Sunday, March 15, 2015

I AM…the Good Shepherd, and the Gate

John 10: 7-18
March 15, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

John 10: 7-18

So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 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."

As we’ve looked at these “I AM” sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel, I expect it has become apparent that Jesus is making some pretty bold claims. First he said he was the bread of life, more satisfying than the manna God gave in the wilderness. Then he said he was the light of the world, shining brighter than the temple lamps in Jerusalem.

Now he calls himself the good shepherd, laying claim to the title that had been traditionally reserved for God, the shepherd of Israel or for kings or leaders appointed by God. King David was a shepherd of God’s people, for example. And Jesus has the audacity to call himself the good shepherd.

I suppose it should come as no surprise to any of us that the imagery of sheep and shepherds comes up so often in the Bible. Given the time frame and the context, shepherds were common. The image of the shepherd appears about sixty times in the Bible. It should also come as no surprise, then, that gallons of ink and millions of words have been poured out on the subject.

I looked back through some of my own sermons, to see what I had already said about shepherds and sheep. Like a lot of preachers, I have described first century shepherding and the behavior of sheep; I've even tried to find contemporary occupations that are parallel to the low status and high devotion required of shepherds. I have discussed the notion that we sheep are not terribly bright and in need of watching, in need of constant care and feeding, pretty much all the time.

It feels like I’ve asked every question about this text except two.
First, if Jesus is the good shepherd, what’s a bad shepherd?
Second, who are those other sheep Jesus is talking about?

The first question is something Jesus kind of answers. The bad shepherd is a hired hand – the one who is only in it for personal gain, not for the sheep. The bad shepherd leads the sheep astray, does not protect them, abuses them, is not steadfast. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with some modern examples of bad shepherds. The pope himself recently referred to certain clergy as bad shepherds.

With so many bad shepherds calling to us, it’s fairly easy to see why following the good shepherd is sometimes a challenge. Unfortunately, we are prone to wander, and to listen to other voices. We tend to think that if a large number of others are going a certain way, that perhaps it is a better path. We tend to think that perhaps if we stick with others who are in agreement with us we will be safe and strong and comfortable.

We struggle with the challenge of thinking for ourselves, balancing our free will and autonomy with obedience to God. Then we start to think that those who disagree with us are not so independent as we are. We may even begin to think that they are, as the popular insult says, “sheeple.”

Yes, sheeple.

That term gets applied to whole huge swaths of folks, mostly to those who are in whatever the opposite political camp is. In other words, I am rational, and thoughtful, and my opinions, or my convictions, are correct. And those who disagree with me are irrational, idiotic, and wrong. They are sheeple.

Republicans say that Democrats are socialist, mush-brained, cowardly sheep.
Democrats say that Republicans are fascist, fundamentalist, warmongering sheep.
See how it goes?

Interestingly, if we are following the Good Shepherd, those distinctions blur rather quickly.
When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, our political leanings and other orientations are difficult to determine. When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, our individual personal experiences become less significant.

When we are gathered together and led by Jesus, it readily becomes apparent that this text is not about sheep; it is about the shepherd – the good shepherd. As is always the case, the gospel is not about us and who we are so much as it is about Jesus and who he is. He is the good shepherd, and we are his sheep.

We need a shepherd! Sheep don’t do well on their own; they need a shepherd to guide and protect them, to feed them. Old bellwether sheep can lead other sheep, but they have to be guided by the shepherd.

If you are wondering how to tell the voice of Jesus from the voice of other kinds of shepherds, the best way I know is to hear it, and hear it often. We can hear it when we engage in diligent prayer, in the faithful and regular reading of scripture, and by walking alongside Jesus as we seek to do the work he calls us to. We can distinguish the voice of Jesus when we hear ourselves being called to peace, to unity, and to obedience. And often, we can discern the voice of the shepherd in the voices of one another.

When we call one another to mercy, to forgiveness, to love, and to ministries of mercy, forgiveness, and love, we can pretty well be sure that we’ve heard correctly. And if the voice we are hearing calls us to hatred, to exclusion, to criticism and judgment and anger, we may need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves whose voice we are hearing.

As Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” In fact, that’s an easy call, because God doesn’t hate people. God loves all the sheep, not just us.

That brings us to the second question: what about those other sheep?
Who does Jesus mean?
What other sheep, exactly?

Some Mormon missionaries told me once that Jesus was referring to the people of the Americas, when he talked about those other sheep. Just between you and me, I don’t think it is quite that simple. The obvious, and most likely correct answer, is that Jesus was referring to all of the non-Jewish people of the world. He was saying that he brought his care and guidance and love to all of the people of the world, not just certain ones. And he will bring them in, and they will know his voice, and they will follow him, too. They will come into the fold, and we will all be one flock.

Hear that? He will do this. Not us. Because he himself is the gate. Not us. We’re not the gate. And we’re not the gatekeepers. Jesus has that job, and in spite of the fact that there are many, many self-appointed candidates for gatekeeper, there is only one gate: Jesus. Through him we come in and go out, and when he goes out to seek his sheep, he will stop at nothing to bring them home. As near as I can tell, he doesn’t need me to officiate that activity. As near as I can tell, Jesus doesn’t need to submit his activity to a referendum. So it seems reasonable to conclude that this flock we are a part of, this church which the Good Shepherd has gathered, is something different from everything else of which we are a member.

It is interesting, and telling, I think, that in New England, the signs on the oldest churches that give their beginning dates say the church was “gathered” on such and such a date. They do not say the churches were "founded” but that they were “gathered,” as a flock is gathered by a shepherd. “The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.”[1]

This flock – it isn’t a voluntary association! Churches are not our invention; denominations, bylaws, polity – we created those, but the church is not something we form. This congregation, this flock, was gathered by God. This flock belongs to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He alone is the head of the church.

Yes, I know, we were not coerced into joining and each one of us has the personal freedom to leave at any time. There may be people in the membership who seem to have gone off on their own. But in a deeper sense, in a spiritual sense, we are not free. We are not our own – we were bought with a price. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and he does it voluntarily.

He gathers us into the fold, and lays his body across the entryway, so that he is the gate – not to keep us prisoner, but to keep us safe. He is the door, not to keep out the other sheep, but to fight off the predators that would come and destroy us. He is the shepherd of the sheep, of all the sheep, and he is willing to lay down his life on our behalf, and on behalf of the world.

Jesus echoes the words of God in the book of Ezekiel: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. (Ezekiel 34:12-13)

Jesus now makes the audacious claim that HE is the good shepherd.
It is he who gathers us, and carries us, like lambs in his arms.
It is he who leads us beside the still waters and feeds us in green pastures.
It is he who guides us with his rod and comforts us with his staff.
It is he who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies
It is he who anoints us with oil.

It is he who lays down his life, for us, that we might have life, and have it abundantly. 
There will be one flock, for there is one shepherd, to whom we belong, forever.


[1] Gomes, Peter. “Good Shepherd, Good Sheep.” Currents in Theology and Mission, 30 no 4 Ag 2003, p 294-296. Accessed 031515

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