Proper 6 (June 12-18)
Texts: Matthew 9:35-10:23;
Ex. 19:2-8a; Romans 5:1-8
SHEEP IN WOLVES’ CLOTHING
Our Lutheran liturgy for the Burial of the Dead ends with these words:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, name. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him/her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. (LBW, p. 211)
I find these to be very comforting words — don’t you? — words of a gracious and merciful God who will someday receive each one of us into the arms of a divine mercy, even as many of our loved ones are already held in that same mercy.
Yet there is one short phrase that doesn’t seem to fit quite as well for me. Or at least it reminds me of the paradox that Martin Luther was famous for: the paradox that, in Jesus Christ, we are both saint and sinner at the same time. The phrase “a sinner of your own redeeming,” comes right after that most pastoral of all images repeated twice: “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock.” We are a sheep of Jesus’ fold, a saint, and we are a sinner of his redeeming.
I think that today’s lessons give a scriptural basis for Luther’s paradox of saint and sinner. Except that the gospel lesson gives it to us in terms of sheep and wolves. Did you notice how often the metaphor sheep is used in that gospel? Three different times. It begins with that pastoral image of a compassionate Good Shepherd: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36) A few verses later Jesus is sending the Twelve disciples out to “the lost sheep of Israel.” (10:5) But it’s the next reference to sheep that gives us the paradox. Jesus sends the Twelve out with a warning: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (10:16) Sheep into the midst of wolves. That might seem straightforward at first, not paradoxical at all. There’s sheep and there’s wolves, clear distinction, right? Wrong. Because who are the wolves? Isn’t it basically that same crowd from a few verses before who were the lost sheep of Israel, the sheep without a shepherd on whom Jesus had compassion? You see, many of that same crowd on whom Jesus had compassion would be in the crowd who would later yell “Crucify him” on Good Friday. They were the wolves who would eventually devour Jesus himself — or, at least, we might say they were sheep in wolves’ clothing. You’ve heard of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Well, if we are the our Lord’s beloved sheep, then there are times when we put on wolves’ clothing, times when we are sheep in wolves’ clothing
Come to think of it. What about the disciples themselves? When St. Matthew names them for us, he leaves Judas Iscariot for last, and then is sure to remind us that he is the one who betrayed Jesus (10:4). So among these Twelve sheep that Jesus is sending out as sheep into the midst of wolves, there is at least one who is himself a wolf. And I’m not sure the other eleven are any better. Peter would deny Jesus, and all of them would run away, like sheep scattered when the shepherd is struck down (Mt. 26:31). Even these Twelve who are the sheep being sent out into the midst of wolves, even these Twelve sheep would later put on wolves’ clothing themselves. In other words, they were sinners no better than the rest of the crowd, that crowd which moved Jesus to compassion.
What this all boils down to is that great mystery of our faith: a God who is merciful beyond our wildest dreams, a God who sees us all as the divine flock, even when we are dressed in wolves’ clothing preying on the other sheep. St. Paul puts its as succinctly as possible in our second lesson from Romans: “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This is precisely it, the mystery of our faith!
Let’s focus for just a minute on the phrase “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” You see, as both saint and sinner, we are also both godly and ungodly at the same time. We try to be godly; most of the time we think we are being godly. But especially when we begin to play the game of comparing ourselves to others, thinking ourselves more godly, that’s precisely when we are being most ungodly. Why? Because at that point we’ve created for ourselves another god who is the opposite of the true God Jesus came to show us, a God who doesn’t treat any of us as if we were ungodly, or sinners, or wolves. No, this true God sent Jesus precisely when we were ungodly, when we were sinners, when we had put on our wolf’s clothing. God sent Jesus to be the Lamb (with a capital “L”) for us sheep in wolves’ clothing to devour. Why? So we would quit playing those games of dividing between ourselves, thinking that some are sheep and some are wolves. No, we’re all like that crowd of sheep without a shepherd on whom Jesus had compassion that day. And he continued to have so much compassion for them that he was willing to be devoured by them, by us, when we put on our wolves’ clothing.
We put on the wolves’ clothing precisely when we invent this other god who makes an ultimate distinction between his sheep. It is a god for whom we need to do something extra to prove ourselves worthy of love. Even when we are talking about forgiveness and grace, we invent this god who makes us do something to earn it, like repentance or believing the right stuff. We have to do something saintly. But, no, St. Paul is very clear about the God of Jesus, that this true God sent Jesus to die for us while we were still sinners, while we were (and still are) playing these games of winner and loser, sheep and wolves. It’s like we don’t believe that God truly has enough love for all of us sheep in this world so we put on wolf’s clothing, devour the other sheep, take off the wolves’ clothing again, and stand there relieved that there’s more of God’s love for us. We don’t get it that that’s especially when we are the wolves who put the Lamp of God on the cross. We are, at those moments, the ones who bring God’s sheep before councils and put them on trial.
A quick example: several weeks ago, Donna Lathrop, in her Adult Forum presentation entitled “There’s a Homosexual in My Family,” told the story of her gay stepson. He and his partner joined an ELCA church, not too many years ago, that, yes, they are an accepting, loving congregation. But when her stepson and his partner had their picture taken for the picture directory, the people of that congregation put on their wolves’ clothing and hauled them before the council. They called a sudden congregational meeting to put their membership on trial.
Do you see? I’m not trying to definitively answer all the questions we may have about homosexuality here. But I am trying to show us that that can easily be us because the clearest and most common form of sin is when we play those games of thinking ourselves better in God’s eyes, and so we put on the wolves’ clothing and devour the other sheep. And what is most clear about the Gospel is that God still doesn’t stop loving us, even then!! Even when we, God’s beloved sheep, put on wolves’ clothing, God continues to love us as sheep, love us so much that Jesus was sent to be the Lamb to our devouring ways. You see, God’s love is more powerful than even that kind of murderous death. It is more vast and unceasing than we can ever imagine. It is as unending as that promise that will be spoken over each of our caskets, when we smile down from God’s loving arms to hear the pastor say: “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 12-13, 1999