FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
1 John 3:16-24
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
To be honest, I dread Good Shepherd Sunday. After more than thirty years of preaching on shepherds and sheep, I feel as though I have exhausted the metaphor. I’m all wrung out. I find myself asking, is there anything new to be said here? Is there any other angle? After reading and re-reading the lessons for this week, particularly the 10th Chapter of Saint John, I think there just may be a way of reading these texts that I have never noticed before. Typically, my preoccupation has been with individual sheep. But I get the idea that Jesus is chiefly concerned with the flock-at least in this Sunday’s gospel. He is concerned with leading the sheep, keeping them together in the fold and bringing into the fold sheep that do not yet know they belong to him. Our lesson from the First Letter of John also focuses on the flock and how sheep within that flock are to treat each other. Maybe that should be my focus too.
It is hard for me to imagine myself as part of a flock. We 21st Century moderns are not herd animals. This is increasingly so when it comes to religion. The increase in “nones,” “spiritual but not religious,” “unaffiliated” and so forth testifies to our strong American independent streak. I have noticed that even within mainline churches, individuals often tend to take a smorgasbord approach to the faith, selecting what they like and ignoring what does not appeal. We are more like cats than sheep. We come to worship when convenient, take part in whatever activities meet our personal needs and disappear for weeks on end, often without notice. The voice of a shepherd speaking with clarion authority is often missing. In fact, I think we would probably resent having a shepherd pursue us into the wilderness of our preoccupations and carry us back into the midst of the sheepfold. We are fiercely possessive of our freedom to come and go as we please, to believe whatever we like and to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. To such a modern people, Creeds, Scriptures and preaching seem out of place. Such relics of the past might have served simple peasant folk unable to think for themselves. But we are educated and enlightened. Surely we can think for ourselves.
But do we think for ourselves? Are the choices we make truly free? Is there really such a thing as an individual “self” that exists independently of all other selves? Are we stronger when we think and act independently? Or are we diminished by severing ourselves from the rest of the human race? Are truth, beauty and goodness qualities that we discover independently? Or do we find them in communion with one another, in the wisdom of our ancestors and by the aid of discipline learned through shared sacred practices? Are the Creeds we confess collections of propositions subject to debate, evaluation, acceptance or rejection? Or are they portholes into a mystery, sacred music to which we must be willing to submit and by which we must be taught? Are we anymore “free thinking” when we allow ourselves to be shaped by MSNBC, Fox News or PBS?
I am beginning to think that it takes a flock of sheep to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. I am coming around to the conviction that maturity is less about becoming individual selves and more about becoming “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” I Peter 2:5. I am starting to think that growing up is less about learning to stand on one’s own and more about learning to use one’s unique gifts and abilities to slide seamlessly and anonymously into the Body of Christ. More and more I am learning that it is within the flock and in the heart of the fold that the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is heard.
Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.
But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.
It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.
It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.
Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.
I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.
I will only add that the recent release of a video purporting to show the killing of Ethiopian Christians by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Libya brings into sharper focus verse 5 of the psalm which reads, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What happens when we read the psalm against the backdrop of the horrific violence against Christians in Libya, the rising opposition to the church reflected in our reading from Acts and the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sake of his sheep articulated in the gospel? Should we be hearing this psalm less as a palliative treatment for agitated minds and more as a call to live the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of a violent and hostile world? Have we allowed Hallmark to hijack this psalm?
This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.
All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.
In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.
As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.