I vividly remember the first time I felt completely unprotected. In fact, as an adult reflecting back on the event, I am more horrified than I was experiencing it as a child. It’s one of my earliest memories; I was just three or four years old. My father, who was then a young man in his twenties, had a friend who was over, showing off a new convertible sports car. A sports car that my father, in all of his paternal wisdom, had refused to let me near. They were saying their goodbyes, and I, a willful child that had spent the better part of the day begging for a ride in the two-seater, decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. My father’s friend had not understood what the big deal about the car was, so when I climbed into the small space between the driver and passenger seats as he was leaving, I remember him saying, “Let’s have a little fun with your old man.”
The engine roared to life, the car jumped forward, and then swayed lithely from side to side as the air around us filled with the screech and stink of spinning tires. As a child that spent life drifting little matchbox cars around imaginary race tracks in my mother’s yard, I was in ecstasy. I felt my stomach hug my spine in an awkward embrace as the tires grabbed the asphalt and the car surged forward. The moment was testosterone fueled bliss until I turned to look over my shoulder at my dad, thinking he would be just as excited as I was. My father was shrinking quickly, but the look of panic was growing. Of course, all my little eyes could interpret on my father’s face was anger, so I began immediately to plead with his friend to turn around and take me back. He said, “Sorry, I’m already on the road, and I have a quick errand to run. I’ll bring you back later.” I remember feeling vulnerable, helpless, and completely convinced that the look on my father’s face meant bad things for me. So, I did what any reasonable terrified child would do. I lashed out like a cat trying to dodge a bath. I kicked, screamed, bit, and pulled hair.
Today, I think back and am amazed that he was able to keep the car on the road with a feral preschooler attacking his face. Needless to say, I made it home and was not permanently harmed in the incident, though, I never saw my dad with that friend again. For me, the enduring lesson of that day is that there are circumstances that will leave us feeling unprotected and out-of-control. It was obviously a powerful moment for me as a person, because it was the day that the childhood illusion of safety was broken. All things considered, though, it is a nice story to tell because it is also a safe lesson. There was no lasting harm. We might even be able to enjoy the humor of visualizing a raging toddler wrapped around the head of a man driving down the road in a convertible.
The unfortunate reality that this world is not a safe place remains, however. It is harsh, but nonetheless true, that many people learn that they can be made vulnerable in violent and horrific ways. Some are made vulnerable by having their source of protection snatched away by accident or illness.
And, of course, we all gather today with a sense of questioning and grief. We are concerned, and we contemplate the losses that we as a nation have suffered because of recent events. Around our country this week, (and I assure you around the world,) so many innocent people learned that they can be made vulnerable – that this world can be an unsafe place.
We have the happy coincidence of a Gospel reading that addresses these exact issues this week.
Of particular interest, especially in light of recent tragedies which include the bombings at the Boston Marathon, is the fact that John utilizes an exchange between Jesus and “the Jews” in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication to illuminate a new paradigm. This feast is probably better known to us as Hanukah. It is significant that the Jews ask a question about whether Jesus is the Messiah at the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, because this is the very Temple Judah “the Hammer,” or Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Seleucid army, winning back the Jews’ right to worship freely. It’s an event retold in your Bible in the book of 1 Maccabees.
As a result of his heroics, Judah “the Hammer” earned a spot among other beloved leaders in Jewish history. He stood out along with the likes of King David as a warrior-leader, and many began to wonder whether he was the promised Messiah. We know from other passages in the Gospels that some near Jesus expected that he would fulfill their desires for a warrior-king in likeness of King David or Judas Maccabeus. They waited for a courageous leader that would lead the Jewish faithful in an uprising that would bring down an oppressive Roman occupation and elevate Israel to its former glory. It’s likely that these Jews in John chapter 10 had a similar hope in mind when they ask Jesus to demonstrate plainly whether he is the Messiah during the Feast of Dedication.
Jesus’ response, then, might have come as somewhat of a shock when he explains that he has already demonstrated clearly that he is the Messiah. They sought proof of an insurrection, but he calmly explains that one of Yahweh’s other promises has already been fulfilled in their midst. Jesus recalls imagery of the promised shepherd of Israel in his response. While many throughout the Jews’ history were intended by God to fulfill the role of protector and nurturer, they all had failed. Jesus points out that the signs and teaching he provides are proof positive that he is the Good Shepherd of Israel.
It is somehow fitting, during this terrible week that we read a passage where many Jews found themselves under oppression, yearning for the justice and retribution that a military hero would bring, only to find a Messiah that planned to bring about a different reality, a Messiah that promised to fill a different need.
This passage in John provides an opportunity for even deeper reflection, though. Present in this passage is a demonstration of the early church’s struggle with the person of Christ. For the first few centuries of Christianity, scholars and church leaders wrestled with the paradox of Jesus’ dual natures. It was their struggle, and interestingly enough, it remains one of our struggles. Just how should we understand the person of Jesus Christ? How does Jesus exist as the eternal God that became truly human?
The answer comes in part from how St. John handles our Gospel reading today. When Jesus claims to be the Messiah by fulfilling the promise of the Good Shepherd he does so by giving a simple equation with a surprise twist that shocked the Jews.
Jesus tells them, the answer that they seek has been plainly revealed, but they don’t believe, because they do not belong. Here’s how he says it works: the Father sent Jesus, the works Jesus does in the Father’s name testify about his status as the one being sent.
Jesus’ ability to work signs is God’s ratification of his ministry and status. God’s ratification comes, because Jesus is a righteous, loving, obedient son. According to Jesus, all of this is possible in the first place, because Jesus the Son, and God the Father are One.
In John, Jesus declares that we can know what God is like by seeing what Jesus does. In his declaration as Messiah, Jesus drops a bomb and essentially says, “Your promised deliverer isn’t just sent from God, He is God.” Further, Jesus explains that his purpose in coming is to make the Father known. And here is an essential lesson in our theology. If you want to know what God is really like, look at what Jesus does.
Up to this point in Jewish history, God’s chosen people have relied upon the Old Testament to be a demonstration of God’s true nature and will. This is a difficult thing, even for the Jews, because the Old Testament is comprised of many documents that are in tension with not only each of the other documents but also within themselves. For centuries, the Jews were left puzzling out what God was like through the way they saw him acting in their own history. Consequently, as they texts of the Old Testament follow the historical events of the Israelites, you see how the people interpreted their experiences in relation to God. When they were obedient and victorious, God was a bloody warrior-king or a majestic-mysterious presence right in their midst. When they suffered oppression for their sinfulness as a nation, God was distant and indifferent to their plight – he was an absentee father or a scorned lover.
Regardless of the ways these texts point to how God was acting in Jewish history, one huge problem remained for the Jews (and remains for us). God was transcendent. He was distant and enormous. He was “out there,” even when he was acting on their behalf or sitting in the holy of holies. God remained utterly unknowable and totally unassailable.
But in our Gospel reading Jesus promises that God can now be known, because he is here in the flesh. Working backward through Jesus’ own statements; if he and the Father are one, then the works that demonstrate his Messianic identity are also the works of the Father. We need Jesus to show us what God is like in terms we can understand. God, being eternal and transcendent, becomes knowable through his own humanity. Consequently, we have a clear way to understand what God is like. We just have to look at Jesus.
It is a powerful declaration, then, that when pressed in the temple at the Feast of Dedication to prove whether he was the Messiah (you should understand this to mean, “If you’re the Messiah we expect, then it’s time to get with the military campaign”) he prefers to be the Good Shepherd and not the Warrior-King. When faced with the plight of humanity and the oppression of the Israelites, Jesus chose to be a protector, healer, teacher, and priest – a suffering servant. He did not choose to incite rebellion, to call down angelic armies, or debilitate the regime of the oppressor – he is not, here, a conquering hero. All of this is particularly significant, because he expects us to receive his actions, miracles, and signs as a direct expression of what God is like.
Many of us will struggle with this, especially in light of recent events. We want evil to be eradicated criminals to be apprehended, and perpetrators to be punished. When we are robbed of security and peace, we want the thing that disturbed our lives to be removed, abolished, or controlled. These are exactly the kinds of things the Jews wanted their Messiah to do for them. Instead, he taught with patience, healed with compassion, loved with no boundaries…
In the midst of shocking realities like the fact that Jesus represents God in the unity of the Holy Trinity or that his purpose as Messiah would be to deal with the hurt of humanity through love and healing, we might just miss the promise in this morning’s text. So, let’s read it again…
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”
We find that all of this is happening in our own lives within the larger context of Eastertide. So, what should we do in light of the Resurrection? Of all the metaphors that Jesus’ uses for his relationship to the world, you’ll find many of them rely heavily on a notion of companionship. Among others he is the Vine that abides, the Bread that sustains, the Water that quenches, the Light that endures, and (here) the Shepherd that is known by his sheep. Why do the sheep know his voice? Because they know him, and because they abide with him.
It is because of this, and because as Christians that intentionally follow the pattern of Christ’s life year in and year out, that we understand that walking with Christ in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection means that we ought to do those things that he has done. By participating in his life, and doing those things he gave us to do by example, we are enacting the will of God in this world. We become participants in the building of his kingdom, energized and enabled by the power of the resurrection.
Therefore, we could not have hoped for a more clear indication of how to respond to the evil we see in this world. In being shepherded by the Good Shepherd, we learn what it means to be a shepherd to others – to protect, to guard, to love, and to serve others. These are the actions of God himself in the face of suffering, pain, and evil.
So, what exactly does shepherding others look like? I know it has become somewhat kitschy to quote at this point, but as the British wartime adage goes, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
It’s simple. It’s succinct. It points to the fact that many of you have spent lives dedicated to bringing about good. Just because evil rears its ugly head in horrific ways, it doesn’t mean that your work is in vain. It means that we must continue to do good work, to continue to train others to do good work, to support and love those that have not yet learned how. It means that we continue to shepherd in our own small ways, in spite of pain or trouble. Keep calm and carry on in your good work.
Allow me to suggest that you already know the voice of the shepherd, and in turn know what to do to shepherd others.
First, you should pray. I learned quickly this week that I did not want to spend a lot of time reading news reports on the internet, especially the comment sections. One commenter, presumably of some faith or other, stated early that she was praying for all those in Boston. Another person, presumably of no faith, commented back, “Yeah, sure, pray…great way to make yourself feel like your doing some good without actually doing anything. What a waste of time.” I have to admit that my initial reaction was, “well, there might be a point there” and it bothered me – but, the more I reflected on it, I began to realize nothing was further from the truth. When we engage in genuine prayer, we are not only petitioning action from our God, we are also making a concerted effort to humble ourselves and be changed by the Holy Spirit. If everyone in this world made a genuine effort to purge their lives of selfish ambition, pride, and all those things that drove us to act only in our own interest and not in the interest of others, this world would indeed be a different place. WE would be a different people. Pray. Pray for yourself and pray for others.
Second, you should give. I know the immediate thing that jumps to mind is giving economic resources, and it’s logical. We constitute a physical people in a physical church with physical needs. We all give in order to continue the ministries of this church. But, please, do not stop there. Do not underestimate how much it means to others in this community when you give of yourself. When you volunteer your time, your talents, and energy, you are giving sacrificially. It is a personal sacrifice that is meaningful, valuable to the community. It is a sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord, and beneficial to your own growth. Give. Give out of your resources. Give out of your time. Give out of your abilities. Give of yourself and give to others.
Third, you should worship. Our personal acts of worship are for the glory of God, but there are beneficial to us personally and to our congregation. When we bless God and each other with our worship, we both demonstrate and proclaim that the light of the world cannot be overcome. When violence seeks to silence, we should sing louder. When despair tries to darken, we should shine brighter. When evil threatens to steal our hope, we should trust our Savior and throw ourselves at his feet with abandon. When we come together to worship we encourage and strengthen each other. I must confess that I was eager to get to church this morning – both to check on you and to connect with you. Your presence here is valuable. Your hugs, your smiles, and your interactions make this a wonderful place to be. Your worship helps the light of Easter to shine more brightly.
In seeing the actions of Jesus we know the character of God; and in sharing the power of his resurrection we are enable to so behave. Because he is the Good Shepherd, we are able to shepherd others. These are the basis of our ability to see the weak and the vulnerable protected. They are the foundation of our confidence that the light of good, that the light of Easter, will continue to overcome the darkness in this fallen world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!