Sermon Seeds: Enfolded by Love
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B
1 John 3:16-24
Enfolded by Love
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
As the early Christians strove to speak about Jesus, trying to make sense of the “why” of his 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 (which would, of course, include us today). Some of those images are familiar to us – for example, “the way, the truth, and the life,” which are perhaps a bit abstract, but today’s image, 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 important 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 faithful 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 is 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” (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
Perhaps, when we focus on pastors as shepherds, we fail to think of ourselves as the sheep, or to think 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 if this passage is read in context. The setting isn’t a nice, quiet 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 sheep respond 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” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). 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.
Perhaps 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 (our psalm reading from the lectionary on this Good Shepherd Sunday), but this time it’s applied not to Yahweh but to Jesus. Scott also translates the word for “good” (kalos) as “beautiful” or “ideal” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). 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?
Being enfolded in love by the Good Shepherd is an image of God’s love for Jesus and for us. Many commentators make this observation, but Scott Black Johnston puts it succinctly, that through the Incarnation, “God knows the people from up close.” 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 writes that we might even say that our shepherd “knows exactly what it is like to be a sheep, and by extension, what it is like to be snatched by the wolf” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). It isn’t such a reach, then, to understand Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”
Belonging to Jesus, and knowing him and being known by him, shapes us as a community of faith. In the United Church of Christ, we seek unity in essentials, but we realize that we all don’t believe exactly the same way (think of how your faith understanding has developed over a lifetime). Bernard Brandon Scott interprets this text as saying that it’s not doctrine that unites us but “God’s knowing us and being for us….God is for us. God’s knowing now transmutes, almost like a theme modulates in a piece of music, into ‘love'” (New Proclamation Year B 2006). This isn’t a personal, just-me-and-Jesus 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.” Just as there is no “separate singular form of the word sheep,” we are not separate from one another, but belong together, “with believers who break bread and recite prayers with us, and with those sheep whom Jesus knows and God sees, but whom we can scarcely bring ourselves to acknowledge and welcome, let alone live alongside or die to protect” (The Christian Century, April 21 2009).
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 that “doctrinal unity” that Scott mentions, 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, and that can 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. 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. Charles Cousar writes that this flock “is open-ended. There are always others who recognize the shepherd’s voice and enter the fold” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
So as comforting, even warm and fuzzy, as we’d like to think this image of the good shepherd is, it’s really quite unsettling. Jesus often unsettled his listeners, so he might as well unsettle us, too. Nancy R. Blakely draws this picture for us: “The life of a shepherd was 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.” So Jesus was offering a most unexpected image to the “nice” religious folks who must have been taken aback and quite uncomfortable with it, much as we modern-day folks might be surprised, Blakely writes, if Jesus claimed today to be “the good migrant worker” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Don’t we need to minister to “those” folks – rather than seeing them as the image of Jesus himself?
These words from Blakely are powerful in light of our nation’s ongoing debate (argument?) over immigration issues, often in a way that must grieve the heart of God and certainly unsettles us as people of faith. 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. It’s too much of a challenge to shine the light of the gospel on our communal decisions about the rights and the very lives of immigrants to this country.
And yet, and yet, we are regularly reminded that Jesus himself, the Good Shepherd, gathered up all of the sheep, the ones who were “already in,” and those pushed outside the flock, loving, healing, and feeding them tenderly. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is a model for our churches, and an inspiration for our vision of the wider community, especially a nation that welcomes “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (from the Statue of Liberty, by Emma Lazarus).
Like Jesus, we want 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 a cup of coffee downstairs afterward (although those are very good things). 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 she expands our understanding of hospitality as the biblical “love of stranger.” This may be “counterintuitive” in a culture that teaches us to fear the stranger, but “in that case scripture is unnatural. According to Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, ‘the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger.”‘”
The reality of any of God’s children as other than “other” is, ironically, a hard thing to grasp. After all, 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 forget that other people are at the center of their own awareness; instead, we think of them as on the fringes of ours.
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 “the other” are in our lives, in our churches and communities, and in the world: These “‘others’ are on the margins of our horizons, the horizons established through circumstance, habit, and counsels of prudence. The key point is that these ‘others’ are Christ’s sheep, just as we are, and they too recognize his voice” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
How can we read a question like “Who are ‘other’ for us?” 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, for example, around immigrant rights, but Barbara Essex reminds us that in our worst moments, “the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community by offering an alternative to our fears, separation, and insecurities” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). 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 for years as the executive director of Borderlinks, working in ministry with immigrants. In an email message, she observed: “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.” We might prefer to hear a nice, comforting message about how much Jesus loves each one of us little lambs, but we’re also called to model our ministry, our discipleship, on the example of Jesus himself. Now is the time to consider who is “other” for us, and who else is in this flock, enfolded in the love of God.
How does your church identify itself as Christian, by its beliefs or its practices or its history or just its name? Who are the “other sheep” that do not belong to the same “fold” that you belong to? Are there people who belong to no fold at all? Who and what are the thieves, bandits, strangers, and wolves that threaten you as a fold? What sort of “abundant life” does this “beautiful” shepherd bring to the life of your church? How does belonging to, and recognizing the voice of, Jesus and the Stillspeaking God, shape your life as a church, keep you together, guide you, and sustain you? How often do you feel that you fail to recognize the voice of the Stillspeaking God? How is that Stillspeaking God calling your church today? Whom is God calling you to enfold in love today?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, 20th century
“Nothing we can do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
God is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures;
and leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul.
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
my whole life long.
1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
“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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.