John 10:1-6; 11-16
On this 2nd Sunday of Lent we continue our reading of the “I AM” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The 1st 6 verses of chapter 10 introduce a shepherd metaphor comparing the true shepherd to those who would pretend to be. Notice that Jesus is speaking in 3rd person about the shepherd without yet identifying himself as the shepherd.
1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Here’s a Stoudt family secret. I have a unique talent, a whistle that only my immediate family recognizes. For decades, first with Lynn, then with Kate and Meg in their turn, and most recently with Burton and now grandson Will, when I whistle this secret whistle they turn and try to find me. Want to hear it? (whistle) It doesn’t matter where we are, or how crowded it is, when I whistle it they know I’m close by. Mostly it’s a game. A few years ago when the girls were little, we took them to Place d’Orleans to Christmas shop. I had gone off on my own; finally when I found them again, they were on the main floor in the middle of a Christmas rush and I saw them from upstairs. So I whistled, and instantly, as if on cue, all 3 of them turned and began scanning the mall to find me. And every time, when they do find me lurking close by, I laugh and they just shake their heads in pretend disgust. But occasionally it has served more serious purposes. Once downtown on Canada Day little Meg got separated from us, and in desperation I climbed up on the base of a light standard and whistled until she found me, and all was safe and secure again.
When I hear this illustration of Jesus, I’m reminded of that whistle – the sound of it like a shepherd’s voice, instantly recognizable, immediately reassuring, and all at once conveying that the one who cares for them is very near. The gospel-writer here wants us to trust in this quality of the shepherd … the essence of a relationship so intimate and familiar that when followers hear that voice, amid the many other voices out there (some of which are deceiving and threatening) … but when they hear that voice, they trust that all is well and life is good. The idea of a shepherd who is wholly honest and completely trustworthy, who comes openly, face to face, into our presence, not trying to sneak in the back way or slip over the fence behind our backs; these characteristics of the shepherd – integrity, honesty, transparency, openness – are what a solid faith relationship is built on.
But that kind of relationship rarely happens quickly or easily … it takes patience and persistence, and deepens over time … until it begins to feel like it’s always been there. And it happens not only one-on-one with the shepherd, but together in the sheepfold, in a faith community that is safe and secure. I can’t help but imagine that Jesus wants us to ponder who that shepherd is and how the community comes to trust in God’s promise that we are indeed cared for and encouraged by the one in whose name we gather. How will we know the shepherd, how will we recognize that voice, how will we trust this promise, how will we find the courage to follow the shepherd out of our safe and comfortable sheepfold and into a world in need? My guts tell me, the answer to all those questions is right here among us, who together reflect for each other Christ’s shepherd-like love.
And the gospel writer suggests that’s what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners, but they just didn’t understand … perhaps talking about the shepherd in 3rd person is just too vague. So Jesus decides to say it outright, in 1st person. Our gospel reading continues …
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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, one shepherd.
I AM the good shepherd. There – Jesus says it. It’s out in the open. Now what are we going to do with it? There are many ways to interpret this teaching as the gospel-writer portrays it, and what I’m about to suggest may not be exactly what other more learned scholars might see, but this past week I began to notice something here that I humbly offer for your consideration. And it all begins with the adjective “good.” After teaching about the shepherd earlier, when Jesus describes himself as the shepherd he adds “good.”
Now, the word “good” is almost always interpreted as the opposite of “bad.” And even here we may be quick to assume that’s the case. The shepherd is good especially when compared to the bad thief, the bad bandit, and the bad, uncaring hired hand. But what if we broadened our understanding of that word, and considered what Greek scholars observe that the original word is probably best translated “model” as in “role model.” What if Jesus was saying here, “I AM the model shepherd.”? For me it begins to broaden the possibilities of how the “model shepherd” affects our living faithfully today. When we imagine Jesus as our role model we begin to ponder how his way of living shapes our own.
The model shepherd cares so much for us that, when danger appears, he willingly risks even death to keep us safe … this is what Jesus claims – I AM willing to face death because I love you that deeply and profoundly. So even when others turn their back and run in the face of fear, I will never desert you, and I pray that will forever be what my death will mean to you. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, I AM with you. You are never alone. Thanks be to God!” Yet as profound a faith claim as that is for us who are followers of Jesus, it’s not the only message of God’s good news here. So Jesus repeats himself. Did you notice? A second time Jesus says, “I AM the model shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just at the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
As Molly described last week, the phrase I AM is how God is self-identified in the Hebrew bible. Similarly in the OT, God is understood as the ultimate model shepherd … just think of Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd.” So it strikes me that to have Jesus say I AM the model shepherd, he self-identifies with the Father … with God in two ways in one simple sentence. And just as Jesus chooses to live his life after his role model, God, the one he calls Father, so we choose to live our lives after Jesus, our model shepherd. This is Jesus’ invitation. This is your choice: To give yourself to this community of faith in a way that will encourage our OUC flock to model the qualities of the One who shepherds us. And in as much as we can live together with integrity, honesty, transparency, and openness … with patience, persistence, trust and care … with a spirit of sacrifice for the good of others and a willingness to offer God’s love to those who are not in our church family … to the degree that we are willing to risk our faith in these ways, we will honour the Spirit of Christ who is our model shepherd. May we find blessing as we pursue it.
Orleans United Church