I John 3:16-24; John 10: 11-18
1 John 3:16-24
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How 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? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him
20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23And 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. 24All 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.
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.”
The gospel of John is problematic for many reasons. The first is that this gospel, more so than the other three is polemical. It is not only written for one community of people. It is written against another group of people. In particular, it is a polemic against the Pharisaic temple leadership, the code name used through out the Gospel is “the Jews”. Whenever you see “the Jews” in the gospel of John, it is referring to the Pharisaic leadership, not a slam against all of Judaism as it has been tragically interpreted in the past. So that’s one problem.
The second problem I have with John is the style. Jesus’ words are far more enigmatic in John. Jesus’ words seem to bounce from one point to the next without any real connecting points at times and we’re left scratching our heads as to what the gospel writer is trying to communicate.
Third, and we’ll deal with all of these, but this is where I really want to spend our time this morning, is that fact that John, more so than the other Gospels makes claims both about the divinity of Christ and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ that are troubling, and divisive in a multicultural interfaith world.
So let’s deal with John. The fourth gospel was written possibly as late as 90 CE, a good deal after Jesus’ earthly ministry, and two decades after Jerusalem was sacked by Rome and temple was destroyed. What survived after the temple was the beginnings of rabbinical Judaism, not based on the temple for worship, but based on teachers who would guide and interpret the law. Pharisees were part of that rabbinical tradition and Jesus himself taught in the Pharisaic tradition, though it is evident that the content of his teaching was very different than other Pharisees.
The polemic here is that Jesus is a different kind of leader. He is a good shepherd, not just in terms of morality, but in terms of compassion, mercy, and love. Again, English does us a disservice in having only one word for good. “Agathos” is the greek word for morally good. “Kalos” which is the word that Jesus uses here is not about moral quality, but about goodness of heart. Caring, compassion, loving. The Pharisees, were “good” in the moral sense. They followed the laws. They did the things that were considered to be upstanding. Jesus demonstrates a goodness that goes beyond morality to compassion.
This compassion becomes self evident in sacrifice. This is really at the core of the Gospel message. God’s love is manifest in a kind of love that is able to reach outside of its own need and see the need of others. A love that is willing to give up its own comfort in order to be of service to others.
But wait a minute… this can’t really be a polemic about Jesus vs. the Pharisees, can it? How is that helpful? Sure it’s a good story. It gives Jesus antagonists, and that’s fun, but does it help us? Well it doesn’t if we take it out of the context of the whole of the Gospel of John. If we tie it in to what we heard on Maundy Thursday, then it begins to become clear. This love that the good shepherd shows for the sheep is the same love that we are to have for each others. It is the same care that Peter is told to show for the sheep at the end of John’s gospel. The role of shepherd transfers from Jesus to his followers. Okay, so far so good….
But then Jesus throws out that he has sheep that are not of this flock, but will hear his voice. What on earth can that possibly mean? It could simply be a nod to the fact that the movement that Jesus and his disciples began would be one that included Jews and gentiles and people from all nations. But even that begs a question: a sheep that belongs to Christ?
This is probably a different question than what you might think I am asking. I’m not asking do we know who is saved or not. I honestly don’t believe that that is a question for us to try to answer. But I do think there is a couple of threads here that need to be tied together.
As I put these together, I can’t help but think of two things related to Mahatma Gandhi. One of my favorite quotes of his was speaking to a group of Christians he claimed ““I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Could it be that Gandhi heard the voice of Christ maybe better than some of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus? It’s easy to argue that someone who chose the weapon of non-violence to resist a system that dehumanized people knew quite a bit about what Jesus was up to.
Here’s the second story related to Gandhi: It actually was in the preview for Rob Bell’s controversial book “Love Wins” that came out last year. In the preview, Bell talks about an art show that his church held. One of the artists produced a piece of artwork that had a quote on it from Gandhi, I think it was Be the change you want to see in the world. One of the attendees of the art show asked the artist, “why would you put a quote from Gandhi on your art? You know he’s in hell because he wasn’t a Christian”
I can’t stand this kind of thinking. For some reason we’re supposed to believe that a God of love will condemn people to eternal damnation because they didn’t believe a certain creed or sign on to a confession, despite the way that they lived their lives? I don’t buy it.
Here’s what I do buy: there are people in this world who live into the values of the kingdom of God. People who respond to the voice that calls out for mercy and justice in the world. There are people of goodwill in of every race, nationality, and every religion and I often find that I have more in common with those outside my own tradition who believe in peace and justice than those within it who believe in violence and domination. I would rather work with those who believe in non-violence and who love selflessly who hold to a different faith or no faith at all, than those of proclaim my faith tradition but are interested only in themselves.
In 2010 we met Daisy Khan. Khan is married to the Imam who was behind the Cordoba initiative also known as the Ground Zero Mosque. We heard her speak at the Chautauqua Institute and I was so amazed by her graciousness in response to questions, particularly when those questions were outright disrespectful of her faith. As we had a chance to listen to her story and share a meal with her, the impression that she left me with was that she wanted the same things out of the world that I do. She believed in justice, and compassion, and non-violence AND she was frustrated with those of her own faith who used their religion as an excuse to make war. It was not hard at all to find common ground with her. If love is at the heart of Christ’s teaching, then isn’t possible that those who love, in selfless ways as the good shepherd himself loved, isn’t it possible that they are one with us as well? That they are of the same fellowship, whether or not they proclaim the same faith?
The letter of first John makes it clear that love is shown, not in the words we proclaim, but in the actions that we take. Do we truly believe that Christians have the market cornered on loving action? Do we really think that we have mastered the notion of self sacrificial love? One my favorite stories last year, during the Arab Spring uprisings of last year, was about a group of Muslims in Egypt who went out of their way to protect the Coptic Christians in Cairo from the chaos that was swirling in the streets so that they could get to and from their worship services in safety. It was a beautiful picture of love in action.
What’s at stake in this conversation? Quite a bit. One of the great challenges in this age, where people across the globe are becoming more connected and more religious at the same time, we have to ask ourselves what role will our faith play? Will we be people who draw lines in the sand around doctrine, creeds, and confessions or will we open ourselves up to dialogue with people who may not share our confessions, but share our goals. Will the fact that we speak different words or call the infinite God by different names get in the way of the fact that we share similar values and common cause?
When we lived in Portland during the summer of ’06, we found ourselves connected to a group of friends and neighbors, most of whom were very “unchurched”, some atheists, some spiritual but not religious, some outright atheist. As we got to know this group of people during the summer, it was really hard to condemn them for not wanting to go to church on Sundays. During the week they were caring teachers, social workers, advocates for environmental justice, and case workers. I sort of got the sense at times that they were too busy making the world a better place to go to church. The Church hasn’t had the best track record in many people’s eyes, so sometimes we have to work a little harder to build bridges to those who are about the work of justice and peacemaking in the world without the perceived baggage that the church brings with it.
And at the same time, we cannot lose the unique power and witness that our faith brings to the table. I hope that you have been following what has been going on with the Leadership conference of Women religious, the group of catholic nuns who have been formally reprimanded by the Vatican for their stances on homosexuality and challenging the notion of a male-only priesthood while simultaneously doing amazing works of love and compassion with the poorest of the poor in the world. One of the nuns, Sister Joan Chittister was a speaker at a conference I attended several years ago. She is an amazing woman! Much of what she said was way over my head, but at the heart of her message was the fact that the church has spiritual resources that the world desperately needs right now and that we have a unique place to speak life into the hurts of the world. To speak resurrection, if you will, in the midst of death. She challenged in saying that our spirituality is how we live out the teachings of Jesus in this particular time. While Sister Joan is a Catholic and I am a protestant, she definitely speaks my language.
I believe that Jesus’ flock is made up of all those who love in action and in truth, whether they call themselves, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, or if they’d rather avoid labels all together. And I think it is our role to reach out to people of goodwill, however they may situate themselves, to be healing presence, a tangible sign of the resurrection in a broken world.