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.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow, May 17.