Sunday, April 29
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Enfolded by Love
Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may rightly offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
All Readings For This Sunday
1 John 3:16-24
Questions for reflection
1. How does your church identify itself as Christian, by its beliefs or its practices or its history or mainly its name?
2. Who are "other sheep" that do not belong to the same "fold" that you belong to? Are there those who belong to no fold at all?
3. Who and what are the thieves, bandits, strangers, and wolves that threaten you as a fold?
4. What sort of "abundant life" does this "beautiful" shepherd bring to the life of your church?
5. How often do you feel that you fail to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Stillspeaking God? How is that Stillspeaking God calling your church today?
by Kate Huey
As the early Christians tried to make sense of the "why" of Jesus' life, his terrible death, and his glorious resurrection, they used many images to describe the one whose love was so great that he laid down his life for them and for those who came after them, including us, thousands of years later. Some of those images are familiar to us, for example, "the way, the truth, and the life," which are perhaps a bit abstract, but the image of the good shepherd, a favorite of traditional Christianity, is much more concrete. How many devotional paintings portray Jesus holding a sweet little lamb, surrounded by peaceful sheep?
Many have interpreted this passage about shepherds as referring to pastors in the church, who are seen as shepherds of their flocks and therefore, in some way,"like" Jesus, or striving to be like him. Fred Craddock says that John's church, the Community of the Beloved Disciple (also called the "Johannine" church), was comforted by this gentle, protective image of Jesus when they felt ostracized and persecuted, turned out and abandoned, by the very people who claimed to be God's servants. In every age since those earliest days of the church, there have been "shepherds" who abandoned their flocks and failed to live up to the image of the good shepherd. However, as Craddock reminds us, it's also true that in every age, there have been faithful ones: "Before Roman sword or Nazi boot, burning cross or constant harassment, economic pressure or political reprisal, they remained with the sheep."
Perhaps, when we focus on shepherds as pastors, we miss thinking about ourselves as the sheep, or about the Good Shepherd himself. We skip over deep reflection on the profound truth of this passage as it conveys the close, loving relationship between the first two persons of the Trinity, as well as the tender, self-giving love of the shepherd for his sheep, an image that should be more intimate than sentimental.
Sentimentality, as a matter of fact, is dispelled by the context of this passage, the setting for Jesus' words. He isn't sitting on a nice, quiet pastoral hillside, peaceful and calm. No, here we read of confrontation with authorities and questions about Jesus' authority, and danger is in the air around these religious leaders. Immediately before describing the hired hand who quickly abandons his charges (it's just a job, after all), Jesus speaks of thieves, bandits, strangers and wolves, and the violence and risk those images convey. What strikes us most powerfully, however, is the close relationship between the shepherd who knows the sheep and is known by the sheep. The flock responds to the sound of his voice and not to the voices of others, not to the voices of strangers. According to Henry Wansbrough, "Sheep, often thought to be hopelessly witless and contrary creatures, will respond individually, at least to a caring and affectionate shepherd who treats them individually." Visitors to the Middle East see this even today, as the sheep are herded through passage ways and recognize ("know") the voice of the shepherd who calls them. The good shepherd will even die for the sheep, while the hired hand values his own life more highly than those of his charges; after all, the hired hand is not personally invested in the sheep.
This helps us, like the early Christians, to understand who Jesus is, and how he loves and knows us. It also helps us to understand ourselves as loved and cherished and known by a tender and caring God. Bernard Brandon Scott ties the shepherd metaphor in John to the same image in Psalm 23, but this time it's applied not to Yahweh but to Jesus. Scott also translates the word for "good" (kalos) as "beautiful" or "ideal." This ideal or beautiful shepherd brings abundant life for the sheep who are united not because they believe exactly the same thing but because they are loved. Wasn't it Henri Nouwen who said that we are not loved by God because we are precious, but we are precious because we are loved by God?
This shepherd knows what it's like to be a sheep
Being enfolded in love by the Good Shepherd is an image of God's love for Jesus and for us. Scott Black Johnston describes this love as an "up close" kind of love from God, through the gift of Jesus. After all, we can't be enfolded in love by someone who doesn't want to get "up close," can we? Jesus has shared our human experience and knows intimately what it means to suffer and to die. No wonder that the sheep can trust this Good Shepherd. Johnston notes that this shephered even knows "what it is like to be a sheep, and by extension, what it is like to be snatched by the wolf." It isn't such a reach, then, to understand Jesus as the "Lamb of God."
Belonging to Jesus, knowing him and being known by him, shapes us as a community of faith. Bernard Brandon Scott suggests that this is where we find our identity and our unity, not in what we know and say about God as doctrine and dogma, but in "God's knowing us and being for us." This isn't a personal, just-me-and-Jesus love relationship but that of a community, a flock, watched over by the Good Shepherd. Cynthia Gano Lindner reminds us of Karl Barth's well-known observation that "there is no such thing as an individual Christian." What draws you into a community of faith, rather than going it alone?
Can (will) we move over and make room?
Now this is where things become more difficult, making room for one another in the fold of God's love. It seems like we ought to find it easy and even natural to relax into the warmth of God's care, to move over and make room for everyone else. And yet this image, of religious leaders themselves not recognizing the immeasurable worth of each individual in the eyes of God (more important than any kind of doctrinal purity), is just as powerful today as it is in any age. Leaders and their flocks in the church have a hard time not thinking about who's in the flock, and who isn't, which may equate with who's loved by God, and who isn't...or at least, who isn't loved by God quite as much, or in the same way, as we are. (Just yesterday, someone told me how betrayed by the church she felt as a child when she learned in church school that children who never hear the gospel and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior are therefore condemned to hell.) And yet, it's not up to us to decide who's in or who's out; this text tells us that Jesus has "other sheep" elsewhere and that he intends to draw them in, too. We might be very surprised by the others who will respond to this shepherd's voice, right alongside (or ahead of) us.
So as comforting, even warm and fuzzy, as this image of the good shepherd may seem, it's really quite unsettling. Jesus often unsettled his listeners, so he might as well unsettle us, too. Nancy R. Blakely presents this challenge, to understand the shepherd's life as "anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society." People would have felt "an edge" in Jesus' words, much as "polite society" today might react to his saying, "'I am the good migrant worker.'"
These words from Blakely will be good to remember next Sunday, May 6, when we will observe Immigrant Rights Sunday. The issue of immigrant rights in the United States is a controversial one, one that certainly unsettles us. It's understandable that we'd rather not talk about anything that might disturb the peace and quiet tranquility of our little flock, safely gathered behind our church doors. In this case, in particular, it may feel like too much of a challenge, even a risk, to shine the light of the gospel on our communal decisions about the rights and the very lives of immigrants to this country. How will we ever find a way to agree on these questions?
And yet, and yet...we are regularly reminded of the way Jesus was, the words Jesus spoke, the way Jesus behaved. Barbara Essex observes, like many scholars, that "Jesus did not exclude people based on the standards of the day." We know that, don't we, and yet it becomes tremendously challenging to apply those words and that openness when we encounter people today who are "other," whether we are shaping public policy or simply making room for people "not like us" in our congregations and neighborhoods.
An open-ended flock
Like Jesus, we are to provide a space where all are welcome. The flock is open-ended, not closed. Jesus owns up to having "others" that he cares about, too, and remembering that nurtures in us a whole new perspective on hospitality. It's more than a warm welcome to worship, and then a cup of coffee downstairs afterward (however good a warm welcome and a cup of coffee are). Deep hospitality is difficult; it tests us. It calls, even pushes, us out to our growing edges. In Barbara Brown Taylor's book, "An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith," she reflects on "encountering others" as a spiritual practice, and then she expands our understanding of hospitality to embrace not just "nice" visitors (like us, that is), but strangers, people not like us at all. That, after all, is the biblical thing to do, however "counterintuitive" love of the stranger may be in our fear-filled, insecure culture. Taylor reminds us of the scholarship of Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, who notes that we are commanded much more often (36 times to 1) to love the stranger than to love our neighbor (not that we do very well at either, alas).
Ironically (and here's a good thing to consider at our church meetings), we ourselves are "other," too, when we meet strangers. Taylor does a wonderful job at describing our tendency to be at the center of our awareness and to forget that other people are at the center of their own awareness, at the center of their own story; instead, we think of them as on the fringes of ours. (Taylor's book, by the way, is an outstanding one, very helpful as we understand the importance of spiritual formation in the life of faith.)
The margins of our horizons
In many ways, we're not living in the same situation as John's early community, but we still have to consider this question of "the other" and of being loved by God, and what it means to be a flock together, sharing the goods God provides to us all, not just to some of us. Stephen A. Cooper challenges us to consider, "Who are 'other' for us?" As just a beginning step, what might we learn by attending, say, once a month, a church very unlike our own? Would it build bridges, ease our anxiety, challenge our assumptions and prejudices? And then, what would happen if we reached out beyond the church walls, to communities very unlike our own? How is the good shepherd leading us on new paths of understanding, justice, and peace?
How can we consider a question like "Who are 'other' for us?" on Immigrant Rights Sunday, and hear about the Good Shepherd, and not think of those who feel outside the flock, who perhaps feel abandoned (at least, by us if not by God), but who are loved by God the Good Shepherd nevertheless? We may be afraid to wrestle with the issues around immigrant rights, but Barbara Essex reminds us that "In our moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community by offering an alternative to our fears, separation, and insecurities." There are alternatives to the suffering of immigrants, and alternatives to our fear. But first, we need to learn more about that suffering, and perhaps knowing more, and understanding more, will dispel our fearful reluctance to respond to this challenge.
Delle McCormick, a minister in the United Church of Christ, served as the executive director of Borderlinks, working in ministry with immigrants. In an email message, she told me that "Until we are willing to lay our lives down, literally and figuratively, for those who are lost in the desert, in our detention centers, and yes, in the legal system, in schools, even in our own 'back yards,' sheep will continue to be lost, and we will all suffer for it." Immigrant Rights Sunday, then, is a good time to learn about the ministry of the United Church of Christ, including the work of the Romero Center in southern California, around issues of immigrant rights. Now is the time to consider who is "other" for us, and who else is in this flock, enfolded in the love of God.
For Further Reflection
William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
Human unity is really less something we are called on to create than simply to recognize and make manifest.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, 20th century (Champion of the poor and prophet of peace and justice in El Salvador, he was fatally shot on March 24, 1980, while saying mass. He had just read from John's Gospel: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn. 12:23-26), and had preached about the need to give one's life for others as Christ did.)
A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed--what gospel is that?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
John O'Donohue, 20th century
The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.
Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden.
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You're welcome to use this resource in your congregation's Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.