... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Easter 4 Year B, Message April 29nd, 2012

The Ideal Post Resurrection Community

Text: John 10:11-18

While the Easter event is the powerful dynamic in-breaking of God’s presence into human history, the season of Easter moves us from the resurrection to comprehend what God has called us to be as a God-centered family. The free-willed sacrifice of Jesus on Good Friday combined with the power of God’s raising him on the third day to new life becomes the gift of new life and new meaning for all people. Thus in these Sundays after Easter we see our focus shift from the post-resurrection appearances and encouragement of faith to the nature of God’s work in a newly covenanted community.

Today is perhaps the most poignant of those images of God’s work in the new community as we listen to the various shepherd imageries of Scripture. Often called the Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter bids us to explore the ideal of communal living and the model of leadership necessary for true life. The foundational element of this is love – divine love in which every essence of one’s being is concerned with the lives of others. The two great examples of this are Psalm 23 and John 10.

One of the toughest jobs a preacher has to contend with is preaching on biblical passages familiar to all. What new light can be delivered from such well known and often quoted passages AS Psalm 23 and John chapter 10? These passages are often used for comfort in times of distress, reassurance in the face of uncertainty or consolation in the midst of grief and mourning. Yet the passages are about life, about community about the ideals of leadership and, about service one to another.

To help us understand these themes we must first of all consider Jesus’ first statement and see it in relation to the wider picture John gives us. Following the healing of the blind man and the subsequent dialogue which is spoken in the presence of some of the Pharisees, John tells us Jesus launches into two very short and pithy metaphors: the first about the sheepfold and its gate and second about the gatekeeper or shepherd. In verse 9 Jesus states he is the gate and then 2 verses later he states he is the good shepherd – elaborating on the 2nd pithy metaphor. It is here that we pick up today’s passage.

When Jesus used the term, “I am the good shepherd” we are immediately brought to recall the name God gave to Moses to tell the children of Israel who God was to be known as – I am. In effect Jesus tells the people – including the Pharisees standing close by that God is the good shepherd and that in that declaration points to himself as God’s obedient servant which is further emphasized later. The other important thing we need to realize is that the English word ‘good’ unfortunately does not capture the real essence of the Geek word ‘kalos’. Yes, ‘kalos’ means good, but it also means sound, noble ideal true faithful or praiseworthy. It implies the perfect example or paradigm. Hence Jesus opens his explanation with God as the perfect paradigm of shepherd.

Now having stated this, Jesus shows himself in light of the perfect or ideal shepherd. Just as God and Jesus are one in their relationship so is Jesus one in the leading of the flock and that leading is explained in three distinct statements two of which begin with I am the good shepherd and the last with a paradox revolving around freedom and obedience.

The first I am the good shepherd statement contrasts the life commitment of the ideal leader with that of the false one or hireling. The true shepherd is willing to die for the sheep whereas the hired hand basely runs away leaving the sheep to the wiles of the predator. Likewise the good shepherd feeds the sheep and cares for them in good times and in bad, whereas the hired hand neither feeds them nor cares for them especially when the going gets tough. The contrast was possibly intended for the ears not of the general audience but of the Pharisees and elders who were also “eaves-dropping”. As elsewhere in Jesus’ admonitions of the religious leaders of his day and their predecessors, his teachings highlight the self-centeredness of those who had set themselves up as leaders of the people. These leaders had forsaken their calling and their duty, leaving the people to fend for themselves, while they the leaders lined their own pockets and became rich at the expense of the populace. The ideal leader, the one true to God’s calling would not do such things, but would look out for, tend to, and assist with the well-being of those over whom she or he had been given oversight.

This caring is the object lesson of the second ‘I am the good shepherd’ statement. Whereas the first statement delineates the function of the good shepherd or ideal leader, this second one lays out the moral character or foundational premise for that function. Meaning that the leader and those who follow must be in a proper relationship of love and understanding just as Jesus states, “I know my own and my own know me.” There is a mutuality of concern, of support, of trust which breeds a union that will result in prosperity for the community. An intimate relationship binds tighter both shepherd and sheep in an inexplicable way in the same way Jesus and God the Father are one. The flock is thus able to function in unity, each individual knowing the other, knowing the rules, the movements and the expectation of one another. It also means there are no strangers and none should ever feel left out.

This might at first seem strange especially in light of the common misperception of sheep as dumb animals. However if you have ever seen a flock of sheep you know that they seem to move in unison. While at peace grazing they may seem scattered and individualistic, but as soon as danger comes or they hear the shepherd’s call, they seem to move as one knowing where to go and how to act. Similarly when they are on the move, the usual tendency is for them to be led rather than corralled as you might see with a herd of cattle. Sheep are not dumb, but very astute, and while we in modern 21st century urban and suburban society might not encounter flocks, we might be able to appreciate the beautiful and poignant illustration Jesus uses for the functioning and relationship within an ideal society.

There is however one small warning which Jesus addresses and that is of the human tendency for exclusivity. Unfortunately within Church we see it all the time – one group not recognizing another. Cloaked in terms of denominations or 1st world 3rd world, haves or have-nots, we draw borders around ourselves and lock out the others. Jesus, however, states he has others, acknowledges these others and points to a time when all will be one. Such is the ideal and we are bidden to learn, heed and incorporate the lessons into our lives.

Finally comes the Paradox – the freedom versus the obedience. The ideal shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the good of the sheep and indeed he did – it was of his own free will that Jesus went to the cross. But it was done in obedience to the will of the Father. Therein lies the paradox – freedom versus obedience. If one obeys does one give up freedom? If one is free where lays obedience? The answer resides in the meaning of love and the meaning of unity in relationship. Jesus and the father are one, and in that unity Jesus’ freedom was in his obedience to the Divine Will. Freedom is not an arbitrary self-choosing but is grounded in divine Will. And what is true for Jesus is also true for those who follow.

This is the message of the Easter season. What Jesus accomplished at Easter has ramifications for future life in the Easter season – it lays out the ideal for a new society, a new way of living and a hope for all time. May we by God’s grace and the help of the Spirit grow toward this ideal in our Easter season.