John 10.11-21: A Sermon

I get to preach on this text before most other people, by virtue of my being at Whitley College today for their weekly worship service.  So, for what it is worth:

John 10.11-21

The statue is of a young man with tight curly hair.  Across his chest is a leather strap and attached to the strap is a bag, containing some food perhaps, for a long day spent at work in the sun, or perhaps a few stones to be thrown at animals who get too close.  Across his broad shoulders he carries a lamb, lost perhaps, or maybe injured or perhaps even on its way to slaughter.  The statue speaks of strength, care, protection, youthful virility, masculinity – perhaps this young man is special.  He is certainly beautiful. Perhaps he is a king, perhaps he is a God.

You can see the statue in numerous museums of classical civilization in Greece.  It is a statue of the god Hermes.  You can also see a version in the Vatican museum, only there the powerful, youthful, noble shepherd-king is called Jesus.

The picture is, strangely, set on the banks of a meandering river with gentle hills in the background.  The man stands firm and tall, holding his staff and gazing into middle distance.  He seems to be watching, waiting, but above all he seems to be in total control of his surroundings, not least of the 10 sheep that graze the rich lush grass around his feet.  The picture speaks of peace, calm, provision, safety and above all of unreality.  You can buy the picture, entitled ‘The Good Shepherd’ by Greg Olson, from http://picturesofjesus4you.com.  I would especially recommend the 15×19 gold framed edition, yours for only $299 (US)

The story is of a young man who after the suicide of his father enters a life of privileged education within American society and soon is head hunted as one of the brightest and best of his generation by the post war secret service.  This is a man of honor and discretion who, as time goes on, finds his ideals compromised, his paranoia growing and his distrust of all around him complete. For Edward Wilson, now the head of CIA covert operations, there is only one thing that drives him: he must protect and serve the interests of his country, no matter what the the cost, what the sacrifice paid.  The film is entitled ‘The Good Shepherd’

These various manifestations of the Good Shepherd industry are intentionally designed to generate certain feelings in us.  The pictures, statues, films, as well as the sermons, articles, poetry that use this central biblical motif, derived from John 10, all hope to make us feel that, with Jesus there is a certain degree of assurance, of safety, of comfort, of guidance.  The good shepherd loves his sheep.  The good shepherd makes the ultimate sacrifice of a noble death on behalf of his sheep.  The good shepherd has the kind of intimate relationship with his sheep that comes from years of loving and caring for them.  He knows them by name.  They are his.  They are united in their love for him and in their willingness to listen to his voice and to be obedient to his command.

And there is much in all of that, that is good and true and comforting and…well, gospel.  But there is something missing, something glaringly obvious to anyone who reads the Johannine text beyond the limits set for us by the lectionary, which ends at v18.

Jesus’ words, as they are spoken here, bring neither comfort nor consolation.  His audience feel neither assured or protected.  What they feel is divided – the Greek of v19 makes it emphatically clear.  Its first word is schisma and it goes on to describe how, for some in the audience Jesus’ words could be understood to be fundamentally demonic in their origin or orientation, while others detect within them a power that offers a certain clarity with which to see the world.

How can this be?  How can an image that in most of Christian history has been used to make us feel better, here makes people angry?  How can words that have traditionally brought comfort to the hurting, the lonely, the scared, the grieving be the source of conflict and hostility within the people of God?  How is it that we have taken a metaphor that seems to belong to the dirty, dangerous world of Jesus and his relationship with his fellow Jews, and have relegated it to the platitudes of conventional piety, and frozen it in our icy panes of stained glass?

Could it be because the force and focus of this image, as Jesus uses it hear, still has the potential to ask us the deepest and most searching questions of all, and to consider the possibility that the answers are not what we expected.

For example:

1.  What is God like?  It seems clear that this text addresses this question in the only way that the fourth gospel knows how – by inviting us to consider the words and work of Jesus.  v11 begins with the phrase so well known from the OT ego eimi.  Not so much an evocation of Exodus perhaps, as of 2nd Isaiah a text which is above all about the revelation of the identity of Israel’s God in the last days.
I am he.
    Before me no god was formed,
        nor shall there be any after me.
     I, I am the LORD,
        and besides me there is no savior.
In Jewish tradition, of course, it is God who is often portrayed as the shepherd of the sheep, the one who seeks the lost, the one who cares and provides for his people, and who raises up leaders to guide them, and kings to rule over them.  In evoking these OT traditions. Jesus seems to be telling us what God is like.

2.  What kind of leadership does Israel need?  Commentators are agreed that the Johannine text betrays the clear anxiety of influence of Ezekiel 34 where God denounces wicked shepherds, who, like the hired hand of Jesus’ re-telling care nothing for the sheep and who through a combination of neglect and malice leave the people of God vulnerable to predators.  God the shepherd of his people, anoints and appoints rulers over his people – but those leaders are open to judgement.

These kinds of questions are surely the questions for those who study theology and who prepare for ministry among the people of God.  A friend of mine says that there are really only two questions in theology: what kind of God, and so what.  And across every conceivable theological education institution, whether in the UK or Australia, Baptist or Uniting church, the issue is about leadership for tomorrow’s church.  Frankly, if you are here today, and these two questions are not the all consuming questions of your life and work, you may as well go and do something else.

No the questions, the questions here in the background of this text and the foreground of our own lives are real.  The division comes when we try to answer them.

Because we want God and our leaders to conform to our expectations of what a good shepherd should be, and those expectations are rooted fundamentally in our own need.  We feel uncertain…we want God and our leaders to provide us with assurance and certainty.  We feel unsafe…we want God and our leaders to protect us, to build a clear wall between us and that which threatens us…to act as the spiritual buffer zone, to do the tough work so we don’t have to.  We feel lost, so we want God and our leaders to show us the way, to walk the path ahead of us and to beckon us to follow, grazing all the way.  All of these needs, the desires that they give rise to and the portraits of God and God’s anointed servants that meet them can be found in our tradition, our prayers and even in our sacred texts.

But in this text one thing stands out, and it is the thing that reminds us that in the end the Christian gospel is not about meeting our n
eeds, fulfilling our desires or even in the final analysis of giving us a path.

You see…he dies.  The Shepherd here dies and thereby generates a fundamental problem.  A dead shepherd can’t do any of those things, can’t protect us, care for us, lead us, guide us.  And yet, we are invited in this passage to believe that somehow, in laying down his life, in leaving us alone and abandoned, lost and confused, the Shepherd is somehow acting for us, for the sheep, for our well being, our healing, our wholeness, our salvation.

That is the answer which will always divide us, but it is the answer that the gospel gives.  This is the last of Jesus’ public speeches in the gospel. In a little while he will spend 4 chapters trying to get the disciples to see that to follow him they must above all get used to his not being with the…with his absence.  And after that we are invited to look at the body of a dead man hanging on the tree and to dare to believe the scandalous truth of the gospel – namely that that is what God is like, and that is what leadership of the people of God looks like: true kingship takes the form not of the strong virile, shepherd king, but of the crucified one.

Now I know that there is resurrection.  And I know that there are other aspects to this story.  But the rush to answer our questions: what os God like, and what kind of leaders does God want, the rush that takes us too easily, too quickly, to Jesus in the garden or by the lake, lifting the downhearted, speaking Mary’s name, restoring Peter to fellowship may well mean that the Good Shepherd that we seek and look for and follow is a Shepherd made in the image of some very needy sheep.  The result is a theology of glory – the search for a God who will do what we need, when we need it.  This is the theology and this the form of leadership and Christian ministry that for many, perhaps for the majority, makes sense, wins an audience, and leads to healthy, effective churches.  Yet, as Martin Luther once stated, a theology of glory will always try to call evil good and good evil (he has a demon, some of them said) whereas a theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

So in our theology, we will want always to insist that what we can hope to know of God is the result of looking at Jesus: the Son who exegetes the Father.  And in looking at Jesus as the revelation of God we will constantly need reminding that the deepest questions, and the most difficult answers will always revolve around the cross what what it means for our context.

And in our ministry, our leadership, we will always need to be reminded that we are open to judgement, accountable for what we do and say on behalf of God’s people.  As the apostle Paul knew, gospel ministry is cruciform in shape and character.  And that might mean that we refuse the option of treating God’s people as sheep, even as we believe we are called to be shepherds. It might mean continual attention to those who are not of the sheep fold.  It will always mean being prepared to give your life to this thing that God has called us to do.

‘I lay down my life for the sheep’…thankfully, throughout its history. the church has retained a more authentic record of portraying that great truth.  In statues and images, sermons and poems that speak of the glory-crucifixion as that which shapes theology and ministry, and which ultimately offers to us and to the world the promise of God’s life.

May God open our eyes to see.  Amen.

n.b.: I have deliberately chosen to go beyond the boundary of the lectuonary reading to include vv19-21 which seem to me to be essential to understanding the rhetorical force of this discourse within the Johannine narrative.