucified? Does he present you with your Savior Jesus? When you listen to him preach, do you hear a guy spouting off his opinions or do you hear the voice of your Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for you?
After Jesus' resurrection he asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" After Peter answered, "yes" each time Jesus responded, "Feed my lambs." When Jesus ascended into heaven he left the care of his precious lambs into the hands of his apostles and preachers. The job of a preacher is to feed Jesus' sheep what Jesus has prepared for them to eat. A pastor's job is to make sure that Jesus' sheep hear His voice. This means that pastors must preach above all that Jesus Christ laid down his life for the sheep by dying on the cross for their sins. Pastors must preach repentance and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ alone. They must baptize in Jesus' name, distribute Christ's body and blood in Jesus' name, forgive, exhort, rebuke, and teach in Jesus' name. Christ's sheep do not go to church to hear the ramblings of some guy. They go to church to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd. A pastor's job is to get out of the way, so that the sheep can hear Jesus' voice.
The word "pastor" means shepherd. But no pastor is the Good Shepherd, except Jesus Christ. Yet, Jesus charges his pastors with the task of bringing his voice to his sheep. So, Jesus also warns against hirelings, whom he does not send. Hirelings do not care for the sheep. They take advantage of them. They feed on them, wear their wool, drink their milk, but when the wolf comes they flee, so that the sheep are killed and scattered. This happens in real life when pastors and other false teachers do not teach Jesus' sheep the truth from Scripture, when they present their own wisdom over and against Jesus' words. So, when Satan comes and attacks with temptation to sin or accusations against the conscience or doubt over your own salvation, the sheep have no defense. They can't stand on Jesus' words to defend themselves from Satan's attacks. So, they fall into sin, despair, and unbelief. The hireling does well when everything is going well. But when Satan attacks his empty words bring no salvation. Only the words of the Good Shepherd can rescue from Satan, sin, and death.
And so, it is important for you to identify yourself as a true lamb of Jesus' fold. But how do you do this? Jesus says, "My sheep listen to my voice." You must be able to tell the difference between the voice of your Good Shepherd and the voice of a hireling, which will scatter you from the true flock. Martin Luther writes, "If we want to be Christ's sheep, we must have acute ears to distinguish Christ's voice from all others." For you to recognize your Savior's voice, you need to know what he preaches.
This is why it is so important for you to continue to read and pray your Catechism, even many years after you are confirmed. The Small Catechism is a summary of Christian teaching from the Bible. It tells you what you need to know to be a Christian. If you regularly pray your Catechism, you will be able to recognize whether your pastor is preaching the truth or lies. St. John writes, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1) But how can you test the spirits, if you yourself do not know what God says?
This also means, that if you want to be Jesus' lamb, you need to listen to preaching. First, you need to identify whether what your pastor preaches is from Christ. And if it is, then you must listen with joy, learn, and be comforted. This also means, that you will not listen to the voice of a stranger. When a preacher teaches contrary to what your Savior Jesus has taught you in his Word, mark and avoid him.
If you will be Christ's little lamb, it also means that you have gone astray. "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." Jesus calls sinners to repentance. His flock is filled with broken, starving, and dirty sinners, whom he has washed, fed, and bound up. Christ sought you out when you didn't seek him. He died for you when you were out wandering. He gathered you into his arms by preaching the free forgiveness of sins to you.
And this is why Jesus' sheep want to be part of his fold. Jesus cares for his sheep. What you receive in the Sacrament of the Altar is more precious than anything you could work your whole life to gain. The words you hear, which forgive your sins, calm your guilty conscience, and give you assurance of God's love for you are more important to you than food, drink, clothing, or all the money in the world. We get beat up by the world and Jesus heals us. And we will follow him through this valley of the shadow of death until we finally reach the green pastures of heaven through Jesus blood and righteousness alone. Amen.