The following is the message I delivered to my congregation on the Lectionary Scripture:
Last week’s gospel reading ended with the resurrected Jesus exhorting Peter to “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; and feed my sheep.” Today’s Gospel reading moves back in time to Jesus’ ministry before his death and resurrection, and the words John writes about Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd.
The scripture opens with Jesus observing the Festival of Dedication we call Hanukah in Jerusalem. “Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”
Of course Jesus and his followers were Jewish, so “the Jews” that John refers to are those who oppose Jesus, those with authority—likely the scribes and Pharisees—who are expecting a messiah; and they’re looking for a messiah who will restore them to their homeland and free them from the power of the Roman empire. Maybe they were hoping for a politically savvy rabbi, or someone who would organize a rebellion and take on the Roman soldiers. It’s likely they are expecting a rabbi who has spent a lifetime steeped in the Torah, studying and applying the laws of Moses.
And I would imagine that they’re looking for someone who will recognize and reward them for their faithfulness in following the rules, keeping the commandments, interpreting God’s laws rightly and effectively, and for instituting policies, and procedures to ensure that the true faith is preserved without dilution or assimilation.
But Jesus isn’t acting like the messiah the groups in religious power have imagined. He’s the son of a carpenter who hasn’t been properly educated, he’s lax about the laws of purity, he associates with questionable people, and dismisses the concerns of those in power. He doesn’t praise the scribes for their accuracy or applaud the Pharisees and their rigidness; he challenges them instead.
Jesus has attracted a band of riff-raff, from hard core devotees, to crowds of thousands, curious about his charismatic style, his turn-everything on its head teachings that are peppered with stories, satire, and humor, as well as his miraculous ability to heal every imaginable ailment.
The Pharisees see these things, but they don’t understand them, and confront Jesus again and again. Who is he? What’s his agenda? Where did he get this authority?
Jesus seems to grow tired of the same religious people asking the same questions over again, not really interested in the truth, wanting the answer to be the answer they want to hear—an answer that will either expose Jesus for being a fraud, or one that will get Jesus to agree with those in power and adopt their limited agenda rather than continuing to challenge it with his own expansive and inclusive invitation.
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;’”
Jesus answers with a rebuke that upsets them, that lets them know Jesus thinks they’re asking the wrong questions, that their priorities are misguided. He’s told them who he is. “You don’t get it. You don’t listen, he tells them. It’s not a matter of keeping them in suspense.
“But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus tells them, implying that though they’re educated men, they don’t know much. They know less than Jesus’ outcast band of followers. They know less than a flock of lowly sheep.
In a blog post at “Journey with Jesus” Reverend Debie Thomas writes:
“At first glance, Jesus's reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says is exactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you don't consent to belong. In other words, belief doesn't come first. It can't come first. Belonging does…. And therein lies our hope and our consolation. According to this text, whatever belief we arrive at in this life will…come from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus's flock.”
Two thousand years later in our industrial economy, most of us haven’t seen a flock of sheep of the size that would’ve been common in Jesus’ time and hardly any of us are employed as shepherds.
A few of us who still live a rural lifestyle may have kept a small flock of sheep, but most people in the US have probably only seen a few on a farm as we’re out for a drive, or seen some raised by 4H kids in pens at the County Fair, or patted a few at the children’s zoo.
But many of us have memorized the twenty-third Psalm, made cotton-ball sheep in Sunday school classes, and sung along with various renditions of “Savior, Like a Shepherd lead us.” The metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is familiar. It sounds sweet and romantic until we think about what it really means to be sheep:
Sheep have no agency. Sheep have no control over where they live and roam, where and what they eat, who they live with, and how they spend their days is limited by the environment someone has chosen for them. And when turned loose in a pasture, sheep have a reputation for being dimwitted. They appear to blindly band together and make bad choices in adverse weather and when being confronted by predators. They seem to get stuck in branches and thickets and won’t cross streams when necessary. They need their heads anointed with oil to keep away flies. They wander off and can’t find their way back and need to be rescued and tended by a more intelligent life form in the form of a shepherd.
I don’t know about you, but I want to have agency. I want control over where I live and work, where and what I eat, with whom I live, and how I spend my time. I want to think for myself. I want to be independent, to follow my own desires wherever they might lead.
I want to believe that I choose wisely in adversity. I want a reputation for being smart, dependable, innovative, someone who is never lost, someone who can always lead the way, someone who freely offers assistance and knows exactly what to do to help others, but never needs help and never has to rely on anyone other than myself. I pride myself on following rules and doing things the right way—and the right way, incidentally, is always my way.
Given those traits—I think I would’ve been a fantastic Pharisee, the kind of person who didn’t understand what Jesus was up to.
I can’t know for sure, but I imagine the Pharisees are motivated by faith, by their love of God and the laws that God has given them for right living in relationship with God and with other humans. I suspect that they strive for absolute obedience to the law and perfection in its interpretation because it will bring them closer to God…not just themselves individually, but the entire Jewish community.
I’m the daughter of a father who became a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County at the age of 21, just three months after I was born. A man, who before he retired had been promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, inspector, commander, division chief, and assistant sheriff—the highest non-elected rank possible. Though I didn’t live with him after I was ten, his belief I the law and devotion to law enforcement were deeply ingrained in me as was the expectation that I would be a leader, too. When I went to college, I majored in Political Science Public Service and worked in local government after graduation, training to be a shepherd, not a sheep.
Like my father, I strived to serve the greater good, believing that my dedication and hard work would or should result in accolades and external rewards. I grew up a modern-day Pharisee, with the government as God, but eventually I, like some of the Jews felt as though something was still missing in my life and became both intrigued by and resistant to Jesus’ message.
Earlier in this chapter of John’s gospel Jesus calls himself, “The Good Shepherd,” and says, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
To accept my belonging as one of Christ’s sheep, to enter through the gate and to take my place as a member of the flock, to become part of the beloved community, is a gift beyond measure.
But it is also an ongoing process of surrender:
It means surrendering my ego and my desire to be special or set apart—I am loved no more and no less than any other sheep. It means letting go of my tendency to think solely or mostly about myself and my needs—and how I can get others to meet those needs.
It means considering the welfare of others and contributing to the greater good not because I want to be helpful or share my expertise or abundance with the less fortunate, but because cooperation is simply my role as part of a flock a whole that is interconnected and interdependent, where the health, safety, and welfare of every single sheep is of equal importance.
It means surrendering my desire for rewards and praise and affirmation by society for a job well done. It means recognizing that external validation is meaningless and hollow, that is does nothing to satisfy the deep desire of the soul.
Taking my place in the flock means letting go of my expectations and desire for control over my own circumstances, and accepting the reality that is before me as it exists—not as I want it to be. It means coming to the realization that control itself is an illusion. I do not have power over events or people in my own life, or in the lives of others, but I have the power to accept Christ’s invitation into a belonging that can never be taken away. Following Jesus doesn’t guarantee wealth, health, or happiness or any worldly tangible reward; but it offers an abundant life for the soul, an intangible connection to God through Christ, something that can’t be seen and isn’t always felt, but is always present.
Theologian Bruce Epperly writes that “Jesus reveals God’s nature to us, and calls us to be his own, aligned with God’s vision…. No one is excluded from God’s love, and yet we experience this love only when we accept the path of Jesus…. Grace is given to all, but some may turn away, forfeiting the experience though not necessarily the reality of grace.”
Most of the Jews referred to in John’s gospel turn away and forfeit the experience of grace, but others come close.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says. When I, when we, respond to that voice and enter the gate becoming part of the Good Shepherd’s flock we are held by a shepherd who said he would lay down his life for us and did. We are shepherded by one who promised that no one will snatch us from his hand.
No human endeavors, no amount of excellent law enforcement or absolute rule following or acts of community service can earn us what Jesus promises: the grace of unconditional love and eternal belonging. Yet Jesus offers these gifts freely to absolutely anyone who will follow.
“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,” he says earlier in this chapter of John’s gospel.
One shepherd who, even today, gathers us up and into one flock. It happens something like this:
Jesus walks through the neighborhood on a Sunday morning
calling us from our homes and our cares.
Curious we follow behind him dragging our worries
in shopping carts and red wagons,
jangling our woes like pocket change
as if he’s the Pied Piper and we can’t help
but fall hypnotized by his flute.
Strange that we hear him over the buzz
of power mowers, the hiss of cappuccino makers,
the roar of TV sports, the pounding bass from car stereos.
Odd that he appeals to the retired hi-tech VP
with shrinking stocks and irritable bowel, and to the single parent
on food stamps renting a room in another family’s house.
Strange, that we gather at the corner church,
as if Jesus is a convenience store and we need what he’s got--
a quart of milk, a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket.
We come freshly showered, fresh from cancer, fresh
from marriage, fresh from divorce, fresh from college, fresh from grief.
Jesus opens the gate for us, we step through it,
crowd next to each other and him
take refuge in this pasture, gathered up, gathered in
by the Good Shepherd—free in this moment,
from anxiety and the uncertainty of what comes next.
We pray, we sing, we listen, we share bread and wine.
We watch the sun stream through the clouds
shafts of light teeming with tiny insects
life abundant suspended in the air all around us.
Funny that before he gathered us into one flock
we shared the illusion that we were alone.
As we respond to the Good Shepherd’s invitation to follow and listen, may we, the sheep of his flock, carry out the directive Jesus gave to Peter to feed and tend one another.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.