This Fourth Sunday of Easter is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday because the Collect of the Day and the appointed readings always hone in on this theme. “I am the good shepherd.” This certainly is one of the most beloved, comforting images of Jesus and God’s presence in our lives. Most of us have never met a shepherd, yet still we have an intuitive understanding the idea conveys care, healing, guidance, and protection. We can say the 23rd Psalm by heart and when as a child we went to Sunday School we learned the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 in order to find the one lost sheep. Today ought to be one of the most comforting Sundays in the church year.The readings offer anything but. Right after Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” he says “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Then he talks about hired hands who run away at the first sign of trouble and a wolf who scatters the flock and picks off the stray. His words cast a deep shadow on what we might have thought would be a joyful and reassuring day.
The context of John’s gospel helps us to understand what is going on. In chapter 9 Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His followers want to know if the man is blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned. Jesus tells them he is blind so that all might see the work of God. Jesus then rubs some mud in his eyes and sends him to a pool to wash. Once he does the blind man is able to see. Jesus heals him and in so doing creates a firestorm. The Pharisees demand to know what has happened and interrogate the man. They question his parents. They insist Jesus cannot heal because he is a sinner. The man tells them, “I don’t know if he is a sinner or not, but one thing I do know is I was blind and now I can see.” For his testimony, the Pharisees put him out of the synagogue, banishing him from the religious community.
Just like a musical such as Hamilton has a historic setting but speaks to contemporary issues, John’s gospel takes incidents from Jesus’ ministry and shapes them to say something important to the original readers. For several decades these first readers have been followers of Jesus while remaining in the Jewish faith and adhering to its customs. Friction develops over time and eventually believers are cast out of local synagogues and ostracized in the community. They struggle to understand who they are if they are not a part of the religious tradition. As John tells the story, Jesus says they are the ones who can see, while the spiritual leaders who have cast them out are the ones who are blind.
And then in chapter 10, Jesus tells them, “I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life for you. These other leaders are just hired hands or worse, they are wolves. I am your good shepherd.” Who are those believers who have been barred from the Synagogue? They are the ones for whom Jesus laid down his life. They are his sheep. His flock. They are God’s children.
Jesus then tells his followers he has other sheep not yet in the fold he must gather so there will be one flock under the care of one shepherd. Perhaps one of the sheep not yet in the flock is Matt, a self-professed unbeliever. In his book lies we believe about God, Paul Young (the author of The Shack) recounts a conversation he once had with Matt. He asks Matt what he believes.
“You want to know what I believe in? Most people want to talk to me about what I don’t believe in. Let me think.” [Matt] paused before answering. “I believe in the way I love my children. Paul, I didn’t know I had the capacity to love like this until I had my own children. Without question I would step in front of a bullet for them, or take their hurts to myself if I could.”
“So, Matt, you obviously aren’t talking about romantic love. Would it be accurate to describe this love you believe in as other-centered, self-giving?”
“That is exactly what it is.”
We talked for the better part of an hour. Turns out Matt not only believes in Love, but in Life and in Truth. Not bad for an unbeliever.
We Christians sometimes get caught up in who is “in” and who is not, as if Jesus’ shepherd-like care is available only to those who have the right creedal faith and doctrine. But when we read the gospels we find Jesus’ love is much, much, much more expansive and inclusive than we imagine. In fact, the people with whom Jesus consistently tangles are those who hold God’s love is limited and offered only to the people who “deserve” it, either by heritage or adherence to specific religious customs.
Peter certainly comes to understand this. When he witnesses the Holy Spirit fall on Cornelius and his household (an event referred to as the Gentile Pentecost) he says, “in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” (Acts 10:35) This certainly sounds radically inclusive to me. It suggests to me there are plenty of people like Matt who consider themselves to be unbelievers, but in reality they are a part of Jesus’ flock. They just don’t know it. And there are scores of people who follow another religious tradition, but by all accounts fear God and do what is right. Jesus the good shepherd is the one whose life embodies other-centered, self-giving love. Every person in any nation who manifests this love is a welcomed and valued member of Jesus’ flock.
This morning, as we baptize James and Finley, we recognize God’s other-centered and self-giving love abides in us. As we listen to the vows made by the parents and sponsors we remember the shepherd-like care we received from our parents and we extended to our children. We acknowledge all of it is possible only because God loves us first, because God cares for us as a shepherd cares for the sheep. As we bask in this care we extend it to our family and loved ones and friends. We learn to offer it to the people of our community, to strangers, and to the world. We look forward to the day when there will be one flock under the care of one shepherd.