Last revised: May 20, 2014
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR A
RCL: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
RoCa: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 144, within his “Fifth Act: The Holy Spirit and the New Gathering,” pp. 142-158.
Reflections and Questions
1. The Pentecost sermon of Acts 2 closes with this summary of new life in the Spirit. Living in the Spirit is the basis of a new community. Life lived in the spirit of mimetic rivalry needs a scapegoat as its foundation. But God has taken the stone which the builders rejected (anticipating next week’s 2nd lesson) and made it into the foundation of a new community which can live by a Holy Spirit, a community marked by its lack of envy and rivalry so that everything can be shared in common: “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
We might even make the case for new community more strongly: it is such experiences of community as described here which are themselves the experience of the Risen Christ and his Holy Spirit. The experience of grace is the experience of being able to live together with others in new ways. Focused around the fellowship founded in the one who gave his life for us, a fellowship of sharing and mutual service, the mimetic rivalries begin to melt away.
How, or why, does this work? If we go back to last week’s reflections on Law and Gospel, we talked about the mechanisms which generate us into deferential hierarchies. The old mechanism is what Girard calls the victimage mechanism, the mechanism hidden from us since the foundation of our human worlds which the Cross alone fully reveals. The new way of deferring the constant possibility mimetic rivalry is also based in the Cross: the unconditional forgiveness and love into which we are baptized, as we die and rise with Christ. Our deferring to one another, avoiding mimetic rivalry, is based in the Holy Spirit’s power of love and forgiveness.
2. Might this passage be a companion to the John 10:1-10 conclusion of receiving life more abundantly? Life lived in mimetic rivalry is one in which the basic experience is that of scarcity. In that well-used Girardian example of the children fighting over one toy in the midst of a room full of toys, the children experience that toy they are fighting over as scarce. In the midst of what is actually an abundance, their basic experience is that of scarcity.
New community in Christ begins to melt away the mimetic rivalry such that we can truly begin to experience the abundance that has been there all the time. Christ the Lamb of God who lays down his life for us, only to receive it graciously back from God, is the gate to entering a new life in community, one that operates out of such grace. It is a life of sharing with others the abundance of the Creator which has been here all the time … except that our being trapped in mimetic rivalry made us blind to it.
(Is the healing of the blindness the insight that also led the apostles to very quickly begin to place Christ back to the beginning as the source of Creation? The same self-sacrificial love that opens our eyes to the hideous consequences of our mimetic rivalry is also the same love that created an abundance of life in the first place?)
1 Peter 2:19-25
Reflections and Questions
1. This reflection on Isaiah 53 is lifted out of a difficult context for late 20th century Christians to relate to: one in which the author is advising slaves to be obedient to masters, and then wives to husbands. It is difficult to imagine the prudence of such advice under even the worst of circumstances. And even out of context, vs. 19-21 rub my modern sensibilities in the wrong way. Without the situational context, it is abstract advice with nothing to grab hold of in order to evaluate it. In the context of slavery, it is much more concrete but remains questionable to us.
Have saints like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. shown us a better way? They emphasized the willingness to suffer, as does this passage. But don’t they also emphasize that one’s suffering must somehow expose the evil? This passage from 1 Peter would seem to advise passive nonviolence, as opposed to nonviolent resistance. I find it to be an awkward use of Isaiah 53, one that seems to stumble a bit in walking the fine line of nonviolent resistance to the side of passive nonviolence.
Is it expecting too much for folks deeply entrenched in institutions of slavery and patriarchy to begin to awaken to the nonviolent resistance of the 20th century? Perhaps. One of the amazing graces of our God seems to be an eternal patience. Maybe it would have been too fast for such institutions as slavery and patriarchy to have been immediately challenged with large movements of nonviolent resistance. It was a long time of being able to contain our impulses of violence. But how is God so patient?
Perhaps what is most important about this passage is taking the first step: an absolute commitment to nonviolence, whether passive or not. When the institutions of slavery and patriarchy have finally begin to topple over in the last century, we seem to have often left behind this step that the community of 1 Peter made most essential. It’s the step of suffering patience for the forces of violence to destroy themselves. Isn’t the alternative to too quickly dismantle the institutions in ways that do violence to the people who still live in them? Is the patience of God one that takes the longer road of the Cross’ transformation of the old into the new, instead of the quicker road of tearing down the old ones and building up new ones, even if there’s still folks who live in the old ones? These questions definitely represent the mysteries to me raised by the terrible servitude and suffering that persists in this world.
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #7. Bailie chooses to deal with John 10 in connection with the story of the woman caught in adultery. He gives some background to approaching this text which has completely changed the way I look at it! Let me simply give you my transcribed notes of his lecture on this passage:
***** Gil Bailie on John 10: “I am the Good Shepherd” *****
Background to John’s discourse on the Good Shepherd:The Old Testament background to this passage is Ezekiel 34, in which the kings of Israel are criticized for being false shepherds, primarily for their failure to care for the weak. The shepherd’s [i.e., king’s] role, socially and culturally, has always been to choreograph the sacrificial passions of his culture, directing them towards expendable victims. This is the background to the Good Shepherd discourse in John.
Internally, the background within John’s gospel comes from John 5:2, the reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime.
So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John’s gospel? Often, it is as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. We think, “Oh, they’re all sheep.” No! The most important reference to sheep in the New Testament is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial animals par excellence. (As a matter of fact, sacrifice gave rise to animal husbandry, in the first place. Animals were originally kept for sacrifice. So keeping livestock, in its origins, has never simply been a purely agricultural phenomenon.)
John’s gospel introduces us to Jesus through the words of John the Baptist (John 1:29): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus begins his discourse: (John 10:1) “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.” It is not said, but doesn’t the background imply that shepherd (as opposed to the others who Jesus specifies) enters the sheepgate as one of the sacrificial animals?
Jesus continues: (John 10:2-3) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The shepherd enters into the gate in the same way that the sheep do. The sheep recognize his voice. They recognize the shepherd as one of them.
Who are the thieves and bandits who come in a different way?
If we are correct in suggesting that the ones who come in by the gate are victims, then the thieves and bandits are those who manipulate the system by redirecting its sacrificiality towards more expendable victims.
The word “bandit” has the connotations (in the Greek) of being a revolutionary, or insurrectionist. A revolutionary is one who turns the direction of the sacrificial system. He doesn’t transform it; he simply redirects it. The system revolves, but doesn’t transform.
Jesus also mentions another who comes in, in addition to the thieves and bandits, who is not the shepherd: the hired man. He says, (John 10:12-13) “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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” So we might say that the hired hand is some functionary who tries his best to rehabilitate a certain victim, but only at the expense of another victim on whom he redirects the system. He’s just a hired man; he’s not really leading people out.
By contrast, Jesus says, (John 10:14-15) “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” In other words, the difference between the sheep, i.e., the victim, and the shepherd disappear. Here is a shepherd who is himself a victim, and he will lead the sheep out of the sheepfold.
Jesus continues, (John 10:16) “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.” Unanimously, the exegetes say that this refers to the other Christian communities besides the Johannine community (which recognizes it marginality among the early Christian communities, and that, sooner or later, it will have to come into koinoneia with other mainstream Christian communities). But, at an anthropological level, couldn’t this also be referring to all other religions, including Christianity as a religion? Isn’t this in one piece with John 12:31-32: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”? That the one who takes the victim’s place and is crucified, that the moral force of that revelation, will begin to have effects everywhere, in every culture, in every religious tradition? It lets loose on the world a force that is so profound and irresistible and revolutionary that everyone will be affected. Now, this doesn’t mean that all those who practice Hinduism, for example, will abandon it for Christianity. But it does mean that this revelation will change everything.
Paraphrase of John 10:30-38, Jesus’ interaction with Jewish leaders. Jesus confronts them with three consecutive blasphemies: “I and the Father are one,” I am the Son of God,” and “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Jesus tells them that if they have a hard time with his words, then believe in his works. They pick up stones and try to arrest him but he escapes. This relates somewhat thematically to the question of the sheepgate, which is an instance of the loss of distinction in the figure of Jesus for John’s gospel: we have a Son who is indistinguishable from the Father, a shepherd who is indistinguishable from the sheep, and a Lord who is indistinguishable from a brother [or friend, cf. John 15:13-15].
***** End of Notes on Gil Bailie’s “The Gospel of John,” tape 7 *****
2. James Alison on John 10, the Good Shepherd passage. The Joy of Being Wrong: John 10:18 is cited on p. 82; the whole passage on p. 146 & 199; for example:
In chapter 10 we have the same understanding at work: because of Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father, he is able to make present on earth as a real human practice the way in which the Father is the shepherd of Israel. He does this precisely by the creative going to his death which brings about one flock and one shepherd. What he is doing is bringing about the Father’s shepherdliness by inaugurating a real human practice of shepherding a real human gathering into one. This is possible because there is no rivalry between him and the Father: they are an entirely interpenetrating reality. So, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) is identical in content with “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38).
And in Raising Abel, Alison says the following on pp. 115-116:
Let us notice how this works: it is the forgiving victim who enables our memories to be healed. That is, the forgiveness of sins and the healing of memories is the same thing: what unbinds our past is what opens up our future.Please excuse the difficulty of all this, but it is of great importance if we are to understand the birth of the possibility of ‘eternal life’ or life without end. The revelation of God which Jesus brought about, the God who is known from the risen victim, made it possible that, instead of the constitution of a person whose memory is bound up in expulsive grasping of being because of the violent ‘other’ which surrounds him and gives him birth, the ‘Other’ which brings us to existence might be perfectly without violence, without rivalry. This revelation makes it possible for our memory, and through it, our life-story and our person, to be called into existence in such a way that the memory and the past do not form a threatening present, but rather a present which is in a process of constant enrichment by what is being given it, and where the future is precisely the continuation of an ever greater and ever richer reception of life. I think that when, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), it is the same thing as when he refers to ‘eternal’ life, life without end.
Finally, Alison wrote a paper titled “The Good Shepherd” as the second part of an address in San Francisco in the fall of 1999. It is as yet unpublished but can be accessed here.
3. Gil Bailie brings up the failure of kingship as background to this passage. The Girardian theory about kingship is that it originates in the sacrificial: the king is initially the victim with the suspended sentence who is made to preside over the sacrificial cult in the interim. As long as kings can keep feeding victims to the sacrifice, there’s a good chance that their own sacrifice can be indefinitely delayed. Eventually, it becomes an established institution of government. But during sacrificial crises the king will often be the first to be sacrificed (e.g., Louis IV, Saul, and many others). For more on the Girardian reading of kingship, consult the indexes in both Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden. Gil Bailie has a good explication of it in tape #1 of his lecture series “The Famished Craving,” which makes good use of anthropological data from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (a section entitled “African Kings” on pp. 411-424).
4. James Alison, on John 9. Another aspect which has become crucial for me in interpreting John 10 (one also represented in the above sermon “Love in Truth and Action”) is the fact that John makes no pause from John 9 — no indication of a change of setting or audience. Here is the transition from one to the other:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. (John 9:40-10:2)
Alison has two elucidations on John 9 that are among the best and most important things that he’s written. The first is a crucial section on “The Johannine Witness” (excerpt) to “The Resurrection and Original Sin,” ch. 4, pp. 119-125, of The Joy of Being Wrong. Understanding how sin and death are intertwined — especially how the section from The Joy of Being Wrong follows out of the realization that we are actively involved in death — then we are better able to receive how it is that the Good Shepherd comes to give us life abundantly. Consider, for example, the two paragraphs leading into the section on “The Johannine Witness”:
This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the lynchpin of any understanding of Original Sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of Original Sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine of the in-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin, and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to Original Sin: that the doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding. (JBW, p. 119)
The second Alison passage on John 9 is the opening chapter of Faith Beyond Resentment, entitled “The man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin” (pp. 3-26), which had previously been published in Contagion (Spring 1997). I recommend reading these two works on John 9 before preaching on John 10.
5. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 51.
6. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, Preaching Peace website; the page for Easter 4A emphasizes the theme of leadership. In 2005 this theme was timely in a number of respects — reading Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics on a faith-centered political leadership; on the eve of the Papal Conclave to choose John Paul II’s replacement; and nearing the end of my interim as the congregation I was serving was getting ready to call its next pastor — such that it resulted in the sermon “What Kind of Leadership?”
8. For more on the full John 10 passage and its context, see the reflections for Good Shepherd Sunday Year C, Easter 4C.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011, I’m benefitting greatly from John Shea’s The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven – Year A. Shea’s commentary and teaching focuses on going through suffering on the way to abundant life. This means emphasizing “I am the Gate” over “I am the Good Shepherd,” which doesn’t appear until verse 11 in Year B. And it gives the opportunity to consider one’s own calling to be a Good Shepherd to others through the Gate of Christ. When we follow Christ through the way of suffering, we are better able to guide others. The resulting sermon, featuring a story from Shea involving spirtual direction, is titled “Jesus the Gate: ‘We’ve Got to Go Through It‘” — also playing on the refrain from Michael Rosen’s picture book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it.” When a person suffers abuse as a child, for example, the way to healing is most likely going to be following a Good Shepherd — a therapist, a spiritual director, a friend who has been through the same thing and found healing — through the Gate of Christ, who pioneered the way of suffering for us.
2. John’s version of the Good Shepherd motif is undoubtably more complex than that of Psalm 23. It might be described as “Psalm 23 Meets Isaiah 53.” The comforting pastoral scenes of the Psalm are placed in the context of a story in which the Good Shepherd is also preeminently the Lamb of God (John 1:29) who is led like a sheep to the slaughter, ala Isaiah 53. It leads, I think, to the more mature, eschatological hope of Revelation 7:17: “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
3. A crucial question — perhaps the crucial question — in interpreting John 10 is what is so hard for us to get about this otherwise seemingly transparent, though admittedly dense, metaphor. Verse 6 says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” What is so hard for us to understand? Could it be the allusion to the Sheep Gate that Gil Bailie features in his interpretation above?
The latter gets my vote. Bailie points to the mentioning of the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem in John 5:2 as a clue to which gate is meant here in John 10. I find the entire context of John’s Gospel to be even more compelling. The first thing that someone in John’s Gospel tells us about Jesus is that he is the Lamb of God who takes the sin of the world (1:29). The narration of the Passion story carefully places Jesus’ slaughter on the Passover. I think that this Good Shepherd passage needs to be understood in that larger context of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Thus, he can also be seen as the Good Shepherd who leads the sheep into the paddock of the Passover sacrificial slaughter and then goes before them, taking their place. During this Easter season he can then also be the Risen Lamb of God who shepherds the sheep safely back out.
He also recruits further Good Shepherds as his disciples, who may also become the substitute Lambs. Is this what the concluding story with Peter is about in John 21? Peter is called to feed Jesus’ sheep, even as Jesus predicts that someone will one day fasten a belt around him and lead him where he doesn’t want to go. The image of being fastened with a belt and being led has caused exegetes to speculate that Peter was belted to a cross. Perhaps. But it also fits this image of being a lamb led to the slaughter.
4. If one needs a further clue within the text, to this specific Sheep Gate of Jerusalem reading, I have pointed to the fact there is an attendant at the gate, verse 3, who lets in Jesus and the sheep. Are there situations out in the field where there’s a gatekeeper? Or is the situation of a gatekeeper particular to the circumstances of the sheep being led to their final destination at someone else’s slaughterhouse? In Jesus’ culture, that would most likely be the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem at Passover time.
5. Something that resonates with me about this text is that, since Jesus, there are two species of innocent sacrificial lambs: the kind who have existed since the beginning of time as fodder for the sacrificial machinery, and the Lamb of God and his disciples who offer themselves into the sacrificial machinery in a way that progressively gums up the works. When I speak of disciples of the Lamb / Good Shepherd, I think of saints such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who led intentional movements of risking being fed into the sacrificial machinery as lambs to the slaughter. They shepherded large numbers of folks who essentially were willing to give themselves as substitute lambs, if it meant that future sheep might be saved from the slaughter.
In a sense, Jesus’ intentional substitution of himself as the Lamb of God sheds new light on all victim-sheep. The vision in Revelation 7 is of the multitude from every time and place who have come through the ordeal and are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Isn’t this what is happening progressively (though in great fits and spasms) with victims in our day? All the Jews of the Holocaust, for example, are seen as innocent. The Satanic blame just doesn’t stick very long. We are able to more quickly see the victims qua victims. It is even getting so that people want to be seen as the innocent victim — often times so that they might be justified in making victims out of their perpetrators. The latter, of course, are imitating the Lamb without the Spirit of forgiveness and love.
6. As stated under #4 of the Resources, another crucial context to the interpreting this passage is the more immediate context, i.e., the fact that it flows directly out of John 9. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who have challenged the man born blind and Jesus’ healing of him, and he goes right on talking to them, in launching into the Good Shepherd monologue. Thus, in my 2000 sermon “Love in Truth and Action,” I read John 10 in light of James Alison’s brilliant work on John 9. (See the complete bibliography listed in Lent 4A; and for a more complete look at this passage in its more immediate context, see the reflections in Easter 4C.) That sermon in 2000 also took a look at the current issue in the church which continues to have so much pain and turmoil connected with it, the issue of policies relating to the welcomeness of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in our midst.