As far as I know, none of us here has direct experience at being a shepherd. Whatever we know about sheep and shepherding probably comes from books, movies, and our imaginations. But, large numbers of people living in the ancient world did know a lot about sheep and shepherding, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find both images present in the biblical story. There is David the Shepherd King, and Jesus the Good Shepherd. One of the most beloved passages of Scripture is the 23rd Psalm, which declares: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .”
For many, the image of sheep and shepherds is rather serene and comforting. If you Google Jesus and shepherd, you’ll find lots If you Google the words Jesus and shepherd you’ll find lots of pictures of a smiling Jesus surrounded by adoring sheep. But, as both the 23rd Psalm and John 10 remind us, the life of the shepherd is anything but peaceful and serene. There are wolves seeking to scatter and devour the sheep, and the shepherd has to stand firm. The shepherd also must lead the flock to find food and water. There also thieves who try to sneak in by climbing the fence to steal the sheep.
Even though the hired hands, who have nothing invested in the sheep, flee in the face of danger, the Good Shepherd stands firm, even if it means death.
A passage of Scripture like John 10 has a context. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of this text, and it seems clear from this passage that John’s community is living under duress. There are thieves and wolves, prowling about, seeking either to steal or to destroy the sheep of the pasture.
The Good Shepherd, who is Jesus, on the other hand, comes into our midst, offering to us abundant life. Jesus says to us, I know my flock, and they know my voice. When I call out to them, they will come and follow me. They can trust my voice, and won’t scatter when I approach.
Yes, there is a lot going on in this passage. It’s clear that John is concerned about the future of his community. There are forces intent on dividing this community, and so John points us to Jesus, the Shepherd, who lays down his life for his people, but then takes it up again so that he can continue serving as the shepherd of the flock of God.
The words that stood out to me in this passage are found in verse 16:
I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
As I read these words, I wondered – what does Jesus, the Good Shepherd want us to hear in these words?
Who are these other sheep, whom Jesus seeks to bring into the one flock, so that he can be the one shepherd over the entire flock?
There’s one answer that I’ve always had fun with, though I’m not convinced of its veracity. Mormons look to this passage as proof for their belief, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, that after his resurrection, Jesus paid a visit to his followers living in the Americas. If that interpretation “floats your boat,” then more power to you. I just think there are other more logical options.
One option is the Gentile mission. If so, then Jesus speaks here of his desire to bring both Jew and Gentile into the fold. I think that this is a very fruitful interpretation, and there is much truth to it. By the time that John writes, the church is increasingly Gentile and there is a danger that the church could split along Jewish/Gentile lines.
It’s also possible that John is thinking about how a later generation of believers is part of that original flock.
Or perhaps John has the danger of factionalism in mind, and so this is another expression of John’s concern for the unity of the church. We see this expressed so very clearly in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, where just prior to his arrest, he prays:
I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. (Jn. 17:21 CEB).
As we seek to hear Jesus’ voice in our own time, this prayer for unity is an apt one. By the end of the first century, when John writes his gospel, the Christian community has become increasingly diverse. Parties are forming. Various theologies are emerging. The church is fragmenting, and John believes that this is a problem. He’s concerned that there are thieves and wolves prowling about seeking to destroy the community.
Partisanship isn’t a new phenomenon, but we seem to be living at a time of increasing polarization. People are losing faith in government, in business, and in the church. Many are tired of dealing with factions and partisans, who seek to gain power over others. Every poll and survey suggests that large numbers of younger people are simply walking away from the church. They’re turned off by partisanship and bickering.
If Jesus has other sheep to tend to, who might these other flocks be? In verse 16, we hear Jesus say to us: “They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.”
So what are some of these lines of separation that divide and perhaps destroy, fences that Jesus seeks to remove so that the two flocks might be one?
- Protestant and Catholic
- Liberal and Conservative
- Evangelical and Mainline
- Black and White
- Asian and Latino
- Young and Old
- Gay and Straight
- Church member and non-member
In that prayer that Jesus offers in the Garden, he asks that his followers might be one, even as he is one with the Father. In this passage, Jesus says that there is one flock, and that he knows the sheep, and they know his voice. We are people of the Spirit. Jesus knows our names, and we seek to know his voice, but even as we seek to know his voice it is important to remember that there maybe other flocks to whom he is speaking.
In this regard, Scott Williamson writes these compelling words:
The love of Christ compels us to listen for Jesus’ voice as it is heard by our brothers and sisters outside our fold. Then and only then will we be able to share in God’s love for them. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice, p. 21).
Jesus’ flock is bigger than this congregation, bigger than the Disciples of Christ, bigger than Protestantism. I dare say, it is likely bigger than any of our categories. It is easy for us to confuse our particular sheepfold, with the entirety of Jesus’ flock. But, Jesus reminds us that he has other sheep, whom he has called, and who know his voice. He is their shepherd, even as he is our shepherd. And we are brought together as one flock as we listen for Jesus’ voice as others hear this voice. This happens, as we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, interpreting those voices for us.
The listening campaign, which I spoke of last week, is one of the ways, in which I believe Jesus will help us listen for his voice in the voices of others in our congregation and in our community. And as we listen for this voice and find our unity in the presence of the Good Shepherd, we will discover the abundance that is ours to share.
As all four gospels remind us, Jesus took a few loaves of bread and a few fish, gave thanks, and distributed the food. Even though the crowd numbered in the thousands, everyone ate and was satisfied.
Yes, the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want. For:
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD ’s house as long as I live. (Ps. 23:5-6 CEB)
Indeed, we shall all live in the Lord’s house together as one flock, with one shepherd, as we listen for his voice and follow it!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 28, 2012
4th Sunday of Easter