Easter 4: 29 April John 10:11-18
Jesus, the good shepherd, reminds me of soft images of a Jesus with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while others lie peacefully at his feet. The scene is idyllic, probably conjured up in an urban environment and nourished by infant recollections of holding ‘Teddy’. For me, having grown up in New Zealand, Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud’ and of millions of sheep, the picture should be different. It would be of Jesus on the motorbike disappearing across the hills behind a cloud of blue smoke, sheep dogs in tow.
The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night, when they would often be rounded up into a small pen. John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world. The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep (in the present and the future) and which will kill him. Life and death dance together.
The celebrated verse 10: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly’ leads on to: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (verse 11). But death is not defeat. Our passage ends with Jesus saying; ‘I lay down my life in order that I might take it up again’ (verse 17). The previous verse also holds promise: there are going to be other sheep. Here we have the familiar Johannine theme: through Jesus’ death, exaltation and return to the Father, a new chapter will open. He will draw all peoples to himself. That was a central theme in 12:20-33 (see the comments on Lent 5).
The shepherd was a common image used for rulers, from ancient Egypt to Israel. It reflected both versatile strength and nurture. It was an image of engaged leadership. That the ideal king, David, was once a shepherd could easily be the creation of legend; it fits so well; perhaps it is just a ‘legendary’ fact. Ezekiel complains about the ‘shepherds of Israel’, their failure to care for the sheep (Ezekiel 34). The assumption in the ancient world is that government has a caring role, a not altogether welcome idea today among governments. John’s gospel appears to focus more on leadership within the community of faith. It flails the failure Israel’s spiritual leaders and attacks the ‘professionals’, who are in ministry for the job and not as a calling. The latter will hopefully be ‘professional’ in the sense of thorough, efficient and disciplined, but the assumption of the passage is that people just hired to do the job without personal commitment will not be prepared to lead in the dangers. In modern terms, they will avoid rocking the boat and keep themselves and their flocks safe.
The image makes the shepherd and sheep very unequal. You can see the attempt to escape this when the author speaks of the sheep recognising only the true shepherd (10:14). At the level of human interaction, this acknowledges responsibility, not just on the part of leadership, but also on the part of the community. What kind of pastors do we want, do we employ? We have a shared responsibility for connivance in the death of Christianity or for its life.
The vision of other flocks of sheep doubtless points forward to the expansion of the gospel beyond Israel to Gentiles. Such references, heard in the community of John’s gospel, would have the effect of bringing recognition to the Gentile members of the congregation. Part of caring is to be concerned about unity: one flock, one shepherd. Unity is another important theme for John. One of the best ways of achieving it is to ensure people remain committed to the life which the shepherd brings, to the calling we all share. Only such unity counts, not the unity we might feel in the safety of denying the gospel or in some other way removing the community from harm’s way or rendering it pointless in the world.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For some, various images of atonement come flooding in at this point: he became the sacrificial lamb. This may be a helpful image, but we should see that it is not really what John is talking about. Rather John is referring to Jesus’ being prepared to face danger and death for the sake of his disciples. It is not about theories of atonement. His commission (command, as 10:17-18 put it) was to come offering life. This he did. Carrying that through faithfully meant being prepared to die for it. This he did. This happened in the light of the larger goal: so that he could take up his life again and then, through the Spirit, spread it over all the world. 10:18 speaks of authority: authority to bring life. This is also the authority for all leadership within the Christian community.
Meanwhile in the Galilean hills our other Jesus cuddles his teddy and the sheep sit around in large numbers doting - it keeps them very busy and they feel good!
Epistle: Easter 4: 29 April 1 John 3:16-24
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