4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 10:11-18;
Acts 4:5-12; 1 Jn 3:16-24
LOVE IN TRUTH AND ACTION
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The 4th Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and I have a confession to make: I’ve never really cared for it that much. Don’t get me wrong. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a beloved one, especially from Psalm 23. But the problem is in the preaching. You can only preach on something so many times. This is my 15th Good Shepherd Sunday now as a pastor. Even Psalm 23 is hard to preach on that often. And the biggest problem is John 10 — so many images! How does one begin to sort them out? Take a quick look at the handout [of John 9:39-10:18] I’ve given you: [extemporize a quick tour through the many images]. It doesn’t help that I’m a city boy who’s unfamiliar with these images anyway.
But I begin with this confession as a way of also saying that it’s happened a bit differently for me this year. There’s two things, I think, that helped me see fresh things in this passage. The first is my teaching a class on religion at Carthage and seeing once again the big picture of human religion. The big picture includes the prevalence of blood sacrifice, something that is now so distant from us.
With that big picture, which includes sacrifice, let’s ask ourselves again what significance sheep had at the time of Jesus. We know they’re good for wool; they’re good to eat. We know they are dumb, naive animals that get into danger easily; that’s why they need a shepherd. But in Jesus’ day what else were sheep good for? Sacrifice.
Do you remember what the very first words spoken to Jesus are in the Gospel of John? Jesus is walking down to the River Jordan to be baptized, and John the Baptist looks up and shouts out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Yes, this will be in the background now throughout John’s Gospel — Jesus, the Lamb of God — even here in chapter 10 as Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, mind you. We can begin to see more clearly how and why a Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep when we also know him as the Lamb of God, the one who hands himself over to the sacrificial machinery to be the Passover Lamb for us.
The “gatekeeper” in verse three, for instance, caught my eye for the very first time. The gatekeeper opens the gate for the Good Shepherd. Why a gatekeeper?? Isn’t that a bit formal for the average sheep herd? Marty Aiken mentioned to me last night after the service that he’s not a city boy, and he said that the only time he can think of when there might be a gatekeeper for the sheep is when they are brought to the stockyard to be slaughtered. This is the point, in fact, where the shepherd finally leaves his sheep for good — or for ill, if you’re a sheep. The shepherd does not enter the stockyard with his sheep. He abandons them to the slaughter.
It was similar in Jesus’ day. There wasn’t a gatekeeper at the average sheep pen. But I’ll bet there was a gatekeeper at the big Sheep Gate in Jerusalem where the sheep would be led to the great Passover slaughter every year. And this is where the average shepherd would leave his sheep off at the gate, abandoning them to the slaughter. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who walks right in that gate with the sheep and “goes ahead of them,” out the other side of the holding pen into the Temple courtyard to be slaughtered. So Jesus isn’t just laying down his life out in the field for some dangerous wolf. The most dangerous place for a sheep in Jesus’ day was out in the Temple courtyard. The wolves are already a metaphor for the sacrificers who come to slaughter the lambs in the sacrificial machinery. Jesus lays down his life as the Lamb of God on the altar of sacrifice.
But let me get to the second thing this year that has helped me feel this passage afresh. Looming large for me as a pastor this week has been the resolution our synod passed last Friday regarding ministry to gay and lesbian persons in our midst. Who continue to be the sacrificial victims in our legalistic machinery today? Wow! And I realized the tragic irony of Matthew Shepherd, the gay man who was beaten to death a year or so ago. He was a “Shepherd” who was taken through the slaughter of our sacrificial machinery of today, the same kind of sacrificial machinery that tries to make matters of good and bad to be black-and-white.
And that brings me to perhaps the most decisive insight into John 10 that has been different for me this year, namely, that it flows directly out of John 9. John 9 has become one of the most important stories in the Bible for me. It is the story about Jesus healing the man born blind from birth. It opens with Jesus and his disciples walking past the man, who was no doubt begging, and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Do you see? Right away the disciples assume a matter of morality in such a clear-cut, black-and-white fashion. They assume that this man must be a sinner to live such a life. But Jesus says ‘neither sinned,’ and then proceeds to literally muddy things up, using his own spittle to make some mud, putting it on the man’s eyes and telling him to go wash them off. When the man washes off the mud, he can see for the first time in his life.
But the story isn’t over. In fact, that part only took five verses. If you look at the handout, you see that chapter 9 goes on for 41 verses. The rest of the story is about a different kind of blindness, the blindness that results because we like to see matters of morality in such a black-and-white manner. Jesus healed the man, you see, on the Sabbath, which was a no-no. For those who see things as black-and-white, as strictly a matter of the rules, Jesus could easily have waited for the Sabbath to end. There was no need, thought the religious types, for Jesus to blatantly break the rules, so they concluded that he could not truly be a great prophet and leader. Meanwhile, the man who had been born blind comes to ‘see’ Jesus increasingly clearly, finally confessing him as “Lord” and worshiping him. Here, then, is the movement we see in this story: As the formerly blind man becomes increasingly clear in his sight, the Pharisees, those who like to think that they see things clearly in such black-and-white terms, become increasingly blind to who Jesus is. John chapter nine concludes with this controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees that you have before you.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 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.”
What is their sin that remains? The sin of their judgment, their desperate need to see things in terms of black-and-white. It is the kind of judgmental seeing, the most terrible form of blindness, that will bring Jesus himself to the sacrificial slaughter as the Lamb of God. It continues today to bring the Matthew Shepherd’s of today to our own kind of slaughter — sometimes literal slaughter, as it did for Matthew Shepherd, but more often a figurative slaughter of souls under the knife of our sharp distinctions between right and wrong, black and white. Does one really lead to the other? Does such judgmental seeing really lead to such deadly consequences? Look again at the transition from John 9 to John 10. There’s no break in what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees. For Jesus, their form of blindness leads right into the topic of a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, lays it down as the Lamb of God.
John 10 makes so much more sense to me now. Take a quick look, for example, at his sudden switch of metaphors in verse 7. He’s the Good Shepherd who walks into the sheep stockyard, and then, all of a sudden, he’s the gate. Why the gate? Notice the sheep going freely in and out from shelter to pasture and back again? They no longer will be herded to the altar of sacrifice. We like this clear black-and-white thinking about who’s in and who’s out. When Jesus is the gate, though, in and out is no longer such a clear matter.
One of the common themes we heard from those opposed to the synod resolution last Friday is that things are “black-and-white,” meaning that the Bible tells us clearly what is right or wrong, who is right or wrong, who is in or out. But does it? Let me do the two-minute Bible study on this: One of the places in the Old Testament where it clearly states that homosexual acts are unclean is in the book of Leviticus. Most of this book, of course, is trapped in that black-and-white thinking, and it’s all tied to the sacrificial machinery. Leviticus is about who is ritually clean or unclean for the sacrificial rites. What is most notable for us is that we throw most of this out, don’t we? Leviticus also tells us that pork and menstruating women are unclean? Do we abide by even 10% of these rules of ritual cleanliness? Then why would we pick out the rules about homosexuality to follow? Is that fair?
The place in the New Testament which is most clear about homosexual acts is at the end of Romans 1. St. Paul is talking about men laying with men, and women with women, and he’s getting all worked up into a lather against such idolatry. But listen to this. This is the very next verse, the first verse of chapter 2: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Do you see how St. Paul comes to this point about judgmentalism? He set us up! He uses this harangue against homosexuality in chapter one to make the same kind of point that Jesus is making to the Pharisees in John 9 and 10. The sin, the blindness, which is most persistent for us is that of judgmentalism. The point which St. Paul is driving at in this entire opening section of Romans is the one essential to Luther in founding the Reformation:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Romans 3:22-25)
It’s all right here in these verses from St. Paul, too. Jesus, the Lamb of God, submitted to the sacrificial machinery that we all participate in. There is no distinction in this matter of sin; we are all in need of God’s grace.
So what did we do last weekend with our synod resolution? I think we affirmed that wonderful verse in our second lesson (1 John 3:18): “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” For ten years we have debated resolutions about being open and welcoming with the Gospel for gay and lesbian peoples in our midst. But it’s mostly been a lot of talk. Just a very few in the synod, a few congregations among us, have been bold enough to test the waters beyond the talk and to actually attempt doing something. We affirmed those congregations who have tried some real, tentative steps in putting the gospel love into action.
On this Mother’s Day perhaps it would be best to close with the example of a mother’s love. For a mother’s love is not all talk. We have known how our mothers put their love into action. That’s why it’s often been helpful to begin with a mother’s perspective when it comes to gay and lesbian people. Consider this: A mother has raised her son with the epitome of self-sacrifice. She would literally lay down her life for her son. And then, one day, her son tells her that he is gay. Does she stop loving him? Of course not. And she finds ways to continue putting that love into action, ways of continuing to support her son through the difficult way that he goes in a world where most people would just as soon sacrifice him. God’s love is like that. It is the love of a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It is the love each of us is called to live.
Is that a scary thing? Yes. We would prefer black-and-white. Why that’s our preference is the last piece of this Good Shepherd passage and its emphasis on the power of life in the face of death. I think all our fears are generally traceable back to our fear of death. We like things black-and-white, clear-cut, because we are anxious about what happens to us when we die. It needs to be clear cut who’s in and who’s out come Judgment Day.
But do you see? Our whole notion of Judgment Day is precisely what Jesus came to explode! He already brought judgment on us! Remember the end of John 9? “I came into this world for judgment…” The judgment is done. It happened when we judged Jesus and found him guilty, executing him on the cross. Little did we know that that was God’s judgment on us! God judged our judging on the cross! God told us to stop! That we have all fallen short anyway, and that we are thus acquitted of our sins as a free gift of God’s gracious love. The only thing left for us to do is to live, now and eternally, in that life-giving love. We don’t even have to be afraid of death anymore. The Good Shepherd came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 13-14, 2000