Our lives, and the life of the world, depend on the true Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, who is the faithful Shepherd in the face of all obstacles, and who alone has the authority to claim “sheep.”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fourth Sunday of Easter, year B; texts: John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24; Acts 4:5-12
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Actor and comedian Groucho Marx famously once resigned from a club by sending them a telegram which read, in part, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” I think that’s really funny. I also think it’s the opposite of most of us.
I’ve long pondered the truth of human nature that we tend to assume that our enjoyment of belonging to a group, or club, or political party, or even a congregation, is heightened if it’s exclusive in some way. If we’re in and others are out. We’re right and others are wrong. We’re good and others are bad. We’re wise and others are foolish. Of course, we like to think we’re enlightened, so most of us won’t say that out loud, or at least we’ll try to be subtle out in public. But there’s a reason that those outside the Church often think Christians are snobby and exclusive. It’s because we are. And of course when it comes to the Church, we sometimes want to claim that our exclusiveness continues to life after death. It’s not enough that people aren’t welcome to God’s love in this life; we’ve too often felt we could control their access in the next.
Somehow in our broken human nature we’ve lost the ability to simply rejoice when others are loved by God, to make room for even more. And we never were good at it if the people who are loved are people we don’t like.
This all matters to what Jesus is saying today about being the Good Shepherd. We like that image, we love the 23rd Psalm, we sing its partner Psalm 95 at Morning Prayer and delight in being the sheep of God’s pasture. Even if we don’t really understand sheep and shepherds.
But our Shepherd actually pushes us a little today, tries to get us past the sentimentality of basking by quiet streams and green pastures. He claims authority as our Shepherd, an authority he says we as the sheep do not have. And he hints – no, really he claims outright – that there are other sheep who get to be a part of his care that we don’t know and that we don’t get to have a say about.
Jesus makes a clear comparison between himself, the true Good Shepherd, and anyone else who might or might not try to care for or control God’s people.
The good shepherd, Jesus says, is the one who is willing to lay his life down for the sheep. What’s powerful about that image for us is that unlike the idea Jesus introduces of a shepherd fighting off a wolf to save his flock, Jesus ends up facing the wrath of his own flock. The danger he faced was not from outsiders attacking his people, but the wolves were his own people themselves.
It’s as if the sheep turned on the shepherd for trying to keep them from fighting, or trying to keep them from getting lost, or trying to keep them from eating bad food, or trying to encourage them to care for each other, and they ganged up and killed their shepherd. The love that Jesus shows after his resurrection is all the more amazing given that we were the ones who took his life, and at the same time for whom he gave his life.
By contrast, Jesus says, is the hired hand. It’s a question of who has the most investment: the shepherd who owns the sheep and whose livelihood depends on them, or the hired hand who is asked to care for them. Only the one who truly owns them and loves them won’t run at the first sign of danger.
Later (and this is repeated today in our reading from 1 John), Jesus invites us to the same kind of love for the world, to be more than hired hands, saying that the greatest form of love is to give one’s life for another. Now it’s one thing to hope that if we had to throw ourselves in front of a bus to save someone, we’d do it.
But how often do we run like hired hands and fail to do the small sacrifices out of love for each other, the little things that cost us? Are we willing to let someone else be right, because we love them? Let someone take advantage of us because we love them? Lose our pride, or our “just dues,” or getting our own way, because we love them? No, those wolves are too frightening for us. So we run.
And if it’s someone we don’t love, well, of course we’re not interested in sacrificing for them.
So Jesus establishes his credentials here not only in order to assert his love and willingness to die for us. But also to assert that he is thereby the Shepherd and we are not. In his death and resurrection, he is our Good Shepherd, and he claims the authority over the sheep that we simply do not and cannot have. Because we don’t have that kind of love for others.
Only the one willing to die to save them gets to decide who gets saved. Only the one willing to give his life for them gets to make any decisions about those lives.
And it comes to the forefront with his mysterious claim that there are some other sheep.
The true Shepherd says that he’s got other sheep we don’t even know about. And they will hear his voice. And he will bring them into the fold, he says.
Isn’t that a wonder? There are other saints, other people whom Jesus loves, whom we don’t know about. Maybe even outside the Church. They might not even know it yet. After all, he says they “will” hear his voice. But they are his. And we don’t get to say anything about it.
And I wonder what we would do with ourselves as Christians if we realized that we never get to vote about who’s in and who’s out. That our vote doesn’t count. What we would do at churchwide and synodical meetings if we never got to decide what to do about “those” people – be they Christians, or people of other faiths. What we would do as congregations if we realized that it wasn’t our decision, ever, to decide whom God loves and why.
Maybe we’d be able to use all that free time to care about other people. Because the elder who writes 1 John says that it isn’t that we’re just to tolerate these other sheep, we’re to love them. In fact, today he says we are to do two things. Believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. That is, believe in the one Shepherd. And two, to love one another as he has loved us.
Maybe if we could accept that Jesus has as many sheep as he wants, and that we not only don’t get to decide that or vote on it, but we don’t even know who they are, we could get about the business of doing the love he’s asked us to do. Because now everyone is potentially someone Jesus loves enough to die for.
In fact, the other thing this recognition of our true Good Shepherd frees us from is the whole conversation about who can be saved in other faiths.
Oh, I know it’s fun to pretend we have any idea. But our Good Shepherd tells us we don’t. We can argue all we want about it, but ultimately we’re not the ones who get to decide.
So we baptize Eleanor today, as we are told to do by Jesus. We wash her in water, and we mark her with Christ’s cross, and we connect her to God’s holy name, the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And we believe that she is a saint of God, holy, set apart to love the world in God’s name. We commit to teaching her that, loving her ourselves in God’s name. We believe that she, like all the baptized, is joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and will have abundant life here and life in the world to come. We know this is all true, because our Risen Lord told us so.
But we don’t know about any of the other children born on February 4, or any other day, who never will be baptized, who might believe in God but in different ways, who may never know of God at all. We don’t know, because we’re not the Shepherd.
But we suspect – we suspect that in fact, they’re part of his love and grace, too. Because, you see, he said he’s got those sheep we don’t know about. And they’ll know his voice, too. And he’s bringing them together with all of us.
And that helps us better understand Peter’s admonition in Acts today, that there is “no other name” by which people can be saved. I don’t think he’s claiming that unless you’re a Christian, you can’t be in God’s love in this life, or the next. I know that’s often been the take of the Church before.
I think what he’s saying is this: we know that Jesus was killed, and he rose from the dead. We know he is the Son of God and offers life to all. We know he’s the Good Shepherd. So if anyone’s going to be loved by God in this life or the next, Jesus will make it happen. They might not even know it’s coming from Jesus. It doesn’t matter. One day, Jesus says, they’ll listen to his voice. But right now, they are his sheep already.
And ultimately he’s bringing us all together. Whether we want it or not. There will be one flock, one shepherd, he says. So not only do we not get to decide whom God will love and give grace to, whom God claims as beloved children. We’ll eventually have to call them sisters and brothers. Like it or not.
I don’t know about you, but some of the sheep I’m least thrilled about aren’t of other faiths at all, but some of those who already claim to be Christians, and in Jesus’ flock. And yes, even they are loved by God. And I’m going to have to call them sisters and brothers, like it or not. (Though, to be fair, I’d guess they’d feel pretty much the same thing about me.)
Finally, our only hope of welcome, of life, of grace from God, is based on the goodness of the Shepherd and his choosing us. And everyone else.
We rejoice in the life we know in Jesus’ resurrection, his grace and forgiveness and love, not because it is ours exclusively. Only because it is ours. And if our Shepherd is giving that to everyone else, even the ones we don’t like, even the ones who think differently than we do, well, the more the better. Maybe we can learn that the love he asks of us means loving even those other sheep.
We’re going to sing a hymn in a moment which we normally sing in connection with the festival of All Saints. But it’s filled with Easter imagery and with joy in the Shepherd’s loving claim on us. I wonder what would happen if we sang it and when we sang the word “saints” we opened our hearts and minds to the possibility that this category might just include every one, every “humble spirit,” as the hymnwriter says.
You get the impression from the Shepherd himself that unless he can bring in all the sheep, he’s not satisfied. That means the world to us, because he’ll always be looking for us. But it also means the world to the world. May our Good Shepherd so open our hearts that we rejoice at every lost sheep who is found, even the ones we don’t know about, even the ones we don’t like, until all of us are joined in resurrection song before God’s throne.
In the name of Jesus. Amen