Not that kind of Shepherd!
I want to dissuade you from a certain misreading of this morning’s gospel passage. You can easily find examples of what I mean if you Google “images” and look for “Good Shepherd.” We are all familiar with those images from the walls of countless Sunday School classrooms, and Children’s Bible Story books. These are the pictures of a very gentle looking Jesus, holding in one arm an innocent looking little lamb, and a shepherd’s crook in the other. He is also often accompanied by a flock of grown up sheep, who look up at him adoringly. This Jesus’ hair is perfectly coiffed, and he is, for some reason, bare footed. Those who know better might correct me, but I would imagine that there are good reasons why most shepherds wear shoes, preferably boots. At any rate, it is clear from this morning’s reading that Jesus is not that kind of shepherd.
This morning’s readings are not about Jesus gently holding cuddly lambs in his arms, but about disagreement and division. John 10:22-30 is the second of two Shepherd parables in this chapter, and takes place two months after the first one, at the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, what we know as Hanukkah. The Feast of the Dedication is the celebration of the Maccabees’ re-dedication of the temple after the defeat of the Seleucid King Antiochus Ephiphanes, who had desecrated the temple by offering pagan sacrifice there. (It’s all in the Apocrypha.) Symbolically, Jesus accomplishes in person what the Maccabees tried to do. He is the new temple.
Now that’s a Shepherd!
In terms of the structure of John’s gospel, this marks the close of Jesus’ public ministry, his last public teaching before the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. It is the final confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish people, with whom he has engaged in debate throughout John’s gospel. The central theme of the passage is that of disagreement and division. Specifically, the Jewish leaders and Jesus disagree about his identity. At bottom, the issue of disagreement has to do with who is the real Shepherd of the sheep. By stating again the language he had used earlier in John 10, in claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus is echoing the language of Ezekiel 34: “For thus says the LORD God: Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered . . .” (v. 12) But if Jesus is the true shepherd who seeks out the sheep, then this says something not only about Jesus, but also about the Jewish leaders. For Ezekiel also says, “[B]ecause my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves . . . Behold, I am against the shepherds . . . I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.” (v. 10) No wonder the Jewish leaders were antagonistic to Jesus. In claiming that he was the Good Shepherd who sought out the sheep, he was also indicating that they were the bad shepherds who were under divine judgment. In other words, the shepherds have been killing and eating the sheep, not caring for them. They are the thieves and robbers that Jesus mentions in John 10:1, the ones who do not enter in by the door, and the sheep do not follow them. Again, this is not the sweet image of the Sunday School pictures.
There is also a second theme. If the identity of the Shepherd is at stake, so is the identity of the sheep. Who are the sheep? They are those who hear Jesus’ voice. If the Jewish leaders are not hearing Jesus’ voice, then they are among those who are not the true sheep. As Jesus says, “you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” (John 10:26) Do not worry if if the metaphors are a bit mixed. This happens a lot in the discourses in John. Jesus is the Shepherd, but he is also the Door. The Jewish leaders are bad shepherds, but they are also sheep who do not hear the true Shepherd’s voice.
So that is the second theme, the subordinate theme. Not only who is the Good Shepherd, but who are the sheep? Who is God’s true representative—Jesus or the Jewish leaders? Who are God’s people? Those who follow Jesus or those who do not hear his voice?
Those are the primary narrative themes of the passage. What are its theological implications? How might it speak to our contemporary situation? One possible way to address that question is to talk about election, because election really has to do with the question of, who are the people of God? Of course, election is itself a controversial issue. There have been divisions in the Western church since the time of Augustine of Hippo about what it means that God has called and chosen certain people, and other people seem not to be called and chosen. I wrote my dissertation about this question, and I am aware of the heated passions that this issue raises. I know the arguments and counterarguments used by about every possible variation on the topic. Because it seems always to lead to irresolvable arguments, one of the questions that has sometimes been asked is, Can election be preached?
I do not intend to preach a particular theological position this morning. I will be happy if you cannot tell whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian, or, to address more contemporary issues, whether I believe in the Openness of God, middle knowledge, possible worlds, a static or dynamic notion of time, pre- or post-volitional foreknowledge, or something called Eternity-Time Simultaneity. (Yes, that is just how complicated this discussion has become in contemporary philosophical theology.) It is helpful, I think, to remember some advice I first heard from my friend and colleague Leander Harding. In dealing with irresolvable disagreements, it is usually helpful to distinguish between positions and interests. There is a difference between the positions that people defend, and the interests they are trying to protect by defending the positions. In what follows, I intend to focus on the interests that I think are essential to any properly Christian understanding of election. If you want to know my position, talk to me later.
So, first, election is primarily about Christ. This was perhaps the chief insight of Karl Barth’s theology of election. Barth noted correctly that Ephesians 1 says that we are chosen in Christ, and Barth was emphatic that any theology of election that was not about the good news that God has redeemed us in Christ cannot be preached. A good example of the proper way to preach election is found in Thomas Cranmer’s words of distribution in the Book of Common Prayer.
The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.
The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for the, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.
If our theology of election will not allow us to say sincerely and with complete confidence, “Christ died for you; Christ’s blood was shed for you,” there is something wrong with our theology of election. If our theology of election will not allow us to say “Feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving that he did indeed die for you,” there is something wrong with our theology of election.
The primary question raised in John’s gospel reading this morning has to do with who is the proper shepherd of God’s people. Throughout John’s gospel, he is clear that it is Jesus who is our Shepherd because Jesus is God’s personal representative. He is not only a spokesperson for God, but he is the Word incarnate, God’s Son, come among us. In the last verse of this morning’s reading, Jesus states: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
This is still a dividing issue in our post-modern world, even, unfortunately, in the mainline Christian churches. When people say that they admire Jesus, but they do not believe he is God, or that Jesus is a way, but not the way, they are in fact answering the question differently than Jesus does in John’s gospel. They are saying that Jesus is not the true Shepherd of the sheep. They are refusing to say that Christ died for you.
At the same time, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd is not obvious, at least not to all. It should be obvious, but it is not. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24) Jesus’ answer to them is that he has already told them. The works that he does in his Father’s name bear witness about him, but not every one believes, because not every one is part of his flock. Not everyone hears his voice (v. 25-27). That is as true now, as then. Jesus Christ is one with God, but his deity is hidden in his humanity. It is hard for many to see God in the life and death of a Jewish Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
A really good Shepherd!
So, first point. Election is about Jesus. Any doctrine of election or salvation that is not about Jesus is a false gospel. Our salvation is entirely and completely the work of Jesus Christ. As sheep, we are to look to him as the Good Shepherd, and only to him.
Second, if there is a Shepherd, there are sheep. Who are the sheep? They are those who hear the shepherd’s voice. But at the same time, those who hear the Shepherd’s voice are those who have been given to the Son by the Father. As Jesus says in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.” As the Son dwells in the Father, so he shares his life with the sheep, so that the sheep dwell in him, and also dwell in the Father. Jesus uses metaphor on metaphor in John’s gospel to ring the changes on this theme. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches (15:1-6). Jesus is the bread of life, and we eat his flesh and drink his blood (6:35,53-58). Jesus is the water of life, and whoever drinks from him will never thirst (4:10-14; 7:37). Those who believe in Jesus will not come into judgment, but already have eternal life (5:24). The message to the sheep who hear the Shepherd’s voice is that he gives them eternal life, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 28)
So, second point. If we are sheep, it is God who makes us sheep, not us. Jesus is the Shepherd, and he calls us. We do not call him. The Father gives us to Jesus, and Jesus keeps us safe. No one snatch us out of his protecting hand.
There is a third point. Election is also about our response, and our listening to the call. The sheep are those who hear the Shepherd’s voice. If no one can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand, Jesus also says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (15:11-2) The branches cannot bear fruit of themselves, but must dwell in the vine, and there is a frightening warning for branches that do not abide in the vine. They are thrown away and wither, and the withered branches are gathered and burned (15:6). There is both grace and responsibility. The reading from Revelation 7 this morning provides an interesting parallel. Who are those clothed in white robes? They are those who have survived the great tribulation. Their robes have been made white in the blood of the lamb. He will be their shepherd, and “he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:14-17)
So, third point. The Shepherd’s call is about both grace and response. We are the sheep because we are called. We are secure, and no one can take us out of his hand. But, at the same time, we are his sheep because we hear the Shepherd’s voice. We will experience his protection in suffering and persecution and opposition, and going through great tribulation, after which he will wipe every tear from our eyes. So there is responsibility. Our job is to hear his voice, to trust him. In hearing his voice, we look not to ourselves, but to him. It is his hand that keeps us. We do not keep ourselves. But we keep looking to him.
Finally, what then of those who are not the Shepherd’s sheep, those who do not hear his voice? What of those who break in and steal, who do not enter by the door? Do they not hear because the Shepherd does not call them, because he does not lay down his life for them because he is not their sheep? There have been theological traditions that have tempted to say this. If the sheep are those who are called, and who are led to the Son by the Father, then those who do not hear the Shepherd must not be sheep. They must not have been led by the Father, they must not be called, and the Shepherd must not have laid down his life for them.
This, however, is not an interest, but a position. In order to say something about the Shepherd and the sheep who hear his voice, we feel we must say something about those who do not hear, who must not be sheep. But the biblical texts nowhere say that those who do not hear are not called, that they are not sheep whom the Shepherd seeks, that he does not lay down his life for them. Rather, the texts seem to presume that if the hearing is always a gift, the lack of hearing is self-imposed—not an inability to hear, but a refusing to listen. Jesus responds to those who challenge him with “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly,” that his deeds have already answered that question: “I told you, and you do not believe.” And, “you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” (10:25) He does not say, “I have not called you.” He does not say, “the Good Shepherd does not lay down his life for you.” To those who claim they see, but really see nothing, he says: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” (9:41)
At the same time, Jesus does not allow us to believe that all who are not currently part of the flock are necessarily to be identified with thieves and robbers. Earlier in John 10, he had said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (10:16) In this passage in John’s gospel, Jesus is almost certainly referring to the Gentiles—to those of us worshiping here, who are mostly not Jews. We Gentiles are those other sheep. And, yet, other passages in the New Testament, for example, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46)—more shepherd imagery—indicates that there will indeed be surprises. We cannot simply assume that all who appear to be sheep are necessarily sheep, or that those whom we might think are certainly goats are not perhaps unsuspecting sheep.
So, last point. If we are his sheep, it is because he has called us. If we fail to hear his voice, we have no one to blame but ourselves. At the same time, we should not presume to decide for ourselves who are sheep and who are not. We might be quite wrong about who has heard his voice, and who has not, or who may just be the one wandering sheep out of the ninety-nine that the Shepherd is seeking even now (Luke 15:4-7).
So, in conclusion. The Shepherd calls you. Listen to his voice. Trust him to keep you. Share the grass with the other sheep. Tell the goats where to find pasture. They may be sheep after all. Don’t worry about the thieves and robbers, and leave the rest to the Shepherd.