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

EASTER MESSAGE - May 22nd, 2011

Christianity: An Alternative Household


Today is one of those particular Sundays where the lectionary readings are so well known that the preacher cringes with trepidation in how to bring fresh insight into these foundational passages. While some might agree that the passages from Acts 2 and 1Peter are not all that well known, no one can say that about the others: Psalm 23 or John 10. In fact three of the readings are easily recalled as soon as one suggests the term shepherd. Psalm 23 and John 10 paint the marvellous and familiar relationship of trust that the sheep have in the shepherd and the peace protection and serenity that come from that relationship. 1 Peter on the other hand points out at what cost to the shepherd this peace protection and serenity are procured. The safety of the sheep comes with great sacrifice, for the opposing forces are violent and relentless. Yet the cause is paramount. And what is this cause? The answer is to be found in verse 10 of John’s Gospel, “That they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Understanding this one sentence will help us see afresh the Good Shepherd story and also give deeper appreciation to Psalm 23 and 1Peter. However, to unfold this we need to see the Gospel passage for today in its broader context. That context begins in chapter nine where Jesus heals the blind man and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The whole story is actually a three part play with the first scene being the healing; the second part where the miraculous healing is disclosed to the Pharisees and their incredulous response; and the third scene where Jesus confronts the Pharisees; and in an interpretive discourse involving parable and allegory, Jesus attempts to teach those who would listen – and that includes not only the Pharisees but also the audience.

The parable or allegory is not about biological sight but about spiritual and moral sight. Blindness as typified by the healing miracle was not about the physical inability to see – for as the disciples question about sin concerned the inability of people to see beyond the present, the here and now, the concern of the day was to see and understand the Kingdom of God and what that would provide. Thus the man healed by Jesus and given sight is a foil over against the Pharisees, who supposedly can see and interpret scripture, are cast as blind and ignorant of what God has truly revealed. Notwithstanding this contrast, the objective behind Jesus’ words are to open to all people, Pharisees and audiences included, what the Kingdom of God has to offer for life in this world. And in this regard we must ask ourselves, “Do we really grasp the vision that Jesus has for the world?” Have we truly grappled with the concept that we have to let go of our attempts to control, and let God?”

Unfortunately, Jesus’ words come in riddles and mixed metaphors, and while there may have been better appreciation for this type of teaching some two thousand years ago, the Pharisees didn’t quite get it, and sure as shooting many of us don’t get it either. I remember in seminary having to deal with this passage and as soon as one of us tried to interpret it for the rest of the class someone, usually the Prof. would make some statement or ask a question which would shatter the interpretation. As we look at the parable Jesus tells his audience at one point he is the shepherd and at another point that he is the gate and at yet another that he is the owner of many different flocks. To try and meld the various metaphors or to explain the whole illustration probably detracts us from the real image that Jesus’ aim or vision is, that all people might have abundant life and his sole purpose is to provide for that – whether he is seen as the shepherd, the gate or the owner.

With this understanding let us look at the first metaphor, or Jesus as shepherd. The true shepherd tends the sheep, nurtures them, and heals their wounds and deformities whereas the thief or bandit is out for personal gain at the expense of the sheep. The true shepherd is able to present himself to the opening of the pen and the gatekeeper, who by some interpreters is the Father recognizing him, allows the gate to open and to allow the sheep to hear his voice. The thief on the other hand must sneak into the sheepfold and skirt the proper channels. By subterfuge and masquerade the thief might try to lead the sheep astray but in the end the sheep will know. Such an attack on the Pharisaic class was sure to provoke them to antagonism. Yet, some must have understood and an opening of understanding and a desire to learn more. Nicodemus was probably one such who would be healed of his blindness.

Prior to leaving the metaphor of shepherd we must note that the teaching scene extends past today’s reading to verse 42, with the shepherd image up to verse 21. In those other verses we hear the clear not of Psalm 23 which lays out what Jesus’ vision of abundant life is. Abundant life is the protection, the tranquility, the trust and the relationship between the Divine and the human. It is not a promise of pleasures and lack of difficulties. It is not a promise of fair weather sailing or lack of opposition. To the contrary, what the Good Shepherd offers is spiritual restoration, guidance along the righteous pathways of life and the peace of knowing that despite the assaults of evil, strength to carry on is but a prayer away. These promises are something only the true shepherd can fulfill – the false shepherds – the hirelings will succumb to the hardships and run leaving the sheep or people defenceless and distressed.

Jesus on the other hand is not the hireling but the true shepherd and through him the relationship with the Father has true meaning. In this sense Jesus is the gate – the portal – to receive all that the Father has promised and what the psalmist has experienced. Jesus’ role is to bring God’s saving love to the world and in that role he becomes the access point which even in death must survive so that all generations throughout time and space might have the accessibility to that love.

What this means for the church and the people of the world is of utmost import, for it is only in coming to unfold Jesus’ words, Jesus’ personhood and Jesus’ Messiahship that we can be led into these fertile pastures of abundant life. Those who lose their sense of Christology, who would water it down or ignore Jesus entirely, risk the slippery slope of despair and the distinction of humanity. When a church loses its relationship with Christ it will fail and now perhaps more than any other time in human history we risk failure. With the call of the false shepherds of materialism, consumerism naturalism and egoism, all promising greener pastures it will only be with a strong personal and corporate relationship with Jesus that will save us from those dump yards which the false shepherd would have us believe are the banquet halls of life.

As Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and allowed them to see as he broke bread, may he also open our eyes in the community of the whole people of God that we may see and experience true life, abundant life, and the total peace which only comes from the Father.