United Church of Christ

Love in Truth and Action

Sunday, April 22
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

Focus Theme:
Love in Truth and Action

Focus Prayer:
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.-

Focus Reading:
John 10:11-18

"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:
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

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 Matthews

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?

Pastors as shepherds

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." (See the reflection quote below from Archbishop Oscar Romero, who remained with his "flock" in El Salvador, and laid down his life, as Jesus said.)

Intimate not sentimental

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 quickly 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.

Responding to the shepherd's call

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."

Visitors to the Middle East see this even today, as the sheep are herded through passage ways and recognize--know--the voice of the particular 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.

The beautiful shepherd

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."

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?

Enfolded in God's love

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." It isn't such a reach, then, to understand Jesus as the "Lamb of God," who laid down his life for us.

We belong to Jesus

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 own 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.'"

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 believers are not separate from one another, but belong together, we share a life together, in worship and witness--and not just with folks who are like us, folks we're comfortable with, but "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."

Making room for others

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'tàor 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 calls this flock "open-ended," because we're not the only ones who know Jesus and his voice.

An unsettling image of comfort

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 reminds us not to paint a rosy picture of the shepherd's life, which 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." Don't we see ourselves as needing to "minister to those folks"--rather than seeing them as the image of Jesus himself?

More timely than ever

These words from Blakely are powerful in light of our nation's current debate (argument?) over immigration issues, often in a way that must grieve the heart of God and certainly unsettles us as people of faith. More than ever in recent history, immigrants are being seen as "other"--as a problem rather than a gift, a threat rather than an opportunity to extend hospitality and generosity.

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, along with their children, who come to our land with so much hope.

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, words by Emma Lazarus).

An open-ended flock

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.

Years ago, I encountered words that appalled me: "When an unsaved person visits a church and feels at home," according to this anonymous source, "something is wrong with that church." How could this claim ever be reconciled with these words of Jesus? Is the world divided into two kinds of sheep, saved and unsaved? Is the church a safe and comfortable "home" for the saved ones only?

Is this system of belief, and way of being church, perhaps more at work than we would like to admit, in the life of our congregations? Perhaps sharing this statement would be a good point of reflection and discussion before a church's board meeting, or strategic planning committee, or worship committee.

Encountering one another

Barbara Brown Taylor 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. And too often, they remain "on the fringes" of our church's awareness.

What does it mean to be a flock?

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."

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."

Alternatives to suffering

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. While this is a highly charged political issue today, we also acknowledge the voices of Christians as leaders in our culture, and so it is imperative that we listen for the guidance of Jesus, the Good Shepherd himself, when claiming to speak from the perspective of the gospel.

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."

Are we truly a sanctuary?

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. This is not a brand-new challenge for the church, which claims the name "sanctuary" and yet often offers little safe haven for those fleeing injustice and persecution, deprivation and danger.

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 gentle, shepherd God? How is that tender, loving God calling your church today? Whom is God calling you to enfold in love today? How do you express and embody God's love, in what you believe, and what you do?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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 in the comments 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."

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