Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Shepherd

Special thanks to Laura Viau, Derrick Weston, and Candi Vernon for sermon ideas (21st Chapter of John, specifically). Additional insight courtesy of Kathryn Matthews Huey, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and Peter Bush.

Audio from the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Here's the song I reference in the sermon:

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Such a wonderful passage. The imagery is beautiful, isn’t it? “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Over the centuries, paintings and in stained-glass windows the world over have characterized this idea of Jesus; he carries a shepherd’s crook or cradles a lamb – in fact, the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus did not include a cross; rather, they depicted a young man, a shepherd, carrying a lamb across his shoulders.

Though it is, and it should be, a comforting thought, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we far too often over-sentimentalize this image of Christ.

Being a shepherd in first-century Judea wasn’t about cuddling lambs. According to theologian and scholar Joachim Jeremias, describing a shepherd’s life, writes, “The dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks of sheep and cattle to move about during the rainless summer and to stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home. Hence, herding sheep was an independent and responsible job; indeed, in view of the threat of wild beasts and robbers, it could even be dangerous. Sometimes the owner himself or his sons did the job. But usually it was done by hired shepherds, who only too often did not justify the confidence reposed in them.”

Now, while some of Israel’s great heroes were shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David – and while the 23rd Psalm compared God’s care to that of a Good Shepherd, shepherds – and specifically, hired-hand shepherds – had a bad reputation. Joachim Jeremias draws on Rabbinic sources to say that “most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people's land and pilfered the produce of the land.” Moreover, because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. So of course pious Jews were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A Jewish commentary on the 23rd Psalm reads, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.” Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt, who lived between 25 BC and 45 AD, said this about looking after sheep and goats: “Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious.”

In contrast to this general contempt for shepherds, Jesus consistently sees them in a postitive light. Not only does he identify himself, personally, as a shepherd, In Luke’s Gospel, the fifteenth chapter, he tells a parable of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the fold while searching the hills to find the missing one.

And, of course, Jesus would have known shepherds personally, as people. He fellowshipped all the time with the outcasts of society, after all, the despised and the sinners, folks the Pharisees called “people of the dirt.”

He would have known that, in that day and age, these outcasts, these shepherds worked hard, living most of the year outside, away from towns and other people. Flocks were kept outside in this way from April to November, and, sometimes during the winter in suitable locations. Shepherds never, ever left their sheep, since the sheep were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble – wolves, robbers, or the danger of just wandering off somewhere. The concept of a shepherd risking – perhaps losing – his life to protect his sheep was not at all a foreign concept to Jesus’ first-century listeners.

I don’t have to spend any time at all explaining that, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then the sheep are, well, us. We who belong to Jesus, who know him and are known by him. It’s a unique kind of allegory, because the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God. He is a shepherd who knows exactly what it is like to be a lamb – just as, in Christ, God knows exactly what it is like to be us.

Now, admittedly, for those of us brought up on a steady diet of the virtues of individualism, it’s perhaps a little uncomfortable when we get to the theology of the “fold,” the inescapable context of community. George Jones may have sing, “Me and Jesus Got Our own Thing Going,” but Karl Barth, one of the authors of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, in our Book of Confessions, said that “there is no such thing as an individual Christian.”

Within the context of Jesus’ symbolism, when he speaks of listening to his voice, it is an observable fact that sheep respond to the specific voice of the shepherd who cares for them: sheep respond individually to the one who cares for them individually. Yet a shepherd is not doing his job if he tends only one sheep. And, just like a sheep who wanders off will eventually get itself eaten, or fall off a cliff, we find guidance and growth and direction through the Holy Spirit most readily and reliably in the context of community. We are one.

But the “fold,” the circle of “us,” does not (of course) simply encircle Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian. Jesus says in our reading, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…”

And we can easily see that the “fold” is larger than one church, one denomination, one theological nuance. After all, every church, ever denomination, every theological nuance within Christianity is influenced by every other church, denomination, and theological nuance within Christianity – either consciously or unconsciously. In the South, there are very few Christians, even mainline Christians, who don’t have some degree of imprint from the Evangelicals. Liturgical traditions, like our own, are a gift from Catholicism. Even wildly different styles of worship hold to common elements – music, sermon, offering, prayer, the reading of a text… though we may find the worship in a seeker-friendly church or a Church of Christ very different and perhaps uncomfortable, we’ll always pretty much be able to tell what’s going on.

John Calvin put it like this: “Now, although the flock seems to be divided into different folds, yet believers who are scattered throughout the world are encircled in common bonds, in that the same Word is preached to everyone and the same sacraments are used, and they have the same order of prayer and everything necessary for the profession of faith.”

In other words, these churches, denominations, and theological nuances within Christianity aren’t “different folds.” We are in unity, not because we believe all the same things, but because we are loved by God. We are one.

And if that is true, what does that mean? If we are one fold, what is Jesus saying when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice...?” Is this a statement of Universalism, where God will, in the end, “save” everyone whether they like it or not? Is it referring to locations – “folds” outside of Judea, to the boundaries of the known world? Could this be Biblical confirmation of life on other planets?

Well, I don’t think we all need to learn Klingon, but it is a fact that each generation interprets Scripture according to its own unique place in history. For those first-century Christians, knowing that they were the hands and feet of this Jesus who said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” “other folds” certainly didn’t mean Universalism, it meant other locations. The same could be said at each point of history where new lands and new peoples were discovered. The Gospel was one of the chief imports to all new nations.

And that’s all well and good, but aside from the occasional rain forest tribe here and there, until new life forms are found in far-flung corners of the universe, by now we’ve kind of found all the lands and peoples we are going to find. So what’s all this “other folds” talk mean for us? You and I, in the communities and circles of influence we inhabit?

We live in a pluralistic society, meaning that many cultures, religions, races, and orientations coexist, sometimes uncomfortably. Additionally, we tend to think one’s belief system is arrived at in the same way someone discovers their favorite flavor of Pop-Tart.

And, let’s be honest, if reaching “sheep in other folds” involved talking, everyone on the planet would be a Christian. We have plenty of preachers in plenty of venues, on plenty of forms of mass media, writing plenty of books, preaching plenty of sermons, buying plenty of billboards, waving plenty of signs and shouting into plenty of megaphones. I said it last week: talk is cheap, and in our society, talk is as common as grains of sand on the beach. Everybody knows what we say.

The story is told of a man driving down a crowded freeway one day, tooling along at the speed limit, when another care pulled behind him, flashing his lights, blowing his horn, waving for him to get over. He couldn’t get over fast enough, and the other driver began making what can carefully be called “rude gestures,” and shouting obscenities so loudly that the man could actually hear them. Just as the man was afraid he was going to get run off the road, a sheriff’s deputy whipped in behind the tailgater, put on his lights, and pulled the angry driver over.

The deputy got out of the car, gun drawn, and ordered the driver out of his vehicle. He was searched, handcuffed, and taken to the county jail, fingerprinted and put in a cell. A couple of hours later, that same deputy came in, unlocked the cell, and began the process of releasing the prisoner. “I’m sorry for the mistake,” the deputy said, “but I pulled up behind your car while you were making all those gestures and screaming and cussing, and when I saw your “What Would Jesus Do” license plate holder, your “God Is My Co-Pilot” bumper sticker, the fish logo on your trunk lid, and your “Meet Me At Sunday School” window decal, I immediately assumed the car was stolen.”

Way more than I am comfortable admitting, I’m a whole lot like that tailgater. My words clash with my actions, my walk and my talk do not agree, and I am sorry to say that I’m not alone. Christians say they believe in love, but too often speak words of hate. Christians say God loves everyone, but too often work to exclude others. Christians say feeding the hungry is important, but too often walk past the hungry panhandler, worried that he’ll spend the eighty-seven cents in spare change they’d give him on booze.

We’ve spoken enough, and too frequently we’ve spoken poorly. The time for words has passed. It is Jesus’ voice which must be heard, because his sheep – even those in other folds, will listen to his voice – Scripture guarantees it!

In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus and Peter were walking along the lakeshore. Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me more than these others do?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

 A moment later, Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me?”

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you!”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

 Jesus spoke to him a third time. He asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter got upset because Jesus kept asking him that question. He answered “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Feed my sheep, Jesus said. All my sheep.

Care for my sheep, Jesus said. All my sheep.

We act. Jesus speaks. And his sheep hear his voice.


  1. I am a Christian, and I also believe that "for even as in Adam all die, so also in the Christ all shall be made alive". (1 Corinthians 15:22) So I guess that makes me a dirty rotten Universalist. I'm sorry, but I'm really tired of hearing why I can't believe in it. Here's my story, and you can come to your own conclusions.

    1. Please point out where I called you a "dirty, rotten Universalist."

  2. You didn't, of course. But I'm really sensitive about it, because it's very hard not to imagine Christians rolling their eyes at the idea, and it comes off as "oh brother-can you believe people could ever think this?" whenever they need to discredit it. And yes, it felt like you needed to discredit it, when you said this:
    "Is this a statement of Universalism, where God will, in the end, “save” everyone whether they like it or not?... “other folds” certainly didn’t mean Universalism, it meant other locations."

    1. What was inaccurate in what I said?

  3. Nothing. But pointing out that this scripture "certainly" doesn't say that God will save everyone "whether they like it or not" implies strongly that you are not a big fan of those that would teach that there is any scripture that might say "every knee will bow". I was taught that means unbelievers are forced to bow before they are cast off for eternity...because it's so offensive to think God would actually SAVE someone whether they like it or not. (Here's a thought, maybe they want to bow?)

  4. Interesting thoughts. Thank you.