Following Jesus Without Being a Sheep

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This post is based on a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 7, at Nevada City United Methodist Church.  You can watch the whole service here or move the curser 21 minutes into the service for just the sermon.

The Gospel of John includes many metaphors.  Just in this short passage (John 10:1-10), there are two:  1) Jesus as the good shepherd, who leads and cares for the sheep, and 2) Jesus as the gate, the point of access, so the sheep can come in and go out and find pasture.  Here Jesus describes his mission and goal:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  It also reminds me of the 23rd Psalm, which my grandmother taught me, and which I’ve taught my children and at times, my grandchildren.  Passages like this stick with us, and come back at just the times we need them.  For instance, when we feel like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, what does that mean?  A shepherd’s goals are to make sure the sheep have a place to roam, pasture, food, water, protection from predators, and if one strays off, according to Jesus, the good shepherd will leave the 99 there in the wilderness and go out to seek the one that was lost.  That’s an image of God.  And that’s a great image of abundant life.

But awhile back, one of my granddaughters said to me, “I don’t want to be sheep.”  So when I started preparing this sermon, I decided to look up the definition of “sheep.”  1)  Any of the various hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals (genus Ovis) related to the goats but stockier and lacking a beard in the male–specifically one long domesticated especially for its flesh and wool.  2) a timid defenseless creature; 3) a timid docile person, especially one easily influenced or led.  Of course, none of us want to be that kind of a person, and that’s certainly not what Jesus meant.

Jesus didn’t mean for people to follow him without thinking for themselves.  He engaged people.  He used figures of speech, he asked them questions, he challenged them, he sent them out in ministry.  He said, “Follow me, do what I do, teach what I teach, love how I love, serve as I serve.”  He engaged with people in the fullness of their humanity, even though sometimes (like us) they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about).

Nevertheless, with these very limited and flawed human beings, Jesus was able create a community that welcomed the poor, the outcast, the stranger, even women and children.  A community that embodied God’s love and what it means to live an abundant life.  A community that embodied the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Today some call it the reign of God or the kin-dom of God.  A kin-dom of abundant life.

This community that Jesus drew together became very popular, so much so that the religious leaders began plotting against him.  They collaborated with Rome to keep the military occupation in place, and they benefited from this collaboration.  Jesus challenged their authority.  He broke their laws, including laws against healing on the Sabbath.  He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.  He and his followers occupied the Temple.  Slept outside, but each day the people all came back to occupy the Temple.  The authorities couldn’t arrest him there.  Why?  Because “all the people hung on his words.”

Finally, the authorities succeeded.  They waited until he was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane with just a few followers.   Then they came out with swords and clubs and Roman guards to arrest him.  They tried him in a mock trial, beat him, and crucified him.  His followers fled, except for a few—mostly women.  They killed the shepherd, and the sheep scattered

Then something amazing happened.  People started saying, “I have seen the Lord.”  According to the gospels, this started with the women—the first preachers, the first witnesses to the resurrection.  The community that had formed around Jesus reconstituted itself, based on the lived experience of the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We read about that early community today in Acts, about how the people pooled their possessions and shared with whoever was in need.

These early Christians continued in the faith of Jesus.  They lived according to his teaching and example, identifying with the poor and outcast.  For the first three centuries, Christians refused to bow to the Emperor and refused to serve in the Roman Army.  Many were martyred for their faith.   They stood on conscience.  Not at all like sheep.

When Constantine made Christianity the State Religion, the church became identified with the power of the state.  Some have called this the downfall of the church, because the Church became aligned with the dominant culture, wherever it was situated.  But throughout history, there have been people and communities who have kept alive the vision that motivated the early church.

One of these people was John Wesley.  John Wesley was a key figure in the 18th Century Great Awakening, and the founder of Methodism.  Wesley worked hard to make sure that the early Methodists were not sheep, that they didn’t just believe what they were told.  He insisted that people move toward a mature faith, and take responsibility and make decisions for themselves.

We still follow that understanding today.  I have been helping with the youth confirmation classes during this school year.  I’ve been teaching some of these kids ever since they were little, when we’d sing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” But faith is not always so simple.  And we don’t want our youth to just swallow something whole, even if they’ve read it in the Bible, even if someone in authority tells them so.  We don’t want them to be “easily influenced or led.”

And so, in our classes, we’ve often turned to John Wesley.  Wesley said that of course we need to read scripture.  But we also need to look to tradition, reason, and experience.  We need to look to Christian tradition, especially to traditions of the early church, which he said demonstrated “no other than love.”  We also need to use our own God-given faculty of reason.  And we need to be true to our own experience, our experience of the world, our experience of the divine.  It we turn our back on our own common sense or our own experience, we turn our back on ourselves.

We’ve put a lot into challenging the youth.  And when the time comes for them to decide whether to be confirmed, some may say “yes,” some may so “no” or “not yet.” But they will know what they are deciding.   I’m grateful to Pastor Kris, to Peggy, Eleanor, and Jenny, and to this congregation, who have all supported the youth in this process.

Pastor Kris suggested that I preach on the themes in my upcoming book, but I decided instead to go with the lectionary.  Still, I am putting in a plug about the book, which is called Love in a Time of Climate Change:  Honoring Creation, Establishing Justice.  It will be released in July, and there are cards on a table in the Fellowship Hall if you want to know more.  It’s based on the teachings of John Wesley.  It uses scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to explore the themes of creation and justice.  The point is not to convince people what they should think.  Instead, it’s a challenge for readers come to their own understanding about climate change, and to decide for themselves how to respond.

We face many challenges, not just climate change.  There are so many challenges today that change may seem almost impossible.  We may be tempted to give up hope, but now is not the time for that, not if we are truly committed to following Jesus.  Christ is risen.  God who is Love can bring light out of darkness and life out of death.

Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God… the reign of God, the kin-dom of God.  However we name it, following Jesus means following him into the heart of the struggle for a better world:  a world where all have access to food and water, where all are cared for and offered shelter, where even the stranger and outcast are sought out and brought into community.  A world where the abundance of creation is a shared gift, offered to all people and all species and preserved to all generations.  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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