What, the Good Shepherd again? A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2012

April 29, 2012

 I hate preaching on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, It’s Good Shepherd Sunday and each year we hear texts from John 10. Each year, we say or hear read, or sing, Psalm 23. I dislike the saccharine piety of the good shepherd; you know that painting your parents or grandparents had hanging in the living room, with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, in a long flowing robe, holding a cute little lamb in his arms. Or if not a painting on a living room wall, perhaps an image from Sunday School or a Bible story book. Then there are the hymns, and of course, Psalm 23.

What more powerful more beloved, more evocative image of Jesus is there than the Good Shepherd? The notion of the Good Shepherd, of a Shepherd who cares for his flock, or even of God—The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, conjures up for us images of peace, rest, safety, security, even nostalgia, images that are a far cry from the hustle and bustle, the struggles and uncertainties of daily life in the twenty-first century. We appeal to the Good Shepherd when times are tough, when we are in crisis, when we want to be enfolded in the arms of a loving parent who will keep us safe from all harm. That’s part of the reason Psalm 23 is so beloved and familiar.

That’s one side of the image of the Shepherd. There’s another though, and this is where it begins to get particularly problematic. One of the dominant images for leadership and authority in the Christian tradition is the shepherd—in many traditions, though not the Episcopal Church, ordained clergy are called pastors—shepherds. In our tradition, it’s not the priest who takes on the role of shepherd. It’s the bishop. One of the marks of the office of bishop is a crozier, a shepherd’s staff. And most of us, lay and clergy might be just a little resentful at the idea that we are sheep, led around by someone with authority over us. And most of us are proud of our independence, and resiliency, and would chafe at the notion that we need to be led, or that we need someone to protect us, except at those moments when we are confronted by our very human frailties and vulnerabilities.

So this image confronts us with one of our central struggles as human beings—our quest and assertion of independence, and our very weakness. So we are conflicted, deeply conflicted about who we are, about our relationship with God, and about our role in Christian community.

Today’s gospel, although it includes images of the Good Shepherd, is full of other imagery and themes, and indeed Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd” tends to divert our attention from the deeper meaning of the text. For one thing there is the follow-up statement, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” This may seem obvious to us, hearing these words on the other side of the cross and resurrection, and on the other side of two thousand years of reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

But these words must have sounded odd to a first-century audience. What shepherd would sacrifice his own life for the life of his sheep? Certainly the response of the hired hand mentioned by Jesus is more logical. What’s the value of a few sheep compared to a human life? We can imagine a shepherd trying to protect his flock, but even the most devoted would have to count the cost, to weigh the risks of protecting the sheep at the cost of his own life.

 

Perhaps the most challenging words in this passage have nothing to do with what I’ve discussed so far, but instead are these: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Much debated and discussed, a cursory reading of them suggests that Jesus, or at least the Jesus portrayed in the gospel of John, is something of a universalist. That is to say, while it’s clear that on one level one must understand the imagery of Shepherd and sheep to refer to the relationship between Jesus and the community of the faithful. But Jesus goes one step further, suggesting that there are other flocks, other sheep that belong to Jesus as well, sheep that are not protected in this sheepfold. One might conclude that here, the Gospel of John is postulating the existence of “salvation outside the church.”

But is that the case? I can’t go into a lengthy discussion of the truth of the Christian faith and the existence of religious pluralism. If you want to know what I think about this topic, you’ll have to engage me in private conversation, or urge me to lead a series of adult forums on the topic. In this case, I think the verse refers to the fact that the community in which the Gospel of John is being written is well aware of how different its interpretation and experience of Jesus is than that of the community of the Gospel of Mark, for example. I hope you’ll agree having listened to my sermons on both Mark and John over the last couple of months, that there aren’t a lot of similarities in the two gospels’ portrayals of Jesus.

So this little sentence, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” packs a powerful punch. Especially in our degraded political and religious culture where it seems most important for people to assert the universality and totality of their own truth, and deny the truths of those who disagree with them, the Gospel of John here reminds us that whatever our assertions of exclusivity, God may see things slightly differently.

The gospel of John has many exclusivist themes; verses used to assert that only salvation comes only through Jesus Christ—verses like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father like me.” John, is, as I have stressed repeatedly, full of virulent anti-Judaism that has left a painful legacy throughout the Christian tradition. And yet here we have something quite different, a claim that outside this community, outside this sheepfold, are other sheep that belong to the Good Shepherd.

Part of our problem when thinking about these issues is that too often we think of it as a zero-sum game. If I’m right, you’ve got to be wrong. But here, in this passage about the Good Shepherd, it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about something quite different; it’s about relationship. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. And then immediately, “I know my own and my own know me. Just as I know the Father and the Father knows me.”

One reason for the appeal of the image of the Good Shepherd across the centuries is that it is an image of a relationship, a vulnerable lamb embraced in the arms of a loving shepherd. We know such relationship with Jesus Christ, at least some of the time, and we experience that relationship. Is it so hard for us to imagine that others might experience that same quality of relationship in completely different ways than we do?

At the same time, it is not adequate for us to assume, without exploring, that others are experiencing just that sort of relationship. If we experience the abundant life spoken of so often in the Gospel of John, if we share in that abundant life through our knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we want others to share it as well? To invite others to explore and participate in what we already share and experience is a natural expression of our own experience of abundant life lived in Christ. Yes, that’s a long and convoluted way of saying that evangelism, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ ought to be a natural part of our own life of faith.

The Good Shepherd, rather than allowing us to focus on our personal, exclusive relationship with Jesus Christ, invites us to extend the loving embrace of Jesus Christ to the whole world, to those outside the fold, as well as those who are closest to us. That’s our mission, that’s our task as followers of Jesus in the world today.

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