Easter 4A Sermon (2005)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 10:1-10;
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25


Amidst a context of terrorism in a frightening and chaotic world, we talk a lot about leadership these days. What kind of leadership do we need to for troubled times? I’m reading a good book by Jim Wallis called God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. It is a somewhat moderating book politically. It has some more conservative views socially, on things like abortion, while also lifting up what he calls a “prophetic politics,” a politics rooted in the Hebrew prophets; it is a politics of compassion for the poor and of the nonviolent ways of Jesus in standing against evil. He dares to really ask the questions about leadership with the Good Shepherd in mind.

Here at Atonement the Mission Exploration Team is nearing the end of its work and will report to the congregation as the Call Committee gets ready to begin interviewing for the next pastor, the next shepherd of this flock. It is an important time to talk about leadership. But what kind of leadership? That is the question posed by our texts today. The Second Lesson from 1 Peter 2 weaves its reflections around the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53, a passage which became thematic for Christian faith, whose leader had himself suffered abuse before leading anyone into abusing others. I’ll get to our Gospel text in a moment, as we ask the question this morning about leadership.

First, I want to lift up what may be the most important and timely matter of leadership before us this week. Tomorrow begins the Papal Conclave of the Cardinals in Rome. Tomorrow begins the choosing of the next Good Shepherd for our one billion brothers and sisters worldwide in the Roman Catholic Church. We keep them very much in our prayers today and all week as a crucial decision is made about leadership in Christ’s Church. But, again, what kind of leadership?

Make no mistake about the fact that our Gospel Lesson today lifts up the matter of leadership. The image of Shepherd had long been a central image for leadership among Jesus’ people. But there is also a context here of this passage that is rarely mentioned or sufficiently recognized. As Jesus begins theme of the Good Shepherd in chapter ten, verse one, of John’s Gospel, there is absolutely no break from chapter nine. There is no change of scene noted. In fact, John 9 ends with Jesus speaking, and so presumably John 10 is simply a continuation of that same speech.

Do you remember John chapter 9? We read it in its entirety as one of those long Gospel Lessons during Lent, scarcely six weeks ago. John 9 is the story about Jesus healing a man born blind from birth. But it is much more than that, too. The actual healing story is done by verse five. We note that what follows over the next 36 verses, especially given our theme of leadership, is a controversy with and among the leaders of Jesus’ day. Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, and they refuse to accept the healing as a sign of greatness because Jesus has broken the technicalities of the Law. They conclude their internal controversy by expelling the healed man, throwing him out. The man who had been born blind, however, shows himself to have truly come to see by going straight to Jesus to worship him.

Let me read now the last three verses of chapter nine, followed by the first verse of today’s Gospel in John 10:

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.”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….”

Do you see how this passage is of one piece? Jesus, after healing the man born blind, finds himself in a controversy with his own leaders, and so he follows with these words about leadership, about what it means to be a Good Shepherd. These were the same leaders who in John 11, the next chapter, respond to Jesus’ raising of Lazareth by plotting to kill Jesus. Caiaphas is ‘prophetic’ in expressing the usual tactic of human leaders: “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). In other words, our human leaders sacrifice other people. They bring us together as a people by galvanizing us against someone else. If they can’t find a scapegoat, there’s a good chance that they will unwillingly become the scapegoat. How often do we do that to our leaders?

But Jesus is a completely different leader. He breaks the mold for leadership and makes a new one. In John’s Gospel he is not only the Good Shepherd, but is first and foremost the Lamb of God. Remember that the first words spoken about Jesus in John’s Gospel are those of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

And let’s see this dynamic of the Good Shepherd who is also the Lamb in today’s reading. Listen to these couple of verses:

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. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:2-4).

What’s this part about a “gatekeeper”? I’m a city boy who doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of these things, so I’ve asked friends who have grown up on the farm. They assure me that things aren’t generally so formal that you have a “gatekeeper.” There’s only one scenario where there’s a gatekeeper: when one brings the livestock to the stock yard. There, the shepherd leads the sheep to the gate and leaves them to be slaughtered. It was similar in Jesus’ day. There was a special gate in Jerusalem called the Sheep Gate, where one might find a gatekeeper. The shepherd would lead his flock to the Sheep Gate at Passover time for the ritual slaughter of blood sacrifice on the Temple altar. The evangelist John is especially precise about his timing of Jesus’ Passion to be sure that we know that Jesus became the Lamb of God who proceeded his flock to the Temple slaughter. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who doesn’t just lead his flock into the Sheep Gate instead of just dropping them off. But he also leads them and goes before them to the slaughter. As the Lamb of God, he is able to promise them abundant life from the God who gives it abundantly, even when he suffers abuse and death. His sheep will follow.

Have we ever seen this kind of leadership in action besides Jesus himself? God’s Politics keeps going back to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, as an example of bringing faith together with justice and politics. We can also point to Dr. King as an example of a sheep who followed the Good Shepherd in the way of suffering the abuse instead of dishing it out.

In fact, we can once again turn things around. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd who becomes the Lamb of God, disciples like Martin Luther King, Jr., are Lambs of God following Jesus who become Good Shepherds in this world for others. Dr. King was a Good Shepherd who was out ahead of the flock in those civil rights marches. He led the way in suffering the abuse of police dogs and police batons and imprisonment. But the truly remarkable part of his shepherding was that so many others followed! The civil rights movement was precisely that, a movement, a whole flock of sheep who became Good Shepherds in this world, leading us into greater rights for all.

I stumbled across another example of this paradoxical turnaround of Good Shepeherds who become Lambs of God, and Lambs of God who become Good Shepherds. I’m a big baseball fan, and Friday, April 15th, has been declared Jackie Robinson Day, remembering his bravery in 1947 by breaking the “color-line” in Major League Baseball. As a predecessor of the civil rights movement, there is a sense that even Dr. King was following in the footsteps of others. Listen to this remarkable testimony from baseball great Hank Aaron of what Jackie Robinson’s brand of leadership meant to him.

Jackie Robinson meant everything to me. Before I was a teenager, I was telling my father that I was going to be a ballplayer, and he was telling me, ‘Ain’t no colored ballplayers.’ Then Jackie broke into the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup in 1947, and Daddy never said that again…. Jackie not only showed me and my generation what we could do, he also showed us how to do it. By watching him, we knew that we would have to swallow an awful lot of pride to make it in the big leagues. We knew of the hatred and cruelty Jackie had to endure quietly from the fans, the press, and the anti-integrationist teams such as the Cardinals and the Phillies, and even from his teammates. We also knew that he didn’t subject himself to all that for personal benefit. Why would he choose to get spiked and cursed at and spat on for his own account? Jackie was a college football hero, a handsome, intelligent, talented guy with a lot going for him. He didn’t need that kind of humiliation. And it certainly wasn’t in his nature to suffer it silently. But he had to, not for himself, but for me and all the young black kids like me. When Jackie Robinson loosened his fist and turned the other cheek, he was taking the blows for the love and future of his people. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 17, 1997)

Jesus the Good Shepherd comes to be with us again today to tend to us and lead us out. He feeds us at his table as we remember him once again as the Good Shepherd who became the Lamb of God for us. He forgives us and nourishes us with God’s love. And then he also calls us by name, leading us out as Lambs of God who become Good Shepherds for this world so much in need of a new way of leadership. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, April 17, 2005

Due to time constraints, I had the following further examples from the movie Gandhi, but needed to skip them. Perhaps another time.

Gandhi leaves his house and almost bumps into Rev. Charlie Andrews, who has come from India to meet him. They are walking sown the street together (illegal for Christians and Muslims to do so together in South Africa) where they are confronted by some youth looking for trouble. They have the following conversation:

Charlie: Perhaps we should…um…Gandhi: Doesn’t the New Testament say that ‘if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek offer him the left’?

C: I think maybe the phrase is used metaphorically. I don’t think…

G: I’m not so sure. I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show that you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work.

Bonhoeffer understood, too, making the Sermon on the Mount the center of his Discipleship. He wanted to go to India and study with Gandhi. Here’s one last scene from Gandhi (Meeting to organize protests against new laws. Excerpts of speech/dialogue):

We welcome all of you [with emphasis directed to South African police present]. We have no secrets.

Gandhi outlines features of new laws: Mandatory fingerprinting, Only Christian marriages considered legally valid, Police may enter their dwellings without permission. Outcries from the crowd promising violent resistance, ending with: “For that cause I would be willing to die!” To which Gandhi responds:

I praise such courage. I need such courage, because in this cause I, too, am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one. But we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us. They will imprison us, they will fine us, they will seize our possessions. But they cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.

One from the crowd interjects: “Have you ever been to prison? They beat us and torture us….” Gandhi continues:

I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow. But we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts.But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they have my dead body. Not my obedience.

We are Hindu and Muslim, children of God, each one of us. Let us take a solemn oath in His Name that, come what may, we will not submit to this law.

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