Sunday, July 26, 2015

One Shepherd, One Flock

One Flock, One Shepherd
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 26, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 10: 1-19

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Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

10 “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.
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. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes  it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words.[1]

This passage is a famous one, but it is also important to me because when I was in seminary, taking preaching and worship as a class, I was given this passage to preach on, for my graded sermon. You may remember it, I preached it here, with a few changes as well in my first few months as pastor. In that sermon I talked about metaphors, and parables, and allegories,  and how Jesus breaks all the rules here. When you are using a metaphor you are not supposed to mix them, when you are using a parable you should keep it relatively simple, and when you are using an allegory, you are supposed to be consistent in your symbols, but Jesus doesn't do that here. I even used The Wizard of Oz, as an example of a good allegory, where each character represents its own idea, and they don' t share, but though most people think of this passage as the "Good Shepherd passage" where Jesus makes that famous claim, "I am the Good Shepherd," he also claims to be the gate. Then since he is the lamb of God, and that it is a little bit confusing about who would be the gatekeeper here, it is almost as if he represents almost every character in the metaphor. That breaks the literary rules, and I came away with the idea back then that Jesus is trying to get across that he is all in all, beyond their expectations, and the Son of God, but again it would seem that's what is going on here, and it fits within the context of the rest of John's gospel, as we've studied so far this year, but also in how the people react, again they are still divided, some incensed at Jesus' apparent blasphemy, and those who are at leas willing to listen.
But today what I want to look at is another interesting piece. I want to look at the other characters, other than what Jesus claims to be,  because there are basically two different, though connected,  metaphors going on here, as if Jesus is making two completely different points, but as we have said, he tangles it all together using  the same metaphorical image to do so. The first is the idea of the gate, and the sheep fold, and who gets through the gate, and how the sheep react. It says that Jesus is the gate, and the gate makes the distinction  between the shepherd, who is known by the sheep, and the thieves, bandits, and strangers, who do not go in through the gate, but try to influence, steal, oppress, get at, destroy, the sheep.  Who do you think the thieves are? That seems to be an important question. In looking at a metaphor, I've always taught that its important to look at the literal first before you come to the figurative. Skipping that step can get you lost in the details, or allows you to inadvertently skip over something that was important.
So let's look at what the these theives, bandits, and strangers do, and how they are described. It says they sneak into the sheepfold, and that the sheep do not recognize them, the sheep only recognize the shepherd who knows them, loves them, and calls them by name.  Now we shouldn't get too upset with ourselves if we can't figure it out, and we shouldn't over simplify it to figure it out either, because no one standing there listening to Jesus talking, had any clue what he was talking about either. Perhaps it shouldn't make immediate sense after all.  That's what my students do often, they try to simplify to understand, and/or they try to make sure they agree with whatever it is, and if they don't agree, they say they don't get it, so the temptation is always there to bend these metaphors to our thoughts, but let's try not to do that.
Jesus goes on and cleans it up a bit for us and them, he says that these thieves and bandits are those who have come before him. That he is the true gate. . . and people should have come through him. . . Who could they be? The prophets, the Romans, Moses? These Pharisees? That would make sense within the context of the rest of the gospel? But are they so bad, are they thieves? bandits? What are they trying to do, are they claiming to be shepherds, claiming to care for the sheep, are they claiming to give another way into this sheepfold, are they coming to steal the sheep, and then do what with them?  See how many conflicting possibilities are here. It's hard to say that the Pharisees have such seemingly diabolical intentions about the sheep they are caring for. . . because  we get to the last detail of this first section, the thief comes to kill, whereas Jesus comes to give life, that is intense. . . , but on the other hand, how does a gate give life . . . . it is as if now Jesus has realized how confused he has made these people, and switches the metaphor. . .
The gate doesn't give life, the shepherd does. . . maybe Jesus is more than just the gate, he is also the shepherd. . . and if you think about it this can make some sense, in a literal way anyway. . . what is a sheepfold? It's a place of security for sheep, but it would have been built by, picked and chosen by the shepherd. The sheep didn't choose it, the sheep didn't make it, the sheep wouldn't be there if it weren't for the shepherd. From a purposed standpoint, the shepherd would work like the gate, and no one but the shepherd has any business being in the sheepfold with those sheep, other than bad business. They are either a thief coming into steal the sheep, or the bandit coming in to kill the sheep, but no one but the shepherd would be there to care for it, no, not there to care for them.
But just as we were thinking this, that no one else could have a place in that fold, other than doing bad things, Jesus introduces another character. . . the hired hand. Now the hired hand is doing what he is asked, what he is hired to do, but the difference is dedication. When the wolf comes, he is not committed enough to risk his life. He'll protect the sheep as long as it's safe, but when real trouble comes he leaves town. The Good Shepherd does more than that, he lays his life down for the sheep. Notice how we start to get it now that Jesus is no longer talking about thievery and banditry. We may not know that type of evil, but we understand lack of commitment. And that seems more like these Pharisees that we have been dealing with all throughout the gospel. They seem to have good intentions, and are doing what they feel is right, what they feel is just, what they feel is according to God's Law, and therefore what is according to God's will, but like the hired hand, they don't have the commitment to lay down their life for the sheep, they don't have ownership, they do not care about the sheep as the shepherd would. Now think about this from the context of John's gospel. Think about all the people that Jesus has healed, the Pharisees were not concerned  about them, just doing their job. Think about that from a hired hand aspect. . . the hired hand does what he is told, he follows procedure, like some bureaucrat, who understands his piece of the puzzle, but not the big picture. Have you ever been in a situation where you're dealing with someone who has lost sight of right and wrong, and is just basing it all on the procedures. . .  what is the first thing you do when you get someone like that? yeah you speak to a supervisor, and if you get the owner, then finally you are getting somewhere. If you don't know what I'm talking about try to order something off the menu at McDonalds, where there is no "button" for what you want. . . Or there is that old movie, with Jack Nicholson, I can't remember what it's called, but he wants toast, and the sign on the wall says no substitutions, so the waitress won't give it to him since it isn't on the menu. And he's like but you have sandwiches. . . and you toast the bread for the sandwiches right? This seems to be what Jesus is saying. . . . So we understand the hired hand vs. the shepherd part, but what about the thieves and bandits? Who are those guys? Maybe it's the bandits part or that it was on tv last night, but I think about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "Who are those guys?" Answer: I have no clue. . . . Maybe they are not a type, but real people, maybe there are some bad folks who have really been trying to get at the sheep, maybe it is the Romans. . . would that mean  that these hired hands, letting in the world's ways into the sheepfold are in some kind of bigger conspiracy. ..  perhaps, and it's fun to think about. You could go a long way with it, and we see that around us, sometimes people are hired hands, and sometimes people are worse. We don't like to think so, but it's there.
But then we get to another great part of the passage. The part that I think is the best, and probably the most trouble for Jesus' immediate audience. I want to give some background for this. To the Jewish people the image of a sheep/shepherd is a really important in the lives of their culture, as it is shown in the Old Testament. From David being taken from the flocks and made king forever. . . . to All we Like Sheep have gone astray in Isaiah, to Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. . . those are famous ones to us, but one that is less famous to us, would probably have been truly important in the first century Jewish tradition, and that is Micah 2: 12-13. . . because it offers a promise of a remnant to Israel. . . . remember that these Jews have been conquered again and again, and dispersed throughout a series of occupying empires. . . so the promise of a new place would be well known to them. Check this out:
12     I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob,
I will gather the survivors of Israel;
I will set them together
like sheep in a fold,
like a flock in its pasture;
it will resound with people.
13     The one who breaks out will go up before them;
they will break through and pass the gate,
going out by it.
Their king will pass on before them,
the Lord at their head.
Now this seems to be exactly the passage that Jesus is referring to. He is gathering up the remnant, he is going before, he is going to save them. . . . so that is good news, and nothing new Jesus as the Messiah, son of man, son of God is no new claim for Jesus here, but look at what is different.
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

One flock, and one shepherd, Jesus is spreading the good news about the messiah, and the remnant , the saving beyond the sheep already in the fold, to new sheep, and he will lay down his life for them too, and there will be one flock, and one shepherd. . . . all people? No more divisions between Jew and Gentile, the only new distinction is those who hear his voice and recognize it, come to it, cared by it, like humble sheep in his protection. .. . this message is the good news, and it gives life. . . it makes the thieves, bandits, and hired hands all the more clear, not that they necessarily take away life, but that they take away the possibility of life within this sheepfold, and that this sheepfold, the sheepfold that Jesus is, is an eternal one, giving life to all who enter. For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but have eternal life. The Gospel of John just keeps adding to the same simple promises, Jesus is Lord, he is giving up his life. . . and all we need do is believe. It is pretty simple to be a sheep. . . as long as you are following a good shepherd.
Tricky thing again becomes, recognizing the shepherds voice, because it is a constant thing in John's gospel, some do and some don't, and that seems really restrictive, what about those who don't? But one thing we really need to keep in mind, is that when Jesus says one shepherd one flock it is more inclusive than the old system was. . . it is more cut and dry. . . but it includes more people. Despite our supposed good intentions. . . we are not the shepherd, and we are not the gate. . .

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 10:1-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mic 2:12-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.