The Big Picture

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On October 9, 2022, we spent some time thinking about what makes Jesus a shepherd, or a “good shepherd”, or even “The good shepherd.”  Our scripture references included John 10:11-18 and Zephaniah 3:14-20.

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I suspect you’ve heard some variation of this old chestnut: it’s the start of another day in heaven, and, as usual, Saint Peter is showing the new folks around.  In addition to the streets paved with gold, there are all kinds of fancy buildings, many reverberating with amazing music.  The group passes one Cathedral, and Peter says, “Yep, that’d be the Anglicans and their choir.”  Later on there’s a large, boxy-looking structure, and the saint remarks over the guitar music, “That’s where a lot of our non-denominational folks wind up.”  As they come up on a stately brick building, St. Peter says, “OK, now I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet, and take off your shoes and tiptoe past this place.”  One of the new residents asks, “Why? Is there something wrong?” And Peter says simply, “No, not at all.  It’s just that’s where the Presbyterians are, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

I want you to think about that, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.  For now, we are continuing with our exploration of the “I Am” teachings of Jesus as found in John’s Gospel.  Today, we are tuning in to the second half of a conversation that began last week. I hope you remember the narrative about the sheepfold, the bandits, the gatekeepers, the sheep, and Jesus’ announcement, “I am the gate”.

In what appears to be the same conversation, Jesus dives even more deeply into the imagery of the barnyard.  Whereas a few moments ago he said that he was the gate, now he’s shifted to saying that he’s the shepherd.  We know from our reading last week that in Jesus’ mind (and in the experience of his hearers), a shepherd cares for the sheep and is in some sort of intentional relationship with them.

Yet as he continues this conversation, Jesus adds an adjective.  He says that he is a “good” shepherd.  Three times he uses this word – in Greek, it’s kalos – to describe himself.

In English, the word “good” is often pretty meaningless, or at least benign.  “Hey, did you see that new Top Gun movie?  How was it?”  “Oh, well, good, I guess.”  Or when you’re asked to evaluate a new recipe, and you say, “I dunno… it’s good, I guess…”  “Good” often means “OK” in our world.

But kalos implies that there is something beautiful or attractive about the noun that it modifies; it’s a way of saying that the person or thing is useful or competent; and it also suggests that a “good” person is one who is ethically and morally admirable.  So in calling himself a “good shepherd”, Jesus is claiming not only competence, but that he is pleasing and also worthy of emulation.

But that’s not all!  In John 10, Jesus doesn’t say that he is merely a “shepherd” or even a “good shepherd”.  Twice, he explicitly says that he is “THE good shepherd.”

Again, his hearers, steeped as they were in the writings of the Old Testament, would recognize the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep.  Perhaps their thoughts would have drifted to Psalm 23, which as you all know, begins with the words, “The LORD is my shepherd…”

So if we combine Jesus’ evocation of scriptures like Psalm 23 with the red flag he waved by saying the words “I Am” in a context like this, we can assume that he was looking for a reaction.  After all, if you remember the conversation we had about the fact that “I am” is not merely a self-description, but rather a use of the Divine Name, then you can probably guess that beginning with “I am” and following that up with “the good shepherd”, well, that’s like a daily double.

And if people like you and me can hear it that way as we sit in Pittsburgh in 2022, I’m here to tell you that it goes even deeper than that.  Sure, we might remember Psalm 23, but can you call up anything from Ezekiel 34?  Jesus’ audience would have had that passage at the front of their minds.  This book of prophecy, written about six hundred years before Jesus, contains within it a scathing judgment on the leaders of Israel (both religious and political).  The prophet refers to these leaders as shepherds who are willing to eat the meat and use the wool of the sheep, but who are not interested at all in feeding or caring for the flock.  They are accused of failing to protect their animals, of trampling the good grass before the flock can even eat, and of fouling the clean water before their charges can take a drink.  Ezekiel paints a portrait of these “shepherds” as being arrogant, selfish, jerks who are unfit to lead in God’s name.

So, stepping back a moment, we have Jesus, teaching in the presence of the recognized religious leaders of his day.  He’s started out by talking about sheep and shepherds, and then announcing that he, of all people, is The Good Shepherd.  To say the very least, that would have ruffled a few feathers!  It was heard as both a criticism of the current religious climate and a claim to divinity and authority for himself.

So what, exactly, does the Good Shepherd do?  In the passage at hand, Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand.  When the sheep face danger, the Good Shepherd intervenes to the point of laying down his life for the flock.  The hired help, however, is heard to mutter “I don’t get paid enough for this!” as he abandons the sheep and flees.

In each of our “I Am” statements, and of course in Exodus 3 where God reveals that name to Moses, we have heard that central to Jesus’ understanding of himself and the role to which he has been called is the idea of a relationship characterized by love.  You heard him! Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me.”  What a stark contrast to the hired hand, with whom everything is transactional, as opposed to relational.

But sometimes, we allow ourselves to get so familiar with the words that we don’t really hear what they’re saying.  When you heard, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep”, maybe you reflected on another well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  And we hear these verses, and we say, “Oh, yes.  Thank you.  I see, now.  Praise the Lord!  Jesus came and lived and died so that people who believe in him can get to heaven.  I know I’m a sinner, but if I pray to God and believe in Jesus, then I’ll be saved.  Jesus came so that I (and people like me) can get to heaven.  Jesus paid it all.  Alleluia! Amen!”

And yet if we follow that line of thinking – which is very seductive, I must say – we see that the goodness and relationship with which we started has gradually become refined and massaged and processed and interpreted so that it is no longer primarily relational, but transactional!  If we live into this interpretation of Jesus’ person and work, we fall back into a transactional way of thinking: Jesus came to get sorry people like me into heaven forever.  The purpose of Jesus was to save me from Hell.

Oh, beloved! How short-sighted! How limiting!

I say that because in his very next breath Jesus says, “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, and one shepherd.”

Now wait a second, Jesus!  Who are these other sheep?  Are you talking about the Gentiles?  Are you talking about people of other faiths, or perhaps even people of no faith?  He doesn’t say.  He does, however, use the present tense – “I have” these sheep, and I “must bring’ them.  To me, that indicates not some future ideal, but the reality of the present time.

And if that’s true, then I cannot say that the only reason that Jesus came was to save my broken-down self from eternal torment.  It’s bigger, and better, than this!

Jesus is the person, the relationship through whom God invites all of creation to come back home.  These sentences point to a vision of restoration, healing, and completeness that is not merely for people whom I like or with whose ideas I happen to agree, but for the entire creation.

I hope you heard that come through in the reading from Zephaniah, and I’m here to tell you that you can find it through Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Hosea, or any of the rest of the prophets.  God’s idea is to remove shame, to end isolation, and to bring liberation to those who are oppressed.  That theme is the bread and butter of the prophets.  And here in John 10, Jesus says that he is the means that God is using to call all of the sheep to the safety of home.  The strategy that Jesus either uses or embodies is invitational in nature: he invites us to walk with him in vulnerability, risk, trust, and community.

And so with that in mind, our calling is to avoid the narrow-mindedness of the people who think that Jesus is only for them and instead to think of God as imaginative, creative, inventive, and welcoming.  We are invited to ask “Why not?” more than we stammer “How come…”

Of course we testify to what we know about God and Christ, and we are called to point to the places where we have seen and felt the Holy.  Yet we dare not presume that the places wherein we’ve encountered Jesus are the only places that Jesus has been.  We can’t say that the people with whom we’ve seen him are the only ones to whom he has reached.  We must remember that the ways that we have come to know him are not the only ways in which he might be known.  To go back to that old story at the beginning of this message, we dare not pretend that we’re the only ones in whom Jesus is interested.

Let us trust this Good Shepherd – the One who calls to us in a voice that we recognize – to bring us and all creation home again.  More than that, let us commit to moving through the world as he did: in trust, hope, vulnerability, and community.  Thanks be to God who has given us such a Shepherd!  Amen.

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