FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
That phrase has taken on more urgency for me over the last decade during which both Sesle and I have lost our parents and now stand with no further familial buffer against the encroaching shadow. The loss of our grandson, Parker, was a cruel reminder that, in reality, there is no buffer. Death leaps over generational lines with the agility of a tiger to snatch lives fresh from the womb, lives that have yet to offer their tender buds to the world. Daily news clips from Syria and northern Iraq bring us graphic images of whole populations that understand with clarity we can never hope to achieve how “even in the midst of life we are in death.” The Bible doesn’t offer any escape from all this. Death is our only exit. No one gets off this planet alive. But the Bible, and the 23rd Psalm in particular, assures us that we need not pass through that door alone. “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
I am not much interested in whether and to what extent the psalmist believed in a resurrection of the dead or any kind of human existence beyond the grave. It was apparently enough for this psalmist to be confident that whatever the end might hold, s/he could count on facing it in the company and protection of the Lord, his/her shepherd. That was enough. Moreover, it must still suffice even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth is, none of us know exactly what resurrection is or what new creation looks like. When the Biblical authors speak of it, they must resort to lurid apocalyptic images, parables, limited analogies that, taken too far, always break down. Jesus tells us that those accounted worthy of the resurrection to eternal life are “like angels in heaven.” But what does that mean? Paul tells us that our resurrection life will be as different from our current existence as a flowering plant is different from the seed that gave it birth. So how can we hope to form any reliable image of “the life everlasting” we confess in the creeds?
I find myself confronted with two opposite and unsatisfactory resolutions to this tension. On the one hand, I find a tendency to say more than what we actually know about resurrected life. “Grand dad is looking down at us.” “Happy Birthday Mom on your second year in heaven.” “Good to know that Jeremy is watching over his younger siblings.” I don’t suppose there is any real harm in such sentiments. They can, however, reflect a naïve and inaccurate view of the resurrection’s magnitude and effect. Nothing will be gained if I am resurrected as the same selfish, insecure, bigoted and vindictive cuss I have always been before. If we bring into eternity our old selves with all the wounds, wrongs and bitterness that put us at each other’s throats for all of history, it won’t be anything like “heaven.” If I am going to live faithfully, obediently and joyfully together with all people in a new creation, I need to become a fundamentally new person. I will have to be different-so much so that my new self might not even be recognizable as the old. What, then, does that mean? Who am I without my memories of the events, both proud and shameful, that made me who I am? Will there be enough continuity between who we are and who we will be that we can recognize each other in the new creation? Does that even matter?
At the other end of the extreme I have known plenty of thoughtful and faithful believers who are ready to dispense with any concrete notion of resurrection from death. For them, repentance and faith are death and resurrection enough. The kingdom of God lived out in love under the sign of the cross is as much heaven as they need. It is enough for them to know that they die into God. Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian, (c. 2011 by Marcus Borg, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 201. I have some sympathy with this approach. After all, eternal life is not solely or even primarily a distant future reality, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. Indeed, what makes life eternal is not its duration, but its quality. Life that is conformed to eternal Trinitarian love is itself qualitatively eternal. For people like myself, who have lived full lives filled with the love of a good marriage, the satisfaction of productive and meaningful work, the joy of seeing my children grow up into faithful adults contributing much to the health of creation, this life might conceivably be enough. But what about Parker, who did not ever have the opportunity to learn to walk, talk, fall in love, get his heart broken and grow into a man? What about the millions upon millions whose lives from childhood on are consumed merely with day to day survival? It seems to me that the Triune God, the God who is love from eternity, could hardly bear to leave these unfinished, unreconciled, unfulfilled lives in the grave. I cannot imagine a new creation in which these “least,” these forgotten by everyone but God, are not taken up and woven into its fabric.
At the end of the day, it seems to me we must continue to confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come-even though we don’t quite know what we are talking about. It is enough to know that the God who called again from death the great Shepherd of the sheep and who brought us all this way will not abandon us at the end, but instead will continue to give us life. It is enough to know that the God who at the dawn of time scooped up a hand full of dust and breathed into it God’s life giving Spirit will again scoop up the dust we must all become and make of us new creatures. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” I Thessalonians 4:17. That isn’t nearly all I would like to know. But it’s enough for me to live confidently in the valley of the shadow of death.
Here’s a poem expressing hope for memory that is deep enough and compassion strong enough to hold for eternity all that is true, beautiful and good.
Stories in the Trash
This here quilt’s all I still got of Grandma’s.
Watched her make it when I was a kid.
I’d come tearing through the house,
Always on the way to somewhere else,
And there she’d be sitting on the floor,
Surrounded by old coats, cast off clothes,
Bed sheets, coverlets and table cloths.
It all finally came together in this quilt.
Course, that’s a long time ago.
Quilt’s dirty, worn and not fit for much.
But I expect I’ll hold onto it just the same.
Seems somehow sacrilegious,
Just throwing it into the dumpster.
I’ll leave that job to the kids.
They’ll waste no time in tossing it.
To them it’s just a rag with no story.
I’m not an especially religious man.
Don’t know much about God.
As for the Bible, just a verse or two.
Don’t know or much care if any of it’s true.
I sort of hope, though, there’s Someone
Who remembers the stories in things,
Someone who doesn’t forget
What all the old stuff in the garbage means.
Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. Hutterite, Amish, Amana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?
A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?
It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.
This psalm came up last in the lectionary on Sunday, March 26th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.
St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.
The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.
I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.
Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. 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.
Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; Psalm 80.
It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.
The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.
Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.