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May 3, 2020
4th Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
Psalm 23 is the comfort food of the biblical banquet. I suspect it is the most well-known psalm in the bible. Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we read one of three “shepherd texts” of John and the psalm and epistle readings all employ the metaphors of a shepherd and sheep, representing the relationship between God and humanity. Among some preachers, it has been shortened to “Sheep Sunday.” The sheep metaphors are probably not as powerful for us today because sheep are not as important to us as they were when and where Jesus taught. Lamb and mutton are not staples of the American diet and Polartec fleece has replaced wool made from real sheep fleece in our winter wardrobes.
In our reading from John’s gospel, we find that Jesus was concerned his audience would not get the point of his sheep and shepherd metaphor. He clarified, for those that may not have gotten it the first time, that he is the Shepherd. He did confuse his audience a bit when he mixed metaphors in the same conversation by referring to himself as both the shepherd and the gate.
As much as we might like that sentimental picture of Jesus holding a baby lamb that has graced many a church Sunday school room, we are somewhat uncomfortable with being represented as sheep. The level of ovine intelligence, notwithstanding, we Americans have a particularly hard time being a part of a flock. Somehow the objection to the tyrannical King George III imposing taxation without legislation on the American colonies became twisted into the attitude “I’m not going to let anybody tell me what do to.” We resent anybody telling us what we should do, even when it is in our best interests. Certainly, we should not bow down to every authority figure that attempts to control us. Yet, when you think about it, by refusing to bow down to anyone means you are actually bowing down to yourself.
When protestors blocked ambulances getting into hospitals with critically ill people in Michigan, it was obvious they were concerned only about their own personal freedom and not the lives of their fellow Americans. They were bowing down to their own self-centered desires. This kind of behavior goes against the moral tenets of every world religion I know. If we do what the Apostle Peter encouraged in his Pentecost speech and devote ourselves to the “apostles’ teaching,” we will be overwhelmed by the exhortations to treat others as we would want to be treated, to care for those whose lives are vulnerable, and to share with those in need. In his speech to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost, Peter was telling his audience that Christ is the only one worthy to be our leader, our Shepherd. It is an honor to be an obedient sheep if Christ is your Shepherd.
We might surmise that the “thieves and bandits” who Jesus describes as “all the ones that came before me” are those who falsely claimed to be the Messiah. But in verse 10 Jesus switches to the present tense, saying, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” So, who are these thieves? Who are the ones who are threatening the flock in the gospel writer’s time? Probably the same ones that threaten the flock today – the adoration of money, power, and privilege. The thief comes to kill and destroy the flock, but Jesus comes so that the flock might have abundant life. We must be able to discern and resist these propagators of death, who take us away from God. But, they can be clever and persuasive. There are thieves and bandits running around the pasture in shepherd’s clothing. Thieves and bandits seek to divide the flock to more easily steal them away and use them for their own purposes. This tactic is a favorite of despots, demagogues, and others who want the world to reflect their own image rather than God’s.
While in countries of relative affluence, the thieves and bandits may be the forces that propagate materialism and self-indulgence. In countries of few natural resources that cannot compete in the global market, it may be the fear of want that pits neighbors against one another, fed by ancient feuds or bigotry. Or, the thieves and bandits may be more personal – bitterness, loneliness, depression, or addiction. Thieves and bandits abound in our world. The Good Shepherd offers to be our guide to the right paths and our protector in the dark valleys. The author of our epistle reading today assures us we can trust Christ as our Good Shepherd because “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” The author writes it was humanity that, “like sheep had gone astray.”
And then, we have that confusing other metaphor in our gospel reading — Jesus as the gate. Jesus says, “no one enters the gate except by me.” For centuries there are those who have used those words to fence in God with man-made fence posts. Yet if we look at the third “shepherd text” in our lectionary cycle we read the words: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Could it be that these other sheep in these other flocks hear Jesus’ voice in other languages than King James English? It is through education and evangelism that we show others how to recognize Jesus’ voice calling to them to direct their life journeys to the kingdom of God. What is the heart of evangelism? Giving others the opportunity to be witnesses to how following Christ affects the way you live.
It is ironic that this text has been used to exclude all but like-minded Christians from those that can pass through the gate and live “abundant life.” Christ, as the gate, does not mean that Christians circle the wagons around their congregations. Jesus never taught his disciples to live inside a fortress. He told them to go out into the world to teach, preach, baptize, worship, and to come to his table and share a holy meal together. Back in Jesus’ time, the sheep had to leave the gated field to find green pastures to get their nourishment. Yes, it was dangerous. There were predators out there. But the Good Shepherd was with them to protect them. If they stayed inside the gate all the time, the shepherd’s job would be easy, but eventually, his flock would die of starvation. Then there would be neither wool nor new lambs to replenish the flock. As long as it is the shepherd who is leading the sheep in and out of the gate, the sheep will be safe and have life-giving food and water ‘ all the days of their lives’—in other words, abundant life.
With our Good Shepherd guiding us, what do we, the flock, do to strengthen ourselves for the journey? Acts, the story of the early Church, tells us. In just 6 verses from Peter’s speech at Pentecost, we read the mission of the early Christian Church in a nutshell. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” It has always been that pesky verse 45 that we have always glossed over. Selling our possessions and distributing them to all in need? It sounds radical, but Jesus was radical. He proclaimed God’s radical love for us and taught us that our response must be a radical love for others. The disciples of the early church never asked people to give so much that they would be in need themselves. They were asked to share from their abundance so that no one would be without what they needed to live.
In a society based on power and consumerism, sharing arouses fear. We have only to look at the hoarding of essential goods at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to observe that fear. Buying into consumerism – you are what you own — destroys the kind of trust the psalmist extolls in the 23rd Psalm and throughout the bible. The kind of trust that brings real peace that characterizes abundant life. The model for the early church was to live, trusting that God has provided us with enough for all to be fed. We are the ones that have always tried to disassemble God’s perfect system designed for all creation. In this time of sheltering in our own homes, we are finding we can make do with less. The earth is showing signs of healing from our exploitation of natural resources. We may want things to go back to “normal,” but what we really need is to create a new and better normal that more closely resembles the kingdom of God Jesus described to all who would listen to his voice. The Good Shepherd’s voice.
Peter also commended to his audience at Pentecost those who “devoted themselves” to fellowship. (Acts 2:42) The members of the early church met, not only for worship but also as often as they could. They were like exiles or aliens in a foreign land. They flocked together for comfort and encouragement. Even when they had to do it in secret. Churches that are committed to being the body of Christ make getting together with their faith family an intentional act, not one choice among many competing choices. To be a faithful and growing church, we must first be faithful to Christ by practicing faithful fellowship. Today that means keeping in touch with people by phone, with e-mails and letters, and with Zoom chats – even with those who are talking about things that do not interest you. Fellowship is not all about you. It is also a gift of grace we give to others.
The majority of the first Christians were Jews, who continued to worship at the Jerusalem temple. These activities mentioned were those they did together regularly to affirm their bond in Christ, to support each other, and forge their own identity in a world that was overwhelmingly not Christian. These acts separated them from an empire that valued power and wealth over love and service, blind obedience rather than study, discussion, and discernment. The early Christians were strengthened in their faith, living in opposition to an Empire that sacrificed justice for all in favor of the privilege of a few.
And so, we too come to worship together, even if our worship is shared virtually on the internet while in our own separate homes. We pray we read and learn about the Scriptures. We have fellowship with one another. And, we come to the Table to continue the ritual Christ gave us to remember what he did for his disciples and to affirm our trust in his promise that he is ‘always with us to the end of the age.’ The Good Shepherd is our host and we, the sheep of his flock, are offered abundant life as we are fed by his hand.
Thanks be to God!
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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