Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Eastertide
The fourth Sunday in Eastertide is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” as the Gospel reading for the day is always one of the passages from the Gospel according to John in which Jesus uses language of sheep and shepherd to describe his work and ministry. It is comforting and assuring language—“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me [and] no one will snatch them out of my hand”—particularly when heard in light of the 23rd Psalm. Not that there is anything wrong with language of comfort and assurance. Quite the contrary, such language is very much a part of our biblical mother tongue, and while some of the more sentimental and pious paintings of Jesus as good shepherd might not be to my taste—the ones showing a very clean and happy good shepherd, carrying an equally clean and happy lamb—it remains such a good image.
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I love how Jenny Moore works with the image in her song “Bound Up,” a song she recorded for us several years ago, just prior to her move to England.
this flock is groaning something bad,
we’re so good at turning back
but we’ll be bound up,
we’ll be strengthened
we’ll all be fed and we’ll be found
this flock is hurting something bad
we’re wandering out in this barren land
hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
we’ll be found
Yet as comforting as it would have been for the disciples to hear Jesus speak of his sheep as being protected and as being already in the hand of the Father, as presented here in John the image moves well beyond themes of simple assurance.
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem,” John tells us, and he’s not just marking a time-line. “It was winter,” he continues, “and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” It was the festival of Dedication, or what in our time is called Hanukkah. This was the feast commemorating events from 165 B.C.E., when Judas Maccabeus led the Jewish revolutionary movement that rose up against an enemy occupation, reclaimed Jerusalem, and cleansed and rededicated the Temple. For the Jews of Jesus time the festival of Dedication held a very particular meaning, as less than 200 years later they were again living under enemy occupation. For some at least, marking this festival meant celebrating a hope that a similar revolution could be mounted to expel the occupying Roman army, and to reclaim Jerusalem and Judea as a free state.
Others, though, would have been more circumspect. The temple was still under Jewish control, and all of its practices were still in place. Maybe it was best to simply cooperate with the Romans and focus on matters religious? Not always an easy balance to maintain, but what were the real options when faced with the Roman military machine?
It is in this context that John tells us that, “[T]he Jews gathered around Jesus and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” One of the recurring issues in John’s story is the identity of those identified as “the Jews.” After all, Jesus is a Jew, as are all of his disciples. With the exception of those specifically identified as being otherwise—Samaritans or Romans, for instance—all of the other characters in these gospel narratives are Jewish. When John uses the term “the Jews” in this way, he’s really pointing to the Jewish leadership; the official temple leaders, certainly, but also the unofficial community leadership that has quite reasonably settled into a posture of careful cooperation with the Roman occupiers. The commentator John Marsh suggests that their question, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” might best be read as “How long will you vex, trouble, annoy us in this way?” You’re getting dangerously close to upsetting the delicate balance with the Romans, Jesus. You and your growing movement are going to attract attention, and that can’t be good for anyone…
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.’” There are two points of offense here, the first one more obvious than the second. He tells them that the works he is doing are in “my Father’s name,” by which he makes a claim about his relationship to God that makes their blood boil, but he also begins to invoke the language of shepherd and sheep. Though we may not recognize it right away, there was a long scriptural tradition of associating shepherd and king; the great King David, certainly, but the same image appears in the psalms and the writings of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Think about it for a minute. On a festival day that commemorates a revolutionary victory, in the temple that symbolized that victory, Jesus invokes imagery that has powerful associations with kingship… so tell us, Jesus, “How long will you vex, trouble, annoy us in this way?”
He gets more troublesome—much more troublesome—as he reaches his concluding statement that “The Father and I are one,” and had we read on just a bit further you would have heard that this statement is enough to cause his hostile audience to begin to pick up rocks with which to stone him to death. Yet as the gospel narrative rolls forward toward its culmination, and as Jesus continues to unveil the peculiar character of his shepherding kingship, it becomes clear that what should have most troubled them was not that he might be revolutionary claimant to the throne, nor that he held this unsettling theology of his kinship or “one-ship” with God. What should have really rattled them was the way in which Jesus radically redefined kingship. In Jesus, true kingship means self-giving love, servant-hood, deep friendship, and a willingness to lay down one’s life for others. His “sheep” embrace this vision, or at they do as best they can… but as N.T. Wright notes, “[M]any do not, because they are hell-bent on a vision of the ‘age to come’ which will be attained through the establishment of a worldly kingdom.” “In the first-century Jewish world,” Wright continues, “the phrase ‘eternal life’ meant primarily ‘the life of the coming age,’ the new age in which wrongs would be righted, sins forgiven and God would be all in all. That is what Jesus was claiming to offer.”
Back to Jenny Moore’s song for a minute. Her poetic assertion that “we’ll be bound up / we’ll be strengthened / we’ll all be fed and we’ll be found” in some real sense echoes Jesus’ words from today’s gospel that would have been most treasured by John and the other disciples, namely that “No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand.” Some days such things can seem a bold assertion of confident faith based in experiences of being loved and protected by our great good Shepherd; other days the words sound more like an expression of almost desperate hope, because on those days it might feel like we’re not being much “bound up,” protected, strengthened, fed and found.
That’s when it is crucial to remember how Jesus challenged his followers to be his Body; through deep friendship and mutual servant-hood to embody the presence of the shepherd king in the here and now; living already in the present “the life of the coming age.” Yes, Jesus promises that in this we’ll be accompanied by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, who will be for us comforter, advocate and guide. Yet all of those words remain thin if we imagine that it is all for my personal comfort, my personal growth… just me and my loving Good Shepherd. No, in this peculiar flock, the sheep are meant to learn from the Shepherd how to bind up broken hearts, how to seek out, find, support and strengthen one another.