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.
Behr paint is hiring a Color Explorer to tour the U.S. and Canada this summer taking photos of natural beauty and cultural celebrations and naming paint inspired by the experience. They're marketing it as "Your Dream Job" and they're right!
I just submitted my application for the position, which along with having a passport, is based on my answer to this directive: "Tell us what color inspires you most and why—in 150 words or less."
I don't know if this is the type of answer they're looking for, but it was fun to write, so thought I'd share:
Blues bounce from sky to water ever changing as the sea reflects clouds’ grays and whites, trees’ greens and browns, sunsets’ pinks, reds, and purples in the Puget Sound kaleidoscope where I make my home as poet, writer, teacher, photographer, home renovator, realtor, and collector of paint sample cards that become gallons for project houses and imaginative names for writing prompts. I brush robin’s egg on a wall, royal on a headboard, photograph cerulean expanses. Faded blue jeans and navy deck shoes, the favored blues of my first road trip, pre-teen explorer under sapphire skies from Mammoth Hot Springs to San Francisco Bay. Still curious about our pale blue dot, attentive to beauty in natural and built environments, cobalt skyscrapers to azure streams, my blue eyes open wide, wander in wonder discovering possibility and connection in blues—water, sky flowers, birds—novel and new, that always paint peace, become home.
Imagine yourself as Thomas in John’s Gospel. Jesus, the man you loved, the man you believed would save your people from oppression and tyranny, the man who inspired you to upend your entire life, to leave your home and family behind in order to follow him, is dead. The man you listened to and learned from for three years, the teacher you tried to understand and emulate, this one with whom you lived and travelled this beloved friend, leader, and brother was ripped from your midst, betrayed by another whom you also loved, a shock you’re still reeling from.
The drama began a few weeks ago when Jesus wanted to return to Jerusalem by way of Bethany where his friend Lazarus had died. The other disciples were worried because the Jews in Jerusalem had just tried to stone Jesus, and could easily do so again, and kill him. But you were bold and said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” though you never really expected that would happen. You thought everything would be okay. Jesus had evaded authorities and talked his way out of trouble before. You thought he’d do it again.
But then, the night of the last dinner you shared together, Jesus who was dear to you, as dear if not more so, than your own twin brother, washed your feet as though he were your servant and said he was leaving with these words:
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
But you didn’t understand what he meant and answered, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
His reply was another one of his all-too-frequent riddles: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
After dinner you and the others accompanied him to the garden so he could pray. He asked you to keep watch with him, but you fell asleep and woke up to soldiers and shouting. You drew a sword to protect your beloved leader, but he went with them without protest.
Soon everything spun out of control: You scrambled to follow and were swallowed up in an angry mob separated from him. Later the crowds called for his execution and next thing you knew he stumbled up the road to the place of the skull, carrying the cross to which he was soon nailed, where he suffered and died.
Perhaps you had the strength to stand alongside his mother and keep watch over your friend in those last agonizing hours of his life. Or perhaps you collapsed in a heap far from the scene and wept over what you knew was coming but couldn’t bear to witness.
Whatever you did, the end was the same: Jesus died and left you flattened with grief, and with guilt—why didn’t you try to save him?
You cannot fathom any purpose for your life now. Should you go back home and pick up your fishing nets, return to the family you left behind in Galilee? So much has changed in you over the three years you listened to Jesus as he taught and healed, offered hope to outcasts, even sent you and the others out in pairs to spread his message of hope, to invite others to follow. You doubt you can squeeze yourself back into your narrow old life, but how you can possibly carry on when your hope has been slayed and your heart shattered?
For three days you stayed here in this locked room with the others. Some thought you were hiding, afraid of arrest by Jewish authorities, afraid you’d be thrown in jail for your association with this Jesus who was crucified for the crime of being King of the Jews. It’s true you were hiding, but it’s not the entire truth. Along with the fear, you were paralyzed by grief and guilt and confusion. You said you’d die with him, but you didn’t even defend him. He is dead and you bear some of the blame. How can you ever make things right?
You woke a week ago to Mary Magdalene pounding on the door just after sunrise wild with despair saying Jesus’ body had been stolen. Peter and John went with her to the tomb and came back saying the stone had been rolled away and the linen strips he’d been shrouded in remained behind.
None of you could make sense of that, and when, a little while later Mary Magdalene returned saying, “I have seen the Lord,” and told all of you about her encounter in the garden, you thought it was her imagination, wanting him so to return, that she conjured or dreamed him there. For he’d only been gone for three days and you, too, when you closed your eyes still saw Jesus, dreamed of him speaking to the twelve of you gathered around him at a table or a fire, his presence so vivid and comforting that in the first moments after you woke in the mornings, you opened your eyes and scanned the room, expecting to find him there among you.
Soon after Mary left again, you left the house too, exhausted after days of confinement in the small house, worrying and mourning together, and then agitated and confused by the frantic conversations among your friends in response to Mary’s news: What had actually happened, what did it mean, what were you all supposed to do next?
You walked stealthily through the city for several hours afterward, head bowed, slipping into shadows should you see anyone lest they recognize you as one of Jesus’ disciples, your mind a jumble of thoughts: Why hadn’t you stayed with the women to comfort them as they kept vigil near the tomb? Had soldiers been guarding the tomb? Had they rolled the stone away and carried Jesus’ body with them? And what about the grave clothes? Why would they have unwrapped and left them?
It was only a few weeks before when you’d accompanied Jesus to Bethany, after he learned that his friend Lazarus had died. It’d been four days since Lazarus’ death when you arrived, and you’d watched as Jesus called him from the tomb, and Lazarus came stumbling out wrapped in linen strips. Once dead; now alive. It made no sense, but it’d happened. Jesus had made it happen. And if this is what had happened to Jesus, who had called him out of the tomb? Who, other than Jesus, could summon life from death?
As you walked night began to fall, and though you’d set out to clear your head, you returned just as confused and to even more commotion. You knocked on the door, one of your friends furtively opened it, ushered you in, and bolted it behind you.
Inside, your all friends turned to you and began blurting out the news:
“Jesus was here.”
“We have seen the lord.”
“He appeared in this very room though the doors were locked.”
“Twice he said: Peace be with you—He’s never greeted us like that before.”
“And it was definitely him, because then he showed us the wounds on his hands, and side.”
“He told us to go forth and forgive sins.”
“He said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ and breathed on us.”
“I’ve never felt like this before.”
The story tumbled from their mouths all at once, the way excited children tell of their discoveries.
You asked yourself if Jesus had really been there? How was that possible? Did your friends see a ghost? Were they hallucinating?” You wanted to believe them, but, how could you? You’ve travelled with this crowd, and knew that they were no different than you—human, fallible, followers of Jesus lost without him. And if Jesus had somehow appeared to them from beyond the grave, you wanted with all your heart for him to do the impossible and appear to you, as well.
Your friends finished speaking and looked to you for a response and all you could say was, “Before I can believe, I need to experience it for myself… I need to see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side."
Centuries from now when the mystery of Jesus’ disappearance from the grave has been solved and named the Resurrection and has become the account in the Christian scriptures upon which our entire religion hinges, and the celebration of Easter has spread across the globe, Christians will still give you a bad rap for being hard hearted, dubbing you “Doubting Thomas”—although some interpreters will spread the blame a little and criticize the disciples for being such lackluster evangelists, that they couldn’t even convince one of their closest friends.
In the far future, some will wonder why all of you kept hiding in a locked room after Mary shared her incredible news, not understanding that you all were frightened of the religious authorities, and the state, and distraught over Jesus’ death.
You will want to tell them to think about their own lives, those moments of profound grief, or even joy, when change topples the old life, strips you raw, and you don’t know what comes next. You will want to remind them that though they might recognize something profound and life-altering is taking place when it happens, rarely do any of us understand the meaning of such events as they are happening. Meaning making emerges as we live into the hidden beyond of such moments and integrate this new reality into our daily existence. It takes time to develop perspective to understand the significance of events that have shaped our futures and illuminated our pasts.
Thomas, your reaction is completely human. For you, the rising is still a rumor, but your response is a sign of faith. Wrestling with doubt is a sign of your desire to believe and for that belief to emerge from your own experience and understanding, not from hearsay, or by adopting the experience of your friends when it is not your own, but by finding something you can grasp onto that will bring your toward belief.
It seems natural to ask for the same appearance and signs your friends received—the sight of Jesus and his wounds, his presence with you—because literally, while you were out of the room, the rules about everything changed.
A week later, you are gathered with your friends in that same house, doors still locked, everyone still huddling together trying to figure out what comes next. For the second time, Jesus walks through closed doors and appears in this place, before his closest friends, including you this time. "Peace be with you,” Jesus says to everyone.
Then he turns to you and speaks as though he’d heard what you said a week ago, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
You take a breath and all your wrestling and doubt vanish. At the first sight of Jesus and at sound of his voice, you recognize your beloved master standing before you, his features familiar, though his body has defied time and space and death. He still bears the wounds of persecution, but you do not have to touch them or him to believe—though soon you will embrace. Your questioning has led to complete and utter faith.
Here is Jesus no longer dead, but risen, capable of all things beyond your understanding, and you drop to your knees in a sweet flood of relief, surrender, and hope, uttering the words you now know to be true: “My Lord and my God!”
You are the first person to name the significance of the Risen Lord, you are the first one, who after seeing Jesus resurrected, understands just what he has encountered, the one who can now help the other disciples interpret history in the making and encourage them into boldness of their own.
To your declaration Jesus responds: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
In the future, some might hear these words as a rebuke of you, implying that you should’ve believed the disciples when they first told you. But as John writes his gospel, his intent is not to use Jesus’ words to criticize you, but rather to offer hope to the early church that would form in the next decades, to record this sign and wonder, one of many they would not see in person, so that they might also believe.
John didn’t know what the future would hold. Couldn’t know that the saving message of Christ would spread throughout a world much vaster than any of them had ever imagined. John couldn’t know that the Resurrection was the beginning of time as we mark it.
Jesus’ blessing of those who believe without seeing doesn't negate those who believe because they see. Here in the year of our Lord two thousand nineteen, we have only to look at the journey of saints and mystics, religious leaders, and everyday believers across the centuries whose faith allows us to see Christ alive in the world.
When we embrace the mystery of the risen Christ, when we follow Thomas’ example, then our fears, worries, questions, and grief can shift inside us and become the underpinnings of faith as we begin to trust in what once seemed impossible. In our un-doubting, comes our blessing:
Blessed are we who live on the far side of the Resurrection.
Blessed are we with centuries of the faithful traveling before us.
Blessed are we who have been breathed on by the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are we who are searching and questioning.
Blessed are we, who like Thomas, who both see and believe.
As we receive and respond to that blessing, may we become bearers of light, the embodiment of God’s love for others in this time and this place. May we, even in all our shortcomings become the hands and feet of Christ, our dear Savior whose horrific death was redeemed; whose rising has made all things new.
In the Empty Tomb
You who’ve put on new life
You who wear Resurrection
like a clean white robe
scrub me to the bone
then let me rest alongside you
for just a moment—the two of us
shiny, pink, expectant
radiant in our empty tomb
What would Jesus give us
If we asked
Our hearts broken
in three pieces
With grave clothes entombed
He has nothing left
But a set of wings
To resurrect our faith
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.