Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30
I don’t need to remind you that we are in the midst of and enduring an age of extreme divisiveness in our nation and in our world. As has been the case for so much of human history, these divisions occur in relation to all manner of issues and they have many causes and sources. In the past several days, abortion has again risen to the forefront of our divisions, a painful coincidence on Mother’s Day. But notable and related is also the division among people because of religion.
Take the case of religiously motivated hatred of Judaism and Jewish people. Reported cases of antisemitism have increased dramatically in recent months according to reporting in the New York Times.
So it is that John’s reporting of what Jesus said in the gospel of John about the Jewish people, some of which we heard in today’s reading, lands with an unnerving thud in our midst today. In today’s gospel reading, John reports the Jewish religious leaders enquired of Jesus about whether or not he was the expected Messiah. Jesus answered, according to John, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
Then John reports that Jesus elaborated in this way – and these are the words that sting: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
You don’t belong are some of the worst words a human being can hear. Despite our individualistic bents, particularly in Western societies, human beings are social animals and we long to belong.
To be told that you don’t belong is horrible. Moreover, excluding others has historically been the excuse to vilify, dehumanize, enslave and kill others. Exclusion is a source of genocide.
In the first century, there was significant religious controversy when John’s gospel was compiled, a controversy between leaders of Judaism and what was emerging as Christianity. Alas, John’s gospel is filled with polemical references to this controversy. Today’s gospel passage gives expression to that controversy.
And given the divisiveness of our age and the re-emergence of both anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism in our day, I simply cannot pass over the difficulties with today’s texts. Nor do I wish to get hung up on them.
We, in our day, are called to fight against texts like those from John from being misused and abused in the service of antisemitism. Indeed, our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has worked hard at limiting such negative effects in the Christian scriptures even as we have repudiated Martin Luther’s own anti-Jewish writings.
So, in service of seeking greater harmony among religions and among peoples, but also in the service of actually preaching the gospel, let me explore with you what it might mean to belong to Jesus’ sheep, especially on this Fourth Sunday after Easter which is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
What Jesus promises to those who belong is lovely and compelling. Listen again to how John gives voice to Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand….” How beautiful.
And we as tolerant, loving people want this blessing for everyone, don’t we? Perhaps especially those of Jesus’ own religious heritage. We don’t want the Jewish people excluded from the benefits and blessings which come with belonging to Christ.
But a sense of belonging to Christ that focuses only on privileged blessing to the exclusion of those who don’t belong is driven by what I believe are some problematic theological preoccupations common among popular appropriations of the Christian tradition.
It’s common, for example, to view passages such as today’s through the lenses of the saved vs. the damned, those going to heaven and those going to hell. While there is biblical material to promote this kind of dichotomizing thinking, preoccupations with heaven and hell, those saved and those damned, are arguably more the ruminations of medieval theology and Dante’s Inferno than they are of rigorous and faithful biblical and theological scholarship.
While we cannot get too deeply into all of this today in a sermon, we can take a look at the other readings appointed for today for what they might suggest about what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep.
In short, what is revealed, I believe, is that belonging to Jesus’ sheep is less about privilege and more about responsibility. It’s less about being part of a select, elite in-group and more about a group forgiven and redeemed and called to engage the wider world in the spirit of Jesus’ sacrificial, servanthood ministry.
Look at today’s reading from Revelation, which focuses on a vision of a “multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” These throngs were crying out and singing praises to God. In the vision, the author wonders who these people are. The answer is this: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”
And while they will no longer hunger and thirst and while their tears will be wiped from their faces, presumably in the great ordeal they knew such hunger and thirst along with scorching heat and many, many tears.
In short, having been washed in the blood of the Lamb, they took up their crosses and followed the Lamb who was also paradoxically their shepherd, and they followed the Shepherd Lamb in the way of suffering for the sake of the world.
Such suffering is not the stuff of belonging to a privileged, elite club which excludes everyone else and relishes their privileged status at the expense of the damned.
Then consider today’s reading from Acts, where Peter raises Tabitha who had fallen ill and then died. Tabitha was known for her devotion to good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name.
The widows were there weeping – widows being the very ones who were on the receiving end of Tabitha’s goodness and kindness in giving them needed clothing which she had made.
Peter was called upon to kneel and pray and then to raise Tabitha up again. To what end? To be returned to the very widows that Tabitha had cared for and thus to continue her good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name. In short, Tabitha was raised to continue her loving service of those in need.
Here again, the story is not about the privileges of salvation and restored life, about who belongs and who doesn’t, about who is damned and who is saved. No, not at all.
Belonging to Jesus’ sheep means enduring various versions of slaughter in loving service of our risen Lord. It means going through great ordeals for the sake of such loving service. Being saved for service involves shedding many, many tears. It means being raised by Christ again and again to return to the mission fields to care for the widows and those most vulnerable to being excluded by religious elites.
Given that such ordeals are in store for those who follow Jesus, we may not wish such privileged belonging on just anybody! We ourselves might think twice about belonging to such a sheepfold!
Yes, to be sure, there is great privilege in belonging to Christ, who is our Good Shepherd, who leads us beside still waters, baptizing us into himself through these same waters, and raising us up like Tabitha to share in the victory over death. Christ the shepherd, who is at the same time the sacrificial lamb, restores us, his rod and staff comforting us in the deathly places of the longest fearsome shadows. Christ bids us dine at a sumptuous feast at this sacramental table, where our cups overflow with his grace and mercy even in the presence of any our enemies.
Moreover, Christ is not only our shepherd, but our temple – he who walked in the temple in the portico of Solomon has himself become the temple, the holy of holies in whom we abide like branches to the vine, we who also become temples of the Holy Spirit. More still, Christ’s red blood washes us into brilliant, dazzling cleanliness. And in Christ, who is one with Father, we share in the dance of the Holy Trinity. All of these gifts and blessings generate and regenerate our faith and give us eternal life such that no one can snatch us from the loving, wounded hands of our Good Shepherd.
But all of this blessing is in the service of our offering sacrifices of thanksgiving in love for our neighbors, including perhaps especially those, like the Jewish people, who are persecuted for their own religious convictions, for example, in not claiming Jesus as their promised Messiah. We are called to protect them and their convictions of faith and certainly not to relegate them to the damned.
All of this brings us back to Lutheran ethical sensibilities, and Luther and his great paradox, expressed yet again in his treatise, “Freedom of a Christian.” Yes, by God’s grace in Christ, we are perfectly free, privileged, chosen, belonging sovereigns of all, subject to none – and at the same time in thanksgiving for graced privileges given, we are perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all. That’s what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep. It’s being blessed to be a blessing, and shedding many tears in suffering for the sake of others not so privileged and blessed.
Belonging to Christ is not us vs. them, the saved vs. the damned, but a belonging that calls us to serve our neighbors with the same love and mercy that made us to belong to Christ in the first place.
Such belonging to the Good Shepherd is that which leads to our loving service in Jesus’ name, a loving service that will go a long, long way toward healing the sad and dangerous divisions of our day. God in Christ help us. Amen.