4/22/18: The Good Shepherd, The Good Life, John 10:1-18
The Good Shepherd, The Good Life
Third in the series, Resurrection By Candlelight
First Lesson: Psalm 23
Second Lesson: John 10:1-18
All four of the gospels report that in their time on earth with him, the disciples didn’t understand just what Jesus was about. They knew there was something special about him, they knew the way the felt in his presence, they way people looked at him when he spoke, when he healed them, when he told them about the coming reign of God and how they were a part of it. But they didn’t understand just what all this meant, and even more, what it would cost him.
And so in our Scripture lesson today from the Gospel of John, we do what the disciples would have done over those first weeks following the resurrection. We look back into the life and ministry of Jesus, remembering things he said, things he did, and we see them with resurrection eyes.
Surely one of the scenes they would have remembered and seen with these new resurrection eyes was that time just some days or weeks before he would be crucified when he was confronted by some Pharisees after healing a man born blind. It was a big ordeal: with this group of leaders from the temple trying to get to the bottom of it all, questioning the man’s parents, questioning the man himself, questioning Jesus. And it’s after these things, when Jesus is there talking with the Pharisees, the disciples standing by, trying to explain just how this healing is meant to point them to this much larger thing he is ushering in: namely, the reign of God on earth—when all the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
And he tries to tell them just how he fits into this work God is doing. And so he draws on one of the most familiar images of heavenly care and concern available to him—something that, biblical scholars as they were, they surely would have known. He tells them, “I’m the Good Shepherd.”
Now, there are many shepherds in the Bible. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David—all were shepherds. And so maybe it’s not surprising that the shepherd emerges as one of the most common and powerful images for God in scripture. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
Probably the most comforting, soothing words in all of Scripture—and certainly the most well-known, the most deeply embedded—and they describe God as the good shepherd who both takes care of his sheep—providing for them what they need, green pastures and still waters, and two, when necessary defending his sheep from harm.
With the words of this psalm ringing in his ears, Jesus tells them, This is who I am. I’m the good shepherd who cares deeply for his sheep, who knows them. And I’ll do what must be done to protect them. And then goes a step further and describes just how far he’s willing to go to protect and defend these sheep: I lay down my life for my sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
Surely these words in particular would have come alive for his disciples when they looked back on that day with resurrection eyes: Jesus laying down his life to protect his sheep.
A powerful image—and so central to the Christian faith. In fact, it’s so central that at times me may simply take it as a given, but I wonder just for this morning if we could ask the question of how, exactly, he did this? How did Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life, to submit himself to death on the cross, how exactly did this protect his sheep?
Now, we might be tempted to answer this question with atonement theologies available to us in other places in Scripture: that Jesus was given up as a “ransom” to the devil for our sins. Or that his death “paid a debt” we owe to God. And these are images found in some form or another elsewhere in Scripture, mostly in Paul, and they’re fine and good and can be powerful. But I want to lay them aside for just a moment today and submit to you that Jesus had something different in mind here in John. And we don’t need to look outside his own words here in the 10th chapter to see what he meant when he said his crucifixion and resurrection would protect his sheep from harm. As I see it, all this has to do with the first part of being a good shepherd: not just protecting sheep from harm, but providing for them. Leading them beside still waters, and to graze in green pastures. Or as Jesus summarizes it, seeing “that they have life, and have it abundantly.”
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
We typically point to John 3:16 as the spiritual center of John’s gospel and maybe even the New Testament as a whole, but the center of John’s Gospel may actually be found here, seven chapters later, in this verse. Jesus came that the sheep—us, we—would have life, “and have it abundantly.”
“Abundantly,” he says. The word in Greek means “beyond the regular number or size,” or, and this really gets it for me, “something more than you would expect.”
Life beyond the life you expect. Isn’t that it? And there’s no doubt a hint of eternal life here, or life beyond death, but remember he’s talking about being a shepherd to sheep now, in this life. Making sure they have still waters and green pastures now. Making sure they’re taken care of, protected, defended, loved, now. Not sometime in the future. The abundant life Jesus speaks of, that he came to bring, life that’s beyond the life you expect, isn’t just life that continues after you die. It’s life that begins while you’re living. It’s when you truly begin to live.
In other words, abundant life, the life Jesus intends for us, the life he came to give, the life that’s more than you’d expect, is what resurrection looks like before you die.
Do you believe this?
Do you believe this kind of life is possible—this life that’s more than you have come to expect?
Have you lived it before?
I remember when I was working in the Mississippi Delta for Habitat For Humanity after college, there was one public elementary school for our entire county. It was an incredibly poor county, and so like as is so often the case, these kids tended to stay poor, after school just circling back into the same systemic, generational poverty in which they were raised. Maybe getting one of the few jobs available and seeking out a modest living, but probably not. There were very few ways out.
But one of the teachers at the elementary school, some years before I got there, had determined that one of the main problems these kids faced that she might be able to do something about, was a lack of vision outside the small world of rural poverty they knew. As the story goes, it hit her one day when she was talking with some of her students and learned that they didn’t know what an elevator was. They’d never seen one. They’d never been in a building with an elevator before—think about that.So she knew she had to do something to raise their vision, to expand their world, and let them know there was more out there than she knew. So she applied for grants and found a way to take the entire third grade class to Washington DC. They rode on a charter bus, most of them for the first time. They traveled outside the county, outside the state—most for the first time. And they went all the way to our nation’s capital and saw all the monuments of a history that until that point they probably had not claimed as their own. They even rode and elevator. Can’t you imagine all of them out there, being shepherded through the green pastures of the national Mall? Being led beside the still waters in front of the Lincoln Memorial?
By the time I arrived some years later, this had become a yearly trip. I remember seeing some of the Habitat kids after coming back from that trip. Their eyes had never been wider.
A life that’s more than what you’ve come to expect. Isn’t that a kind of resurrection?
I heard a story recently of a church, Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York City, who some years ago—2011, I believe—did an incredible thing.One of their youth, Afrika Owes, who had been raised in their church, participated in their elaborate program for neighborhood kids: sports teams, Bible classes, cultural enrichments activities—all of it—had nonetheless fallen victim to the streets and been arrested as part of a cocaine ring. Upon hearing that one of their own, who was so bright with so much potential, had slipped up in such tragic way, they got together and asked what they could do. They decided they would start by pulling money together to pay for her bail, which was set at $25,000.
“This was just devastating to us,” one of the pastors there, Rev. Eboni Turman was quoted as saying. “This was not supposed to be Afrika’s story. She was supposed to be headed to Barnard (a prestigious prep school for which she’d won a scholarship). She’s a voracious reader, a girl who wanted to be a writer, a poet. She’s a girl who just stands out. And after this happened, some of us felt, ‘If we can’t help someone like Afrika, who can we help?’”
The judge wouldn’t allow the church to post bail without a church-wide vote, so one was help. It passed 470 to 1. And they bailed Afrika Owes out.
“Could we do this for every member of our congregation?” one of the members said. “No. But there was a feeling among us that here was somebody we could still catch.”
In other words, she was one of theirs. They had to go get her.
Lest we think the “abundant life” of which Jesus speaks is some me-first, “live your best life now,” prosperity gospel nonsense, he reminds us that abundant life, this life beyond what we expect, extends beyond whom we might expect. He tells them, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold. I’m bringing them, too. So there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
What an incredible statement.
Who knows who he’s talking about. He doesn’t feel the need to say, and so I don’t feel the need to speculate. But it’s probably enough simply for us to remember that abundant life isn’t just life that extends beyond our expectations; it’s life that extends beyond ourselves. It’s life that involves our neighbor. It’s life that involves those who we might be surprised to know it involves. And if we would call ourselves the sheep of Christ’s pasture, followers in his journey, participants in his resurrection, then we might consider what it would mean for us to give up a little of own lives to make the lives of others just a little more abundant.
Oh, and it turns out that wasn’t the end of the story for Ms. Afrika Owes.Five years later, after rehabilitating her life, with the help of her church, she graduated with honors from college and won a Fulbright scholarship. She traveled to South Africa to teach English and classes open American culture. She said she wanted to work with at-risk youth and help them fund a creative outlet to express themselves.
Maybe to give them a life beyond what they’d expect.
Abundant life. Resurrection.
Thanks to dear friend, Alan Sherouse, for passing this story along. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/nyregion/abyssinian-church-posts-bail-for-star-student-caught-in-harlem-gang-crackdown.html