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Over the next 6 weeks or so, we’re going to be looking at Jesus' “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. It’s a good place to be. “I want to know you” is a prayer that we sing. It’s a good prayer no matter what we think or believe about Jesus. I want to know you more. “To know Christ and to make him known” is a worthy mission statement for any of us. Paul put it like this concerning his own desire to know Jesus – “10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me.” (Phil 3:10-12) God grant that this may be our desire. We’ve talked about coming out of more than 2 years of pandemic times, and the need for the church to be evangelized – our own need to come face to face again and again with the good news of Jesus. Jesus makes 7 statements about himself, beginning with “I am” in John’s Gospel. We’re actually starting in the middle of them and we’re actually looking at two of them today. We’re in the realm of metaphor, which helps us understand something of truths which are, in the end, too marvellous for words. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. We’re in a land of sheepfolds and gates and shepherds and thieves and strangers. And sheep, of course. This passage speaks to something fundamental within each and every one of us. The desire to be loved. The desire to be cared for. The desire to be known and called by name. Jesus’ talk comes in answer to a question which arises in chapter 9 after a man who was born blind is given sight. This results in religious opposition both to the man and to Jesus. The question becomes, “Is Jesus from God or not?” In other words, is Jesus worthy of my attention and maybe even my full devotion? Or is Jesus not? It’s a question for each of us daily, and in our action or inaction, we answer it one way or another.
In his answer, we hear Jesus using metaphors and images which lead us deeper into truth about what it means to follow him. To follow Christ is to be in Christ. We are in him. It means that Christ is in us. This is a good place to start. Here are some words that I came across from Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest and chef from the U.S. - “WE are in him, and he is in us, and that is the whole thing. You don’t have to feel good about it, you don’t have to know good about it, you don’t have to be confident in any way about it. You just have to be; where you are, as you are, when you are. Which means dead wrong, totally despondent, totally confused, screwed up, and he has you.” Jesus has you. We don’t need to have had a lot of experience on a farm to get this image of Jesus as a shepherd. Listen to this verse from Isaiah (40:11) as the prophet speaks of God’s care:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
Isn’t that a beautiful image? The good shepherd can also be translated as the beautiful shepherd or the noble shepherd.
I do want to spend a little time talking about sheep and shepherds and sheepfolds. In Jesus’ day, sheep would be kept in a communal pen overnight. This would keep them safe from predators, sheep rustlers, and any other dangers. Sheep would come to know the sound of their shepherd’s voice. I remember my own country days when my father would raise animals. They knew his voice. The sheep would come over to the fence when they heard him call. They would come over to the fence for me too, but mainly I think, because they knew I was bringing them food and water (very much like now with the dog!). Here is another thing about sheep. In the ANE, sheep were not driven as we would consider cows being driven (no sheep-boys) or even guided from behind and sides by sheepdogs. Sheep are led by the shepherd from out in front. Here’s a picture of a shepherd that we saw during a trip to Israel some years ago.
He goes ahead of them, and the sheep know his voice. What a beautiful image for Christ. Our shepherd. “He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.” “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.” The other image that Jesus is using to describe himself is the gate. 7 So again, Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. In Jesus’ day, it was not so much a case of an inanimate gate as we would imagine. The shepherd would act as the gate, lying across the entrance to the sheepfold. The image of Jesus as a gate or an entryway is maybe not so compelling as the one of Jesus as our shepherd. We might think about it this way, as someone has put it – “But for someone seeking a way out of slavery or imprisonment, or for someone seeking entry to a place of well-being, there is nothing of greater interest. The door is the key, the beginning of greater life.” Jesus as the entryway to life! “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture.” Jesus is the one watching over our going out and coming in. These words suggest ease and freedom. Finding pasture suggests fundamental well-being and fulfillment.
There is much in this world that claims to bring life; much that makes claims on our ultimate allegiance. Things that actually sap the life right out of us or even destroy life.
What is our doorway to life? What is the thing or the place of the person on whom our very life rests? Remember the question with which we started. Is Jesus from God or not? Is Jesus worthy of our worship/trust/faith/love… or not? Are we listening for his voice? There are many other voices out there that claim to be worthy of our worship. A note of danger is introduced by Jesus as he talks about strangers, robbers, and thieves. Those things that would purport to be worthy of coming before him. While we were on vacation, Nicole and I saw a play at NOTL called “Everybody.” It was a play about death, which, as its description attested, ended up telling us much about life. It was based on a 16th-century morality play called “Everyman.” In it, the character of Everybody is told by Death that they are soon going to have to take a journey (with Death), at the end of which they are going to have to give an account of their life – explain why they lived the way that they did. Death tells Everybody that they can seek out someone to accompany them on this journey. It was amazing. As the play progresses, Everybody seeks out Friendship, Family, and Possessions. They were all played by actors. They all desert him. Toward the end of the play, an actor (at first, you think it’s an audience member) comes out of the crowd complaining that they are leaving. They don’t feel that they have been represented well or even at all in the play. This character is Love. The one character that will not desert Everybody when Death comes back (complete with trekking poles and clad in an Adidas tracksuit). The final scene has Death leading Everybody into a light-filled tunnel. Going with Everybody is a character on one side representing all the bad things they had done in their life. On the other side, holding Everybody’s hand is Love.
Our Good Shepherd. The one who loved us even to death. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We’re not used to such leaders, are we? We’re used to leaders who are in it for themselves. God keeps leaders from being in it for themselves, especially in the church. “The hired hand runs away because the hired hand does not care for the sheep.” I remember the character of Friendship telling Everybody in the play, “It’s so good to see you! Remember all those good times! Remember the photos we shared on social media of ourselves, our kids, and our pets! Remember sports! We had sports!” When asked to take that final journey, Friendship backs away. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with friendship. Without God, though, what does it amount to? What does anything amount to without God? Jesus is the one in whom God’s generosity is made known, giving even death a new outcome. Taking the thing that we fear most (apart from public speaking) and turning it into the place where divine love is revealed. Someone has put it like this: “…the death of Jesus, the divine good shepherd, is like a beacon which lights the human scene. And for all who accept it and who realize how deeply it speaks to their own experience and to their own ultimate fate, it becomes a profound bond of unity.” We were remembering and giving thanks for our brother Wally Snyder this past week. Remembering Wally’s quiet confidence. It was a quiet confidence rooted in the Good Shepherd, which meant that Wally could face any circumstance, knowing that his Good Shepherd is with him.
In our Good Shepherd, who holds us close to his chest, we have union with God. “I know my own, and they know me,” Jesus says, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” We’re used to leaders being distant and remote. This Good Shepherd who we follow is God in us, and we in God, and that is the whole thing.
As we finish, we see a widening of Jesus’ call. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So that there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The good news of the Good Shepherd would spread, of course, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. We would find unity in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit of God that transcended the things that would divide us. Jesus is still making the invitation, and it’s before us right now if we’ve never taken it. It’s before us right now to say, “I need you as my Good Shepherd.” To acknowledge Jesus as shepherd is to acknowledge ourselves as sheep, of course. This might not be seen as such a good thing, with the way insults like “sheeple” are thrown around. We’re not talking about following blindly, though, but trustingly. We’re talking about confessing that we have a need for a life-giving, light-giving, shepherd who calls us by name; who knows us; who loves us. I said we’d be talking about the deepest part of life, and it’s in our deepest questions that Jesus meets us. May we be coming to know him more over these weeks, and may this be true for us all.