IV Easter, Year B
1 Jn 3:16-24
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
(1 John 3:16-24)
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the
Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
The critique of religion has deep roots. In the last 50 years, you might recall the various sub movements within Christianity where this is evident (the Jesus movement, liberation theology, ethnic theologies, feminist theologies etc). Further back you could point to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans or Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity. One might go back further still to Feuerbach, Marx or Kiekegaard. Or the Blumhardt’s. Or post-Enlightenment philosophy. One might suggest that the critique of religion has it roots earlier still in the Reformation. Or earlier still, in the monastic movements of the Middle Ages. Its roots are much deeper than that. Christianity is shot through with its own internal self-critique, right from the start, because it takes its cue from Jesus who took his cue from the prophetic tradition of Judaism.
In the prophetic tradition, particularly that of Ezekiel and Zechariah, there arises a solid critique of religion that utilizes the shepherd metaphor for religious authorities. The same parallel is drawn in the good shepherd discourse. Two different types of religious authority are being characterized; two different expressions of faith are being contrasted. Jesus’ situation, vis a vis the religious authorities of his time, is not a retrojection of early Christian experience back onto his life. Rather Jesus’ life situation is the explicatory mode they used to frame their experience. Even so, the problems inherent in ‘religious expression’ are virtually universal: an inability to hear what is wrong with the current outlook/system, a denigrating of the revelation of God, exclusion or extrusion, self/system-justification, etc.
This is the reality of religion. This is the structure of transcendence created by humanity in sacralizing victims. This is the reality of myth. This belief structure ultimately crumbles before the gospel because the good shepherd will lay down his life. His life cannot be taken from him (10:17-18), he lays it down. This is programmatic, for by this Jesus is saying that he cannot and will not be sacralized. His life is freely his and his alone to give and not anyone else’s to take.
These sayings caused division according to the Fourth Gospel. We can’t recall the last time we heard anyone preach on this discourse cause division. What causes division? Jesus refuses to allow ‘the system’ to define him or circumscribe him. His participation in the system of victimage is not that of an innocent crying out, or an innocent spouting hate and retaliation. In his dying, he commits his life to the Father, thus refusing to allow his death to be used to further constitute religious systems. Even if humanity should take the steps to end the life of Jesus, they cannot kill him, his life is his to lay down and to pick up again. It is the clearest indication we have yet on how Jesus understood his death to be expressed as forgiveness. As he hung dying he did not hold anyone responsible for his circumstances, and neither did his Father. In dying and through death, by his refusal to participate in any fashion according to the mimetic rules, Jesus once and for all destroys the power of the curse of mimetic scapegoating. He proves himself to be a good shepherd, one who models the positive life of the Father even and especially in the midst of those who seek to take what cannot be taken, to grasp what cannot be grasped, but which can be given, viz., his life.
“He is the good shepherd. Just as all the waters of the earth point to the one living water, and as all bread on the earth points to the bread of life, and as all daylight points to the light of the world, just as every earthly vine is contrasted with the ‘true’ vine, so too every shepherd in the world is contrasted with the good shepherd. Shepherding in the world is only an image and pointer to the true, proper shepherding which is shown in the rule of the Revealer. It is in this sense that Jesus is the good shepherd. Of course the Evangelist might have put alethinos instead of kalos. Yet kalos brings out the Revealer’s significance in a particular way; for kalos refers not only to his absoluteness and decisiveness, but also to his ‘being for…’” (The Gospel of John)
Bultmann has put his finger on an element of exegetical importance for our appropriation of mimetic theory. Once again, we detect an underlying theology of the cross for here, as Bultmann later notes, what distinguishes Jesus as the good shepherd from ‘hirelings’ is that Jesus will ‘stake his life for his sheep.’ This self-giving is consistent with the rest of the I Am sayings in the Fourth Gospel.
Hoskyns, like Jeremias (‘poimene’ article in TDNT), and unlike Bultmann finds sufficient explanatory background in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, he nuances it this way: “It should however be noticed that, important as is the Old Testament background of the parable of the shepherd and the sheep, it fails to give adequate expression to the supreme truth of the Christian revelation. Consequently, in Mark 14:27-28, the description of the false shepherd in Zechariah 13:7ff is transformed into a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the Fourth Gospel the whole parabolic heritage is focused upon the picture of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep that he may take it again (10:15-18). The parable is completed only when it has borne witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus.” (The Fourth Gospel)
C.H. Dodd, following a suggestion of John A.T. Robinson, sees two smaller parables meshed together here. After observing Synoptic and Johannine material Dodd concludes that “all belong to the same realistic scene of pastoral life in Palestine.” And that in both Johannine parables (1-3a, 3b-5) “as in the Synoptics, the dramatis personae act in character. At no point does any unnatural feature suggest that allegorical motives have colored the picture. There is good reason to believe that the material was drawn from that same reservoir of tradition as in the Synoptic parables. In what follows, 10:7-18, the evangelist has exploited it for his own purposes.” (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel)
What we have here is the same thing we see all over the later half of the Synoptic tradition, Jesus reflecting on the character of his dying and death. And the importance of reflecting his Father’s love all the way to the end. If he does not do this, if he gives in and reacts or fights, then all is lost. Jesus’ mission is not complete until he dies, but it is how he dies that is essential to the gospel. He is the good shepherd that lays down his life to save his sheep.
That is the smaller picture. In the bigger picture, John 10 is linked to the story of the blind man in John 9. The division that occurred in the synagogue is repeated again in verse 19. If in fact we are to think of the Hebrew Scriptures providing background for our text, this division is already mentioned in the Zechariah shepherd texts. At any rate, just as in Luke 15, the antagonists in the story are religious leaders. It is the religious authorities that are compared to ‘hirelings’ or ‘thieves.’ It was the religious authorities who came ‘to steal and kill and destroy’ (sounds a bit like our Satan, doesn’t it).
Who is being criticized as a thief? Schnackenberg concludes that the text probably does not suggest that the ‘thief’ is to be identified with the Zealot movement exclusively (false messianic movements), nor yet with the high priestly circle of leadership. Rather, it is the Pharisees, as religious spokespersons “whose attitude toward the man born blind in Chapter 9 exemplifies and illustrates cunning and violence. What also bears this out is the comment in v 8b, that the sheep do not heed them. The evangelist then focuses upon Pharisee-led Judaism contemporary with himself and levels his ‘pantes…pro emou’ at all bad leaders of Israel standing in the way of faith in Jesus.” (The Gospel According to John, Vol 2.).
Johannine scholars have noted the possibility that at the time of the writing of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine community was undergoing a separation from the synagogue, perhaps reflecting the addition of the ‘curses against the minim (heretics)’ in the 18 Benedictions recited in synagogue. But one notes from the New Testament record that there were continual problems between the emerging Christian followers and the religious authorities, whether in Rome, Galatia, or Jerusalem. The Birkat Ha-Minim was not the start of something, but the culmination of seeking a clear process of separation. The ‘curses against the heretics’ effectively shut off Jewish Christian dialogue from the Jewish side. The results have been disastrous for 2000 years (witness the development of Christian anti-Semitism).
Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that our author reflects the painful separation he and his community experienced in their ‘diaspora’ from Judaism. It should also not surprise us to find that he does so reflecting on the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of Jesus’ death and his diaspora. Just because the early church made use of Jesus’ sayings and deeds, does not mean they fabricated his story. An author 50-60 years removed from an experience is certainly going to recall it a little differently as life progresses.
As far as our author was concerned, ‘blindness’ was the category by which to describe religious authorities. You would really tick a lot of people off if you were to suggest the same thing today. It was no different then. And what is it that the authorities are not able ‘to see?’ They are not able to distinguish the good shepherd from the thief. Their metaphors about God were all mixed up. As a consequence they act like hirelings.
Later this summer, during Pentecost, we shall have several weeks to look at John 6, and utilize the thesis of Peder Borgen regarding the homiletic structure of John 6 and the author’s use of Jewish techniques of interpretation (midrash). For now, we wish to note that for the Johannine author, as for the tradition developed in the Synoptics, stories and sayings of Jesus meant something in the here and now. They were not afraid to take his stories and sayings and ‘think them through.’ For the early Christians, Jesus was alive. His presence with them was as real as his presence during his time on earth.
Clergy usually do one of three things with this text:
1. They talk about the sheep (which the text does not do)
2. They frame John 10 in terms of Psalm 23 (which the text does not do)
3. They note the ‘laying down of life’ but proceed to interpret it sacrificially (which the text does not do)
What clergy do not do, and what would be exceedingly uncomfortable, would be for us to ask ourselves the question as religious authorities: are we hirelings, or worse yet thieves? Do we preach a good shepherd? Do we preach a great shepherd who “will equip us with everything good that we may do his will, working in us what is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ?” (Hebrews 13:20-21)
In 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer mused to his friend Eberhard Bethge that we were moving toward a religionless time. Bonhoeffer was not quite correct in his assessment. Just as it did 75 years ago in his own time, religion in the 21st century has been transformed by its close relationship with nationalism. Everyone, from the President on down, is ‘praying.’ We pray in churches across this country every day, and every day we pray about this war. We talk about this war with our God. Well, so does the other side. Many on both sides want victory. Some on both sides mourn and protest. But both sides have taught their followers that this war is about right and wrong, and peace through justice, which is nothing more than peace through revenge. When the mimetic mechanism gears up for its meal of death, as is happening right now, religion, as we know from our study of Girard, becomes the moral reinforcement of good violence, and voila! you have a just war. Both sides think this way.
Do we actually think God has taken sides in this war? In any war? Is he not the good shepherd, not only of us but also of others who are not in our ‘fold?’ Have we so lost touch with the active self-giving of God in Jesus Christ that we can no longer see the implications for ourselves as sheep led by the good shepherd? And what does this model of self-giving mean for clergy who shepherd the flock of Jesus Christ? To follow the good shepherd is to know ‘life overflowing in abundance.’
Can we ask: how does the non-Christian world perceive Christianity? Does it look at the Church and see sheep who follow a good shepherd? Or does it see an institution that has come to define itself in terms of power, greed, excess, following shepherds who look for bigger paychecks, larger congregations, better buildings, more prestige?
In America today, we have preachers, many preachers, who do not or cannot see that they do not follow Jesus. The model of Jesus they have been given or learned is a cultural mimetic double of the Living Lord. Their Jesus resembles the Jesus of the Gospels only at the superficial level. Where Jesus in the Gospels critiques and exposes systems, institutions and cultural attitudes, these preachers applaud and reinforce them (in the name of security). Where Jesus forgives sinners and includes the marginalized, these preachers damn sinners to hell and exclude the marginalized (in the name of holiness). Where Jesus loves enemies and teaches peacemaking, these preachers justify all manner of death and war (in the name of the Pax Americana).
In short, it is no longer Jesus that is being proclaimed in the churches, at least, not Jesus as He is presented in the Gospels. These are false shepherds announcing a shepherd made in their own image. Little wonder then that Christianity has lost its credibility and its healing power. I do not think we are moving toward a religionless time, but I do think that at the rate we are going we may well be moving toward a Christianless time, a time when Christianity will lose its voice. Then it may be the ‘little flocks’ tended by ‘good shepherds’ that will thrive. Underground perhaps, as in the early church. And that might just be a very good thing, for the church, and for the world.
What then, shall we say to our congregations? This text is something to be preached in the context of Sunday worship. How shall we make this meaningful to them?
What false shepherds do our congregants experience on a weekly basis? If you’re reading Preaching Peace, I doubt you’re one of them! You and I are called to preach Good News on Sunday morning. Where is the Good News for our congregation here? I think it’ll vary greatly from one congregation to another, but of one thing we can be sure. Each of the people sitting in front of us on Sunday deals with a shepherd during the week whose understanding of reality is grounded in sacrifice.
I begin my preparation for this sermon by asking myself, “What ‘other’ shepherds are occupying the thoughts of my folks this week?” It may change from week to week. Indeed, it probably does. I find that the more locally I can identify these shepherds, the better. Prayerfully, I come back to this question over and over again until I have a good sense of the shepherds other than Jesus they’re dealing with.
I do this because I want to contrast Jesus with the shepherd’s they’re encountering. I want to remind them as forcefully as I can the kind of shepherd they have in Jesus, and then ask them, “Now, what kind of shepherd do you want to be?” I think that over-emphasizing the shepherd role of the clergy person in the congregation is a left-over of the sacrificial hierarchy that obscures the way that all the members of Christ’s body are called to be incarnations of the shepherd that Jesus was/is. This is where the “localness” of the shepherds referenced earlier works better than reference to someone distant, no matter how powerful. The hearer’s identification with the role of shepherd is easier to miss when they can say to themselves, “Yes, but I’m not the president/bishop/governor…” In the eschatological world of the Gospel, every person shepherds others, just as all are shepherded by Jesus. The Good News does draw us into a new set of relationships with others, but it does it as a natural response to the new relationship into which we are drawn with Jesus.
“How can I know that I am saved?” This question has vexed the Christian tradition. From Calvin to the Puritans, down through the great revivals of Wesley and Finney and on into our contemporary times, Christians have asked and answered this question in a myriad of ways. One way this was solved was for Christian preachers to urge their followers to examine their lives and see if they met the standards set forth by the church. Each church had it’s own tradition as to what constituted ‘salvation.’ At times these traditions included long laundry lists of do’s and don’ts. There are many examples, I offer three: the Catholic medieval Penitentials (books of penance for specific sins, introduced by St. Patrick to Ireland and thence expanded and promulgated in Europe), the Calvinist code of conduct (found especially in the Westminster Longer Catechism), and Anabaptist (sectarian) Ordnungen (rules of conduct). Of course, Bible Book Stores have plenty of books on what constitutes a ‘successful’ (sic) Christian life. Rules for living have played a large part in Christian existential reality. The problem comes in that we live not by rules (works, law) but by grace and faith.
For the writer of First John there are only two rules: “believing in the name of Jesus and loving one another” (3.23). These rules are the ecclesial translation of the great commandment to love God and neighbor. God is now seen as revealed in Jesus and the neighbor is specifically the Christian brother or sister with whom one has been joined in community by the Holy Spirit.
Some might have objections to this. Some will say that these are too limited and easy to follow, others will say that love for neighbor includes everyone, not just Christian sisters and brothers.
To the first I would say this: loving God and loving the brothers and sisters in the community is the most difficult thing we do. It is in the Christian community that we practice what it means to live a life of love. It is here that we learn how to fight fair, how to forgive, how to care for one another. Pious loving of God is easy, concrete real loving of the one who is different than us, who thinks differently, who is struggling or addicted or down on their luck is much harder.
To the second I would say this: until we learn to love those closest to us, those with whom we have a baptismal covenant, those with whom we break bread, we will never learn how to love those ‘outside.’ If we do not love those in the community our love for those outside the community is only a guilt-ridding façade by which we assure ourselves that our ethics are compassionate.
Where do we practice this in the church? First in our most committed relationships, those where we have made a life long commitment (marriages and partnerships). A recent study indicated that the divorce rate is higher among Christians than it is in the secular world. Why is this? Because, for all of the bravado and posturing, we have not yet learned the quiet art of forgiving and being forgiven by those we live closest with. We have not yet practiced 70 x 7 the kind of generosity required to sustain a committed relationship. We let the poison of bitterness seep into our souls, sustain grudges and hold each other up before a tribunal of ‘hurts.’ And then unable to deal, we walk away. This is not the kind of love Jesus has commanded us to have with and for one another.
Second, we practice this in our family of faith. This means learning to accept those who are different from us, whose political affiliations, doctrinal systems and personal lives differ from ours. It means having lots of conversations and interactions, not just social tête-à-têtes, but real authentic encounters, getting to know the warp and woof of the other. It means having frequent shared meals together, choosing to go outside our little cliques and meeting those whom we secretly fear.
When we have done this, we are strong as a Christian body, then we are ready to go to those outside our community. Church is the place where we practice love; it is our rehearsal room.
When our love for God is expressed as genuine love and compassion for one another then we can be assured that our love for God is genuine. Otherwise this love is little more than narcissistic, self-serving and perverted piety. Love for God is not ‘obeying God’s rules’ while we care less about the needs of those in the community. Love for God is modeled when we imitate God’s love for us in Jesus and give our lives away to our brothers and sisters. The negative mimesis of hatred, scorn and aloofness give way to positive mimesis, meeting the needs of the other, seeing that they have those things that help to sustain life: food, clothing, shelter and lots of love (3:16-18).
When we live this way then, and only then will our prayers be effective (4.21-22). The Christian churches today spend a lot of time praying but there appears to be little visible or tangible response to our prayers. I would suggest this is because most of our prayers are self-serving and we no longer believe that we are called to really live a life of healing, wholeness and genuine compassion with one another. If we would, then the power of God would be manifest in our existence as Christian community and the world would see that indeed, God has done a mighty work among the churches. Let us then ‘love one another.’
Verses 19-20 contain significant translation issues. The older commentary by B.F. Westcott (The Epistles of St. John) has an excellent section on the issues surrounding the translation of πειθω (persuade or assure) and the whether the ΄οτι’s are to be taken as relatives or introducing a resumptive clause. I translate “And by this (the fact that we love in actuality not just ideally) we know that we are of the truth and we assure our hearts before God for if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
Many churches have some sort of social ministry to the neighborhood or the community. These are to be lauded. They play an essential and dynamic role in bringing the ‘goods’ possessed by the community to bear on the needs of the secular community. Some churches even have a fund that can be used by the pastor or designated persons to disburse funds to those in need. These too are to praised and not taken lightly.
My concern this week is that there are impoverished persons sitting in our pews and we don’t even know it. Some have lost jobs, others are struggling to make ends meet, many have over spent and lived a lifestyle that is not simple, but lavish and are having to down scale. Each of these groups will have different needs. It is the truly needy in the congregation I think we are called to be truly aware of, not those who might lose their million dollar homes and have to (God forbid) live a simpler life, but those who are on fixed incomes or lack adequate health care or spend lonely days wondering why no one visits.
The poor do not just exist on the streets but in the pews. There are children who are dying for affection from busy, drained or emotionally unavailable parents, there are marriages/partnerships crumbling from within, there are folks whose electricity will be shut off or whose cupboards are bare, who collect change and turn in soda bottles for milk money. It is these First John calls us to reach out to, we who have excess, can afford vacations to exotic places, who drive luxury cars and eat well every day.
This means that as a Christian community we must be spending time in each other’s lives and sharing our burdens with no shame, for in the church we are not judged by loved back to physical, emotional and spiritual health. We must practice what we preach and we practice best in the church community.