Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 25, 2021
John 10:11-18 Commentary
Those of you who are familiar with art may recall a funny habit that many Medieval painters practiced for quite a long time in Europe, and particularly in Germany. Artists such as Lukas Cranach and others painted many depictions of biblical scenes but they did so with the curious twist of dressing the biblical characters in the contemporary garb of the Middle Ages. Whether it is the scene in the Bethlehem stable or the one below of Christ blessing the little children, you see the characters arrayed not in whatever people actually wore in the Middle East in the first century but the attire of Medieval Europe.
But this mixing up of the old with the new and the past with the current must also have caused some eyebrows to be raised. Can you imagine what most conservative Christians today would say if some artist painted a portrait depicting Joseph in a pair of Gap jeans, Mary wearing Ralph Lauren blouse, and the magi in snappy suits from Armani?! There would almost surely be an outcry. You should not import the holy, sacred images of Scripture into a contemporary setting like that. It creates confusion, doesn’t seem terribly respectful. And anyway we perhaps risk “losing” something of the original presentation by mixing it up with the trappings of our modern world.
But in a real way, can we even avoid looking at the old through the lens of what is current? In this Eastertide lection from the Year B Common Lectionary we arrive at the most famous metaphor for Jesus in the Bible: the good shepherd. We have all likely seen one form or another of this particular image depicted countless times in most of the churches we have ever visited, on greeting cards, in artwork, and in many more places besides.
The odd thing, though, is that although the world still has shepherds in it, the experience of being with a shepherd is as foreign to most of us as being with a real cowboy in Idaho or with some Inuit fishermen in Alaska. We know that such people exist, but we don’t have much to do with them and so their jobs and lifestyles don’t loom terribly large on our mental horizon most days. We know far more about teachers, lawyers, doctors, business people, and accountants than we do about shepherds.
But although the imagery seems outdated, has humanity in the modern world really outgrown its need for someone to love us fiercely and forever the way only a truly good shepherd can? In our quiet and secret moments, we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to take care of us. As Neal Plantinga once wrote, those of us who were raised in solid and good homes carry around with us the memory of how delicious it was to be tucked into our cozy beds at night without worries that would threaten our rest. Kids go to bed without fretting about whether ice will back up under the shingles, or whether the forecasted heavy weather will turn violent, or whether the bills can be paid, or whether someone at the IRS might just find that one tax deduction a bit too creative. No, as children we wriggled drowsily in our beds awash in the knowledge that someone else was in charge and so we happily allowed ourselves to slip over the edge of slumber the way only a child can, with literally no cares to make our minds too busy to sleep.
We adults carry that memory in our sub-conscious and we yearn for something like it again. Indeed, we pine for it even more acutely because now we know what it is like to live without that security. Now we know what it’s like to wait for results from the pathology lab. Now we know what it’s like to watch a deadly storm roar ever closer on the TV’s radar scope. Now maybe we’ve gone through the pain of having to bid first grandparents and then parents and finally even friends a final goodbye.
Has our need for a good shepherd really faded just because our familiarity with sheep and shepherds is not as acute as was perhaps true for the people who first heard these words spoken by Jesus? Hardly. We still live in a dangerous world. Wolves abound. We will never come to a day when we will not need someone who will care for us no matter what. We need someone who can see every wolf that runs our way and who will get killed himself rather than abandon any one of us sheep as statistically insignificant. We need someone with the vision and the wisdom to lead us safely through the landmine-pocked landscapes of life in a world which is as bewildering as this one often proves to be.
Unless you really think that it is easy to see your way clearly through the multiple ethical quagmires that technology and genetic engineering are creating, then you need to be led around by someone vastly smarter than you. Unless you really think that you on your own can resolve the toughest questions of justice which confront us today, then you need a shepherd you can trust to lead you along toward that better day when justice will roll down live a mighty river and flood every street and back alley of this creation.
So go ahead and put modern clothing on Jesus the Good Shepherd. But however we choose to update the imagery, we cannot deny that today as much as ever, everybody needs a shepherd.
The Gospel of John is oddly devoid of the much-loved parables of Jesus that make up such a significant portion of the Synoptic Gospels. Maybe by the time John set his gospel down in writing he figured the world did not need a third or fourth re-tread of some of those great stories Jesus used to tell. Instead John took note of another tendency Jesus had when speaking: his use of the “I Am” phrase. Ever the theologian, John knew full well the resonances that phrase carries for those familiar with the divine Name as it first emerged in Exodus 3: “Tell that ‘I Am’ sent you” is what Yahweh told to Moses when he inquired after the divine moniker. And so every time Jesus opened his mouth to start a sentence with the Greek phrase Ego eimi, theologically astute people know the weight and import of those words on Jesus’ lips.
Maybe one way to liven up a sermon on a passage / an image as overly familiar to many people as the Good Shepherd would be to take a broader perspective on John’s Gospel and all those many places where Jesus utters an “I Am” saying. After all, in the course of John Jesus will claim to be a door, a shepherd, a loaf of bread, a road, a light, a grapevine, and a resurrection.
That’s not a typical way people speak.
Years ago on the news program 60 Minutes the singer Paul Simon said that not long after Simon & Garfunkel released the iconic song Mrs. Robinson with its refrain “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” DiMaggio himself contacted Simon to express bafflement as to what that line could possibly mean. After all, DiMaggio had not gone anywhere—why, he was a spokesman for Mr. Coffee now! “He had not yet,” Simon told Ed Bradley, “begun to think of himself as a metaphor.”
Great observation. But then, who does think of him- or herself metaphorically? Wouldn’t we wonder about a co-worker who was known regularly to spout lines like “I am the antibody that protects my family from the virus of secularism” or “I am the oil that keeps our company’s pistons well-lubed”? Who talks that way?
Jesus did. And as C.S. Lewis once observed, a man who spouts such lines as “I am the Light” and “I am a Gate” is either the single most important person you might ever meet or a man as nuts as someone who walks around claiming to be a poached egg. Christians find John 10 to be so meaningful because we’ve opted to believe what also Peter said in Acts 4 (another lection assigned for this Year B Sunday in Eastertide): Jesus is now so vital, that only by his name can a person be saved.
Because that is true, all those otherwise odd “I Am” sayings in John turn out to be not so odd after all.
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