The fourth Sunday in Easter is often known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, since in each year of the Lectionary cycle the Gospel Lesson comes from John Chapter 10, and Psalm 23 is the Psalter reading: “ I am the Good Shepherd…….. “ “The Lord is my Shepherd……..” Even the reading from the Revelation used on these occasions talks about Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Shepherd, who leads his flock to “springs of living water and wipes away all tears from their eyes.” It’s a wonderful picture isn’t it? Idyllic!
I guess there’s no passage that is so well known in the Scriptures as Psalm 23! Rufus Jones in “He Babbled of Green Fields” says: “Nothing else that was ever written has been known by heart by as many persons as has this Psalm. Every Jewish child can recite it. It is familiar to all well nurtured Christian children. It is one of the finest treasures imparted to the children in mission stations in all lands around the globe. You may hear children in Sri Lanka recite it. You may hear it in the Bure’s of the Fijian Isles. You can hear the children in Korea and Patagonia saying it. Whether it is the most perfect creation or not, it is the best loved poem ever written.” A bit effusive, but still containing a strong element of truth!
The Shepherd– a favourite metaphor for God in the First Testament– no wonder it was chosen by the Gospel writers as an image for Jesus. “I am the Good Shepherd” the saviour of the Lost Sheep. We’ve all seen it immortalised in stained glass – the serene, blonde, Aryan Jesus, richly dressed in colourful robes, clutching a lamb to his breast! Definitely “one of us!”
But if you look at what follows our reading from John 10 today there seems to be little of the tranquillity, the peace, the loving care we associate with the “Good Shepherd” image! Rather there’s controversy – a challenging, an antagonism, a threat of both verbal and physical abuse! In the world in which we live today it sounds all too frighteningly familiar!
“I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus says, “I willingly lay down my life for the sheep…..I know my sheep and they know me….there are other sheep not in this sheepfold, I must bring them too ….and there will be one flock and one shepherd. This is what my Father has commanded me to do …. I and the Father are one.”
The euphoric language of the Johannine Jesus – beautiful isn’t it? And yes, there IS a message here - a message of peace, a promise of loving care, an acceptance of the outsider, a call for unity. The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. BUT how did his listeners react? Some said “He’s possessed!” Others “He’s nuts!” And still others took up stones to stone him saying: “It’s blasphemy! He’s trying to make himself equal with God!!”
Here’s the real world! Forget the lovely language, the pious words, the picturesque imagery…this controversy between Jesus and the Jewish authorities is a clash of irreconcilable beliefs. And isn’t that one of the most difficult tasks we face in our relationship with others today? Conversing with and convincing people whose views are diametrically opposed to, or different from, our own? It may be Labour trying to dialogue with National. Progressive Christians trying to dialogue with so called Evangelical Christians. Christians trying to dialogue with Muslims. Sunni trying to dialogue with Shi’ite. Maori trying to dialogue with Pakeha ……. Whoever or Whatever!!!! And because of the values and beliefs we hold we feel drawn to one group or another….drawn to those with whom we have a close affiliation. In some cases it is racial or cultural affiliation, in others a religious one, and in still others a political or social one. Among those “like us” we feel a kinship, a bonding, a sense of belonging. But there’s a danger in this – this sense of belonging also establishes the boundaries of who is “One with us” and who is “the other”, who is “inside” and who is “outside”, who is “valued” and who is “marginalised, less important and unworthy.”
We have many vivid memories of this attitude when we lived in Rhodesia in the 1960’s. At one time the Post Office in Zvishavane was divided into two parts – a section where whites were served, and a section for blacks. Whites were always served first – well they were being served by whites! Non-whites often waited for hours/a long time to be served. In about 1956 a new policy was introduced – Post Offices became “integrated”; partitions came down and we all had the privilege of standing in the same queue I remember my first visit to the newly Integrated Post Office. The queue was long – there were two Africans standing in front of me – and as I approached the counter the white postal assistant looked right over the heads of the two people in front of me – completely ignoring their presence – and with a smile asked me “Can I help you?” Those “like us” – it’s all about “insiders” and “outsiders” isn’t it?. Identifying those who are the same as us – and those who are “the other.”
That’s what’s happening in our reading today! The Jewish authorities saw Jesus as coming from a totally different theological perspective from themselves – he had become a threat! And that was enough to place him “outside” the group. No matter what he said – no matter what argument he gave – he could not be accepted. He was “the outsider” – “the other!” When a little later the Pharisees ask Jesus again if he is the Christ – the Messiah – Jesus says: “I told you and you did not believe – because you do not belong to my flock.” Jesus is facing hard reality….. they do not want to have anything to do with him – in fact there is an element of enmity – of bitterness – of hatred here!
Marion and I were back in NZ for the 1997 Methodist Conference in Wellington. The big question at that Conference was whether the Methodist Church would accept Gay and Lesbian Presbyters into full Connexion. The saddest thing for me was that as the Conference debated the various issues a “them” and “us” mentality emerged. People who had for years been friends and colleagues found it increasingly difficult to communicate. Barriers were set up – there was enmity, bitterness – even hatred! I remember at a Morning tea approaching a group that contained several Presbyters who had been at College with me – when I joined the group everyone fell silent – I immediately felt unwelcome – an unwanted outsider – the “other!” Difficult isn’t it?
How does Jesus deal with this? I think he realises that nothing is going to be changed by verbal dialogue! There have already been so many words! But what about Works – his actions. Doesn’t the old adage say “Actions speak louder than words?” As his critics condemn him, some onlookers are saying “But how could a demon possessed person give sight to a blind man?” And when they go to stone him in the Temple Jesus himself says: “I have shown you many good works from the Father – for which of these do you wish to stone me?”
Can we change people’s attitudes, break down barriers, reconcile “us” and “them? We know that in Jesus’ case, no amount of reasoning, no amount of good works was going to change the minds of those opposed to him – there were too many other issues at play here! BUT in our case?
I actually believe that we can change attitudes, and break down the barriers that separate us if we follow Jesus’ teachings in our daily lives: Love for enemies, doing good to those who spitefully use us, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, accepting the outcast, sharing what we have with those in need..These are very powerful tools in our relationships with other people, regardless of their race, colour, culture, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
In March the World Council of Churches held its Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Tanzania – more than 1,000 gathered from different Christian traditions around the world. The Conference ended with a call to Discipleship: “We are called as Disciples to belong together in a just and inclusive community, which challenges elitism, privilege, personal and structural power…” the CWMR statement says. “Discipleship will only take place when we intentionally and sacrificially live every moment of our lives committed to following Jesus.”
“I am the Good Shepherd”, Jesus said. “I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to lay down my life for the sheep. There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheepfold, I must bring them too; they will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” AMEN.