Easter 4B Sermon (2024)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 10:11-18;
Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24

THE GOOD SHEPHERD AS MODEL
FOR POLITICAL ALTERNATIVES TO NATIONALISM

About a month ago (Lent 5B), I started talking about Christian Nationalism, and you may have been wondering to yourself, ‘Why is Pastor Paul talking about this? Isn’t this politics? Why have our pastors never really talked about this before?’ I want to offer answers to these kinds of questions this morning, but first I need to address for a moment the venue of a sermon. Generally, they’ve been one-way modes of communication. Partly because I plan on talking about Christian Nationalism over the coming weeks and months, I want to offer other avenues to turn this into more of a conversation. The first step, I think, is to place it on the agenda for the next Church Council meeting. How can we best turn this into a conversation? Jeff Alderson and I can have a conversation about how to do that, and everyone would be welcome to attend. (See also a subsequent newsletter column invitation.)

That said, let me recap what I’ve been saying over the last month or so by offering tentative answers to the questions I placed before us. First, why is Pastor Paul even talking about Christian Nationalism? My answer: because for the first time in our nation’s history there are a minority of people who are talking about Christian Nationalism as an alternative to democracy. Their political position is that it should be Christians who are in charge of this country, even if that means significantly altering our democracy and turning our government into an authoritarian minority rule.

Those calling themselves “Christian Nationalists” talk about this straightforwardly. They would rather lose this democracy than have our nation not be what they envision as a “Christian nation.” If given the choice between no longer being a democracy and not having their version of a “Christian nation,” then they choose losing democracy. They will tell you this openly — even if they don’t quite understand what they may be signing up for with turning to the kind of authoritarian governments that have dominated human history before this grand American experiment with democracy. So one of my reasons for talking about this issue is simply that it’s super important — since for the first time in our nation’s history the choice this Fall at the voting booth might boil down to be continuing the experiment with democracy we’ve had for two hundred plus years, or opting for an authoritarian government in the name of being a so-called “Christian nation.”

Another piece of my answer is then to say clearly that more and more of us Christians challenge the notion of having a “so-called Christian nation.” Which brings us to the second question I raised at the outset, whether or not we should even be talking about politics. My answer is, “Yes, we should, but only if we begin with the understanding that the politics of the Jewish-Christian God are about having a distinct alternative to the way human politics have gone throughout history.”

The Hebrew scriptures, our “Old Testament,” are filled with politics. You might say that politics is the main topic of the Hebrew scriptures. The Old Testament is very much concerned with what it might mean for them as the chosen people of Yahweh to be a nation in distinction from the other nations. The viewpoint of the kings of Israel is represented there, which tends to be not all that different from the view of other non-Jewish kings. Namely, they like being in charge. In short, the standard age-old view of authoritarian human government is there in the Old Testament. But so is the alternative, the prophetic critique of kingship, which makes the Hebrew scriptures rather different. There is a strong element of criticism for ordinary human governance arising in the long Jewish history. The prophets criticize the kings especially for not caring enough for the people, especially the most vulnerable, like the widows and the orphans and the foreigner-strangers.

Here’s our first connection with today’s scripture readings. The language of God and/or of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is not just some quaint, comforting language about a God who cares for us like a shepherd. It’s that, too, which gives us some of our most comforting passages, like Psalm 23. But, no, the Good Shepherd language is also something much more. It’s the highly charged language of prophetic critique against Israel’s kings. In short, it’s very much political language. When the prophets wanted to criticize Israel’s kings for not caring for the most vulnerable, they invoked the metaphor of a shepherd. A good shepherd cares for all the sheep, especially for the most vulnerable.

When Jesus in John 10 speaks about himself as the Good Shepherd, he is very much speaking in this prophetic tradition. It’s important, first of all, to know to whom Jesus is talking directly. John chapter 10 begins without a break from the story in John 9 about the man born blind, whom Jesus heals. The healing happens in the first 7 verses of John 9. The rest of John 9 turns into a controversy with the Pharisees, the local political leaders, because they are upset that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. Their final action is to declare Jesus a sinner and to throw the newly healed man out of the synagogue.

The healed man comes to Jesus to thank and worship Jesus, and here’s the last three verses of John chapter 9:

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.”

Without a break, Jesus launches in the Good Shepherd speech, which compares a good shepherd to that of bandits and thieves and, in today’s portion, “hired hands.” Do you see? The Good Shepherd speech of John 10 is aimed directly at the Pharisees who show themselves to not be fit to lead. For they condemn the vulnerable people who need help, like the man born blind, instead of finding ways to care for them. Jesus cared for the man by healing him! They end up judging the man and throw him out. Why? Because he was healed by someone who broke the Sabbath laws as they understood them. Jesus uses the language of a Good Shepherd in a prophetic critique of their leadership.

Here’s the point, a very political one: Jesus’s leadership — as opposed to typical human leaders, whose main duties are to identify and punish enemies — is marked by healing those who need it. It will especially be exemplified in his going to the cross for his sheep, those marginalized by the typical human authoritarian leadership. He, the Good Shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. On the night before going to the cross, speaking to his disciples, Jesus turns that phrase into ‘laying down his life for his friends.’

That transition from the language of shepherd and sheep to that of friends is a crucial one — again, with great importance to human politics. My sermon on Maundy Thursday connected Jesus’ Last Supper to the democratic ideal of all people being created equal. The inspiration for that connection was an essay by New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders. In light of what we’ve just been talking about — namely, that typical human leadership has been about authoritarians who identify one’s enemies and then use force to punish them, in short, about retribution — Schneiders writes,

John describes God’s [saving] intention not in terms of . . . retribution but in terms of self-gift: God so loved the world as to give God’s only Son to save us (see 3:16). Jesus, acting out of that [saving] mission, so loved his own in the world that he laid down his life for them (see 10:17-18; 13:1). Jesus’ self-gift was not, in John’s perspective, the master’s redemption of unworthy slaves but an act of friendship: “No longer do I call you servants . . . [,” says Jesus, “]you I have called friends” (15:15). . . .

Jesus symbolizes his impending death, his love of his disciples unto the end, by an act of menial service[, a foot washing]. He did not choose an act of service proceeding from his real and acknowledged superiority to them as teacher and Lord. Such an act would have expressed the inequality between himself and his disciples, their inferiority to him. Instead, Jesus acted to abolish the inequality between them, deliberately reversing their social positions and roles. . . . By washing his disciples’ feet Jesus overcame by love the inequality that existed by nature between himself and those whom he had chosen as friends. He established an intimacy with them that superseded his superiority and signaled their access to everything that he had received from his Father (see 15:15), even to the glory that he had been given as Son (see 17:22).1

This all comes down, I believe, to the politics of salvation. Authoritarianism and nationalism see salvation in terms of a superior group determining who’s an enemy and who not, and then justifying the violence to strike against one’s enemies. God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is to offer us a very different kind of politics, one that first of all moves from inequality to equality and then works as a community of friends caring for one another, especially caring for the most vulnerable. It is a politics centered on healing and restoration and mutual service, not on retribution.

Isn’t this what we see in Jesus? This is the way that I’ve come to read the New Testament, which means we can continue to speak about the options of what salvation really means. For me, I see the Gospel as being about a new way of being human that transcends boundaries of religion and nations. In fact, it is about saving us from the sickness of those kinds of divisions. It is about realizing the democratic ideal of all people being created equal so that our politics might live into one of communities of friends caring for one another. In short, I believe a revitalized understanding of the Gospel is crucial to the choices we make as a nation this year. I invite us into conversation about what version of the Gospel might guide us in these one-in-a-lifetime choices we make at the ballot box. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, April 21, 2024

Note

1. Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Herder and Herder, 2003), 194-95. But for the sake of time, I would have continued the quote with the beginning of the next paragraph:
Peter’s adamant resistance to what Jesus was doing can be seen now in a very different light. As in the presentation of Peter’s rejection of the passion in the Synoptics, so here, Peter understands more than he articulates. At some level, the narrative suggests, Peter realizes that Jesus, by transcending the inequality between himself and his disciples and inaugurating between them the relationship of friendship, is subverting in principle all structures of domination, and therefore the basis for Peter’s own exercise of power and authority. The desire for first place has no function in friendship. The desire of the disciples (and others) to dominate one another and establish their superiority over others was frequently the object of Jesus’ instruction and reproach in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 20:20-28 and par.; Matt. 23:1-12; Mark 9:38-41 and par.; Mark 10:33-37 and par.; Luke 18:14; 22:24-27). There can be little doubt that this subject was a recurrent theme in the teaching of the historical Jesus. The foot washing is the Fourth Evangelist’s dramatic interpretation of this theme.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email