42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No 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.”
When this passage begins, Jesus has just healed the man born blind. Many of you know that’s a favorite passage of mine because it has a word not only about Christ’s healing, but also about how we can follow Jesus without really understanding who he is or what’s going on and how that’s OK.
In that passage and in the story of Jesus as a whole the religious leaders are not able to see Jesus for who he is. He doesn’t fit their expectations of a prophet or Messiah. He doesn’t fit into their little box, so they see him as a threat. As the ninth chapter closes, Jesus says that since the Pharisees won’t acknowledge their blindness, since they cling to their way of seeing the world, they will be accountable for their sin. Meanwhile, those who come to Jesus for healing will find forgiveness.
This chapter picks up from there. The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is gaining momentum. Here, Jesus takes the offensive. He says everyone who sneaks into the sheepfold is a thief. In other words, the leaders who seek to control the religious life of the Jewish people are imposters, pretending to be something they are not.
The sheep, the people of Israel, know the true shepherd’s voice. That’s why the crowds come out to listen to Jesus. There’s something about his voice, something about his teaching that draws them in. His words aren’t always easy, but somehow those who hear his voice know him and trust him.
The sheep instinctively follow the shepherd’s voice, but not the voice of those false shepherds. The false shepherds, the Pharisees and temple rulers have to resort to threats and power to gain a following. Plenty of leaders in the Christian church have done the same. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it’s not the way of our shepherd.
The reason the sheep follow their shepherd is that they know he will care for them. Any shepherd of any flock is skilled at defending the flock from attack. Jesus, the good shepherd, even lays down his life to protect his sheep. Not only does he lead us in the right direction, but he goes to any lengths to protect us.
Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. Jesus says he has other flocks besides the most obvious one. One day all those flocks will be part of one flock. In the first century, talking about other flocks meant that Jesus was calling everyone to follow, not just Jews. The church’s first controversy was the place of gentiles in the church. Jesus reminds his audience that there are sheep they don’t know yet who are part of his flock.
For us that’s not the main issue. Most of us are gentiles in terms of our ancestry, but we still need to be reminded that we are not the only flock. Not only are there Presbyterians and Methodists and Catholics who follow Christ, there are African American, white, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern sheep who follow the same good shepherd. There are sheep from every imaginable cultural group and belief system. There are straight sheep and gay sheep and trans sheep who follow the Good Shepherd. There are sheep that look very different from the flock we are used to, but Jesus says one day all those different groups of sheep will be one flock following a single shepherd.
I love the image of Jesus leading us all out of the sheep pen and then going in front of us to show us the way. I love the thought of recognizing Jesus’ voice and following him trustingly. What would it feel like to follow the voice of the good shepherd? Just imagine the peace of knowing you are in good hands, following a shepherd who loves you so much.
But then there’s the part of me that worries about where Jesus might lead me. The truth is, I want to be in charge of where I’m going. I don’t usually feel like following any shepherd, even a good one.
Plus, Jesus goes places I don’t want to go. He doesn’t have any stability in his life; he doesn’t plan for the future; he doesn’t do anything to protect his comfort or possessions or way of life. The path the good shepherd follows leads to the cross. I don’t know if I want to follow a shepherd like that.
There are other paths we can follow instead. There’s the path our culture maps out for us, a path of independence and hard work. A path of acquiring possessions and building a comfortable life for ourselves. That path has a lot going for it. For one thing, many of the twists and turns of that path are such basic assumptions of our culture that we don’t even notice them.
We often don’t even question our consumer culture. The purchases and ads that make up our daily life seem like just part of the landscape rather than a path we consciously choose. But those things are part of a path, in fact a very particular path. It’s a path that leads to tremendous consumption of resources. Such consumption that it’s not sustainable if we look very far ahead of us.
It’s also a path that feels wide because the assumptions it’s built on are part of our culture, but many people are left out. While the idea is an ever-increasing standard of living, the reality is that for working people real wages have fallen since 1970 while the pay for those at the top of the economic pyramid has grown astronomically.
The actual path to prosperity seems to be narrowing. Many families are totally off the path with barely enough to survive. Others are struggling to stay on the path: even though in contrast to most of the world they are wealthy, it never feels like enough and it never feels secure. The path we’re on is easy to lose track of and the cliffs on each side are steep.
There’s also a path of dogmatic faith, a path with high walls on each side to keep people in or out. This is a path that has no room for difference or questions. It’s a path full of judgment and certainty and strictly enforced rules. That’s the path the Pharisees followed in Jesus’ day and it’s sometimes the clearest path we see. Its great attraction is that it takes the complexity out of faith. There are clear rules and life is seen in black and white.
In contrast to these other paths, the path Jesus leads us on is sometimes rocky and often surprising. It leads to the cross, or maybe it begins there, but it also leads to an empty tomb and green pastures. It is narrow, but there’s room for everyone who wants to follow. The twists and turns can be unpredictable, so the only way to stay on the path is by following the shepherd’s voice. Even if we loose the path, and most of us do from time to time, we can always find our way back by listening to Jesus’ voice.
The other sheep on the path might surprise us too. Many of them don’t look like we do; they have different customs and wear different clothes. Many of them might not feel comfortable in the church, but they are following the same shepherd because they know and trust his voice too.
It’s not always easy to hear and follow Jesus’ voice because there are lots of other voices out shouting for our attention. Fortunately, the community of faith, the gathered flock of sheep can work together to listen for our shepherd’s calling. In our passage from Acts we get an amazing image of the early church, an image of joyful, simple love and fellowship.
There’s little structure or ritual. The believers learn and pray and eat together. They make sure everyone has enough. The believers are so dedicated to one another that they shared everything they have. Because of the depth of their fellowship and the power of their faith, new people constantly come into the community and the message of God’s love spreads quickly. Community life like that amplifies the shepherd’s voice. Being with other sheep makes it easier to follow Jesus.
So what does Jesus call us to do today? He calls us to let go of our tight grasp on possessions and to leave the path drawn out for us by advertisers and corporations. Like the thieves and bandits Jesus warns about, they come only to scatter and destroy. In fact, when we look around our Rochester community we are scattered: many of us don’t know our neighbors well and feel isolated. He calls us to let go of our judgment and self-righteousness as well.
Jesus calls us to new life, abundant life. Not the abundance of new cars and big TV’s, not the certainty of self-righteous faith, but the abundance of community and sharing and service. Our Presbyterian Church took an exciting and difficult step in the right direction this week. A majority of our presbyteries approved an amendment to our constitution that permits ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. One of the things we notice when we watch Jesus is how he welcomed everyone, especially people society excluded. This recent decision brings our denomination in step with the welcoming spirit of our shepherd.
At the same time, this decision is challenging for many in our flock. Many committed Christians fear that in changing our ordination standards we are leaving the voice of our Lord to follow the calling of our culture. I understand their concern because I feel the danger of following the culture’s temptation. At the same time scripture is alive by the Holy Spirit and the path we follow isn’t simple repetition of the past but joyful response to the voice of Jesus.
It has been inspiring to read stories of people called to Christian leadership who felt like they had to hide part of who they were but now feel free. It has been humbling to hear how our church’s exclusion has caused so much damage, but how those wounds are now starting to be healed. We keep listening to our shepherd’s voice and Jesus keeps leading us in new pastures.
In our life at Laurelton I feel Jesus leading us to renewed engagement with our immediate community. Our Saturday Café is a great outreach ministry and there will be more of that to follow. On the first Sunday in June we will hopefully worship outside and welcome our neighbors to a picnic lunch. That event will not only welcome our neighbors, but it begins a week of service shared with our other Urban Presbyterian congregations. There will be opportunities to serve in building projects and serving meals. The path Jesus leads us on is often surprising, but always full of love and joy.
Thanks be to God.