FOR THE Fourth Sunday in Easter, we read from the Gospel According to Saint John. Within this text we flashback to the time when Jesus spoke openly to an audience in the temple, using familiar symbols for his hearers. Coming to us, therefore, is the Word of God as understood by first century followers of Jesus. Our Lord had said to them…
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)
Our author John describes a scene that occurred in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. That annual feast celebrated how Israel remembered God’s guidance upon the nation. Historically, God brought his people through wilderness wanderings, out from their bondage in Egypt. He had raised them up above others to be his own people. But, even before the dust had settled the people began a wobbly path between sin and allegiance. So, it was surely fitting that during this festival, that Jesus spoke to those gathered in the temple. He cited the prophecies concerning his own ministry that had begun. Our Lord’s talk recalled for them…
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:10-11)
Jesus recalled that for the people that the speaker in this prophetic text is God, the Eternal One, set apart from all else. We may rightly understand then that both the hearers of the message in the temple… and John’s first readers, would think of Israel’s religious leaders as mere hirelings. Therefore amid waiting for Messianic deliverance, Jesus’ radical commitment to the community of believers was welcome to waiting ears.
We note that Jesus began the telling with the words “I am…” (in the Greek stated as, “ego ami”). These words were not only a statement of his authority to teach in the temple, but recalled for the audience that God spoke through the prophets that he is the great creator whose name is “I AM THAT I AM”. Thus Jesus’ words challenged those within the sound of his voice. He caused them to consider that he was sent by the heavenly Father, and he communicated constantly with the Father.
Thus we find the text brings us full circle. Jesus, who is sent by God as Shepherd, is the “Good Shepherd”. Thus Jesus is the person described by Isaiah. We also read another Hebrew prophet who described God’s role as divine Shepherd…
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Consequently we find that Jesus’ words in the temple challenged the hierarchy of powerful authorities. Some were revolted by being called hirelings who have abandoned the sheep. Therefore power struggle and conflict led eventually to our Lord’s crucifixion.
Note that in our reading, Jesus said that not only were the people of Israel who believed in him, his sheep… but those who believed who were not Jews were his as well. This comes as very good news for persons on the sidelines of the Jewish faith in John’s day. Consider what this lesson meant as read before the Christian people in the time of the writer. I believe that blessed John by the power of the Holy Spirit, included this text for a central reason. The church was growing in spite of human power struggles.
First take into account that great tension existed for the early Christians. You see, at the time of John’s writing, the authorities were clamping down on Jewish “Christians”. They were worshipping under growing persecution. The Jewish synagogues across the Roman Empire felt they were losing control. Jews had been subject to the piercing lance of Roman oversight, and felt great danger because the new Christian sect challenged the Law. This drew more unwanted attention to the Jews. Tensions arose. Jewish Christians tried to remain in the synagogue, but like in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry the hireling shepherds fought the gospel proclamation. They were consistent to what had occurred when Jesus spoke in the temple. To prove so, I offer…
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:47-49)
Rabbi Gamaliel, a leader of the Jews in that later era, in like manner issued “Eighteen Benedictions”. These condemned the followers of Christ. Seemingly done to fight Christian influence and keep the Romans at bay, the action was self-seeking. They thought to cast the Christians out of their midst and let the hounds of the Roman Empire feed exclusively upon the followers of Christ. The Jews who were Christian were thus used as scapegoats. But mercifully, we find that Jesus is a miraculous Shepherd. Our Lord has a way of turning goats into sheep through baptism and the power of his Word. That fact is one which neither Gamaliel nor Caesar could negate.
Just as Gamaliel’s had published the “Eighteen Benedictions”, so too people of the true Christian faith are being cast out now. Christians are often berated in the progressive press of the modern world. We stand shunned and persecuted all over the world.
But do not be deceived! Though John said that “the Jews” were the cause then, do not persecute them or see them as exclusive adversaries to the gospel message. Know that all other religious expressions also fall short. And, contrary to the modern Jewish people, others are physically hostile even unto terrorism.
You see, the difficulty the early church presented was in telling that Jesus, as the “Good Shepherd” was, is and ever shall be God. This introduced the “scandal of particularity”. That phrase describes that foolishness the modern world does not want to hear. So even now, many contemporary leaders would place Christianity amongst the plethora of other religions. Somehow they believe that if they lump us all together we shall be easy to control.
However, we know by the power of the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture, that Jesus is “wholly” and “exclusively” God. Thus as the Good Shepherd he retrieves those who are known as his own, and yet looks for the lost. Finding the lost, he retrieves us by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no one can remove us from his love. As for the others, try as they might… these cannot and never will get to heaven on account of their doings, violence and observances.
Because of this particularity, therefore, the Christian church and its faithful shall be attacked. Recent news has been of a young Christian man who was set ablaze in Pakistan because of his faith. This highlights the lengths to which some radical persons will go to cast our Lord out… even in this so-called “modern” world. We need remember, brothers and sisters in Christ, to be modern does not necessarily mean “tolerant” nor “accepting”.
Remember blessed lambs! The evil that casts you out because you are Christian is the same demonic spirit that also cast out Christians in John’s day. But by the power of the Holy Spirit the flock came through gross persecutions. As well, though your witness may not fall easily upon hardened hearts, continue to proclaim the gospel. Therefore I ask that we pray not just for ourselves. We need pray and witness the more for those who have not yet heard and have not yet believed.
Let us gather, pray, and ask forgiveness and seek empowerment for the sake of Christ Jesus, who died so that we might live and serve. It is Jesus who rose again, and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Boldly speak this good news in the marketplace, workplace and the public square. By doing so we participate in the hope of God for all.