Sunday, May 19, 2019

In The Pursuit Of Love

May 19, 2019 – The 5th Sunday of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? I asked that question several years ago at a Theology on Tap gathering. Our Theology on Tap tradition was to gather for drinks and fellowship for about thirty minutes, until the clergyperson would stand up and ask everyone a question. Sometimes the questions were good enough to get people talking about them for a while. Other times, people went right back to whatever they had been talking about—vacation or family or politics or football. This question, though, led to some impassioned and difficult conversation.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? Some people named historical figures who have come to represent evil itself—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Charles Manson, or Ted Bundy. Others named generic categories of reprehensible people like child molesters or abusive parents. Although no one said it out loud, at least one person had in mind someone she knew well because she came up to me a week later to tell me about it. She was angry and hurt by my question, which had brought to mind a moment of abuse from her past. A person of deep faith, she knew that God loved this person but coming face to face with that truth was painful.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing is loved by God? To put it another way, who is it that hurts you the most to know that that person, too, will live forever in God’s eternal reign? It may not have been as personal to them, but the apostles and believers in Judea were hurt when they heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God. Acts tells us that, “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” They were angry because they had gotten word that their leader, the rock on which Jesus had promised to build his church, had taken the good news of salvation to those who had long been enemies of God and God’s people. Those who had witnessed first-hand the triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ after being executed on a Roman cross were not ready to believe that God had room in God’s heart for the Gentiles who had killed their Lord. Sure, God is loving and merciful, but not like that, they said to themselves.

Looking back with the benefit of two-thousand years of hindsight, I can’t tell what’s harder to believe—that God brought the good news of salvation to the Gentiles or that the first Christians couldn’t understand that it was possible. Remember how the book of Acts tells the story of the spreading of the gospel. First, there was Pentecost, when the Spirit enabled the apostles to proclaim the good news of Jesus in all the languages of the known earth so that the faithful Jews who had gathered from all over could understand it. Then, because of persecution, the believers were scattered from the holy city and brought the gospel to the outskirts of Judea and on to Samaria, where even the Samaritans believed. Later on, the Holy Spirit led Philip to interpret the Hebrew scriptures to an Ethiopian eunuch, who, although a faithful worshiper of Israel’s God, was in no way an ethnic Jew. Should it have surprised the apostles and other believers, then, that God would take the next logical step and bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles?

God’s message of boundless grace and unconditional love may be certain, but, in every generation, God is working with narrow-minded, self-interested human beings like us. And we don’t like it when God’s love comes to the people we find it hardest to love. In order to burst through the limitations we would impose on God’s love, God must come and surprise us and shake us up to see what God sees.

That’s what God did in this passage from Acts. In order to show the church that God’s saving love belonged equally to the Gentiles, God gave parallel visions to Cornelius and to Peter. The first, a Roman centurion, had a vision of an angel, who came and told him to send men to nearby Joppa and bring Peter back with them. Then, as the men were approaching the city, God brought Peter into a trance, showing him the strange vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven with all sorts of unclean animals in it. When the heavenly voice from heaven told Peter to rise, kill, and eat, Peter refused, saying, “Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth,” and the voice replied, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.” Three times this happened—God’s way of making sure that Peter understood what God was saying to him. By the time he got to Joppa, Peter was ready for what awaited him there—faithful children of God who were eager to hear the message of salvation. When Peter finished telling them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come to the apostles, and Peter was convinced: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

When Peter explained to the Christian authorities step by step what had happened to him, they were silenced. Then, they broke their silence by praising God and saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Even those whom the church would exclude are brought into the family of faith by God, whose power and love are greater than our closemindedness. God gave those Gentile believers the Holy Spirit even before the church was willing to baptize them. That’s how God always works—not according to the rules or human precepts but according to God’s divine purpose of universal love. And, just as Peter insisted that the Gentile converts be baptized, the church must always be ready for God to shake us up and show us something new.

St. Paul’s is a church that has discovered and embraced the power of God’s limitless love. We have affirmed God’s love and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals even before the instruments of the church had approved it. We have celebrated same-sex marriage and embraced the full participation of transgender people in the life of our church even before the wider church had found room for them. We have recognized that God may call individuals to the Communion table even before they are baptized. We have sought to be a place that proclaims God’s universal, saving love for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity or what they believe. For some of us, that openness comes naturally, while for others it is challenging. But all of us have our limits.

Who is the person you have the hardest time believing that God loves just as much as God loves you? Maybe it’s someone from your past, or maybe it’s someone with whom you can’t ever imagine having something in common: a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a socialist, a chauvinist, a feminist, a preacher who uses religion to oppress others, a terrorist who murders in the name of God, someone who thinks that abortion should be illegal in every case, someone who thinks that reproductive choice is the cornerstone of a free society. Who is it that you struggle most to see as a recipient of God’s unconditional, saving love…because, whoever it is, no matter how much you reject that person and everything he or she stands for, the one thing you have in common is God’s love for you.

As I’ve said before, the problem with unconditional love is that it’s unconditional. We don’t get to decide who gets it or how it should be doled out because no one can put restrictions on unconditional love. It belongs to everyone—even to those who reject it as nonsense. As soon as you try to limit it, it crumbles and loses all of its power. But the very thing that makes it hardest to accept is also its real strength. Like Peter and Cornelius and the apostles in Jerusalem, when we experience the limitless nature of God’s love, it changes us. It alone has the power to break the bonds of prejudice and resentment and set us free to love as we have been loved—without limit.

The invitation, therefore, is not to decide to love the unlovable, for that in itself would be impossible. Instead, we are invited to pursue the love that God has for us and for the world. That’s what followers of Jesus do. We seek God’s love for us so that we might be set free to love the world with that same reckless abandon. When we are immersed in that love and its shocking limitlessness, we begin to see the artificial barriers fall away. We begin to find it possible to do the impossible and love others the way God loves them—the way God loves all of us.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

How Will They Know?

They will know we are Christians by our...
Historically authentic expressions of worship
Culturally relevant liturgies
Rubrical precision
Willingness to discard the rules to make worship truly meaningful
Faithful adherence to Nicene orthodoxy
Openness to the Holy Spirit's guidance
Uncompromising commitment to the authority of scripture
Reliance on tradition, reason, and experience
Holiness of life
Ability to identify with the outcasts and sinners of society
Baptismal ecclesiology
Open table
Dependence on the ancient four-fold ministry of bishops, priests, deacons, and laity
Rejection of the eroding bastions of patriarchal clericalism
Celebrated heritage
Postcolonial, postracial, postgender identity
Belief in the sanctity of all life
Conviction that a woman should have control over her own body
Devotion to established understandings of sexuality, marriage, and gender
Refusal to accept outdated definitions of love, relationship, and personhood

Jesus did not say any of that. Instead, as we hear again this Sunday, Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus if we have love for one another.

Everyone in the church wants to be right. And we want to be right for good and right reasons. We want our doctrine, discipline, and worship to help the world know the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. On every issue, whichever side we are on, we are on that side because we believe that it will help the work of the gospel. Even though we reach diametrically opposed conclusions about what God's will for the world and the church are, we all want to be faithful to Jesus. When we reject women's ordination or embrace it, when we refuse the sanctity of marriage to a same-sex couple or encourage it, when we restrict Communion to the baptized or fling the sacramental gates wide open, we do so because we are trying our best to be faithful followers of Jesus.

I think Jesus knew what he was saying. I think he knew what sort of polarized, fractured community the church would become, so he reminded us what really matters: "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another." Love first, doctrine second. Love first, discipline second. Love first, all other ethical, liturgical, exegetical, soterilogical, theological considerations second.

How much effort do we give to love? How important to us is it that the world see how much we love one another? Instead of trying to prove our fidelity to Jesus by showing the world how right we are, let's show them what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by loving one another as we have been loved. We will not agree with one another, but we will show the world the gospel of Jesus Christ when we love each other anyway.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Surprise Salvation

I've written several times about how easily I get bored with Jesus' final discourse in John. Although full of beautiful theology like this Sunday's "I give you a new commandment: that you love one another," it's sooooo long, and there's almost no narrative action. Give me short, pithy parables, dramatic miracles, or conflict with the religious authorities. This long-winded, red-letter stuff is hard to preach on. This Sunday, I'm drawn more closely (and desperately) to the drama of Acts 11.

This morning, as I read Peter's account of his vision in Joppa, the part that grabs my attention is the very end of the lesson. In verse 18, the "circumcised believers" were stuck silent by Peter's testimony, and they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Even to the Gentiles. Even to them. Even to us. Whether the surprise was genuine emotion felt by the Jewish followers of Jesus or Luke's way of conveying the remarkable nature of this expansion of God's saving work doesn't really matter. This is huge. That the God of Israel would include the peoples of other nations in God's work of salvation without first requiring that they become citizens of Israel--members of Abraham's ancestral family--is radical theology.

I take it for granted, of course. And so did the church. By the time the New Testament was compiled in its present form, the Way of Jesus had become a principally Gentile movement. These stories in their redacted, revised form, therefore, reflect this truth. Paul had already had his revelation. He had already written to the Galatians about the foolishness of forcing circumcision upon Gentile converts. The Jerusalem synod had already taken place. This was settled. But, in the moment, which Luke peels back the narrative curtain to let us see how it might have happened, there was nothing settled about it.

The Lord (note, here, the ethnic specificity that the term "Lord" implies) chose Abraham to be the father of God's people so that, through them, the whole world might come to know the power of the Lord. The descendants of Abraham were to become a light to the nations. The prophets envisioned all nations streaming to God's temple--a union of all the peoples of the earth under the banner of Israel's God. But, in this moment, God proves God's self to be bigger than that. God is not only the God of Israel who waits for the nations to know him. God is the God of the Greeks. God reaches them and includes them directly. Jesus Christ has become the mediator of a new covenant--the means by which God enacts relationship with others. Although perhaps not a rejection of the first vision of salvation coming to the nations of the earth, this wasn't the means by which the people of God expected that salvation to spread. God's grace had always been mediated through the people of God. And now the people of God were understood to be bigger than the descendants of Abraham. This is new stuff. This is, in fact, a new religion.

The words that the circumcised believers give us are the hinge upon which the Way of Jesus pivots from a branch of Judaism to its own distinct religion: "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Same God. Same salvation. Same Christ. Different relationship. Different dispensation. Different way. It takes a while before it all sorts itself out, but this is the moment when salvation comes not merely in a newly translated language (Pentecost) or in a uniting ethnic expression (Samaritans) or in an expansive understanding of Israel (Ethiopian eunuch) but in a new way. In Peter's account of what happened in Caesarea, God reached the Gentile converts before they had become children of Abraham. As Paul will later imagine, Jesus made it possible for Gentiles to be grafted into the tree.

What does this mean for today, when we take this ingrafting for granted? I think we too easily forget how new, how radical, how other this moment of salvation was. This wasn't, "Play by our rules, our believes, our practices, and we'll let you into the salvation club." This is God doing something bigger than the faithful people could see. This is God surprising us with salvation. Where will it surprise us next?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Destination Change

In contemporary Christianity, how much of the emphasis is on going to heaven? I grew up being invited to accept Jesus Christ as my savior so that, when I die, I would go to heaven. In the last few years, I shared ministry with an evangelist in Alabama who regularly (perhaps nightly) preaches that the only thing that matters is knowing where we will go when we die. In the burial office, the gospel reading that is chosen most often by the decedent or the family is John 14:1-6, in which Jesus tells his disciples, "In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places...And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Even this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 13:31-35) recalls Jesus telling his disciples, "Where I am going, you cannot come."

Over and over and over again, we talk about going to heaven. There's nothing wrong with heaven. I like heaven. I think heaven has a central place in the gospel. I don't think the gospel is pure social cause--that the goal of the Christian life is to make a difference here and now. I think preachers should talk a lot about heaven, but it seems that we've misplaced it.

In our reading from Revelation 21 this Sunday, we are given a vision of heaven: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." In this vision, the one seated on the throne exclaims, "See, I am making all things new!" The earth is not a paper plate or a red plastic cup. It is not discarded. It, too, is made new. God does not transport us from the earth to live with God in heaven. God comes to earth to live among us:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
I think the implications of this are more significant than a mere destination change. The vision of God coming to earth rather than us going to God changes how we live in the earth. It changes how we value our bodies and the physical world. It brings back that fundamental, foundational theology that we are not gnostics and that all of creation is good. We do not live this life so that we can escape it. We live this life so that we and this world and all that is in it might be transformed.

Something changes when you put out fine china instead of disposable plates. Something happens when you buy a house instead of renting it. Something blossoms when you stop dating and get married. Similarly, our whole theology of God and creation and heaven and salvation changes when we stop thinking of and talking about the earth as if it were the only thing keeping us from God. Yes, I know that there are important cosmological implications for what happens to the physical earth and the physical universe in the forever timescale, and, no, I'm not trying to solve those issues here. But I am saying that the implications for recapturing a heaven-comes-to-earth theology instead of a we-are-just-waiting-to-go-home theology changes not only the stewardship of creation, but it also changes our theology of the human person, including issues of sexuality and gender and ability and age. There are incarnational implications and interfaith implications.

Changing the way we talk about heaven from somewhere else to here on earth changes lots of things, but those things can't begin to change until the religious culture shifts. Preachers and teachers must recapture the goodness of creation and leave behind the escape-pod theology. Parents must fill out their description of going to heaven to include a sense that heaven is coming to earth and that those who belong to Jesus get to live with him in the new earth forever. Heaven is essential, but how we talk about it matters.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Enthusiastic Preacher or Messiah?

May 12, 2019 – The 4th Sunday of Easter

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

Do we want Jesus of Nazareth to be our rabbi, our teacher, our spiritual guru? Or do we want him to be our messiah, our anointed one? Before you answer, take a minute to think about it. We all know what the presumed right answer is, but the safe choice is rabbi. We don’t have to listen to our rabbi. Clergy are wrong all the time. If we don’t like them or the brand of religion that they are peddling, we pick up and move to another congregation. We can disagree with them, and it doesn’t cost us anything. But, if Jesus is our messiah, if he is God’s anointed one, we don’t have a choice any more. If he is our messiah, we don’t get to duck the hard truths he gives us. We’re forced to accept them or accept the fact that we are turning our backs on God himself. So what will it be?

That’s the question John leads us to in this gospel passage. It’s winter. It’s the Feast of the Dedication. (Happy Hanukkah!) Some of God’s people had gathered together in the temple to celebrate the anniversary of its rededication. About two hundred years earlier, Jewish rebels had overthrown the tyrannical and unholy dictatorship of Antiochus IV. He was the one who had built an altar to Zeus right in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, desecrating the most holy place in Judaism by sacrificing pigs within its walls. In response to such evil, God had raised up an anointed leader to deliver God’s people.

In that generation, God’s messiah had been Judas Maccabeus or “Judah the Hammer,” who had earned his nickname because of his fierceness in battle. He had proven himself to be God’s anointed one by leading God’s people in victory over the unholy occupiers of God’s Promised Land. You remember the Hanukkah story. After defeating their enemies, Judah and the other priests purified and rededicated the temple, but they discovered that they only had one day’s worth of oil for the lamp that must never go out. Miraculously, however, the one-day supply burned for eight days instead of one—long enough for new kosher oil to be produced. It was a sign that God’s Spirit had come back into the holy place.

And now it was Jesus’ turn. With thoughts of that anniversary filling their minds, the religious authorities approached Jesus and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.” In the centuries that followed the rededication of the temple, the Seleucid Empire had given way to Rome. Antiochus and his supporters had been replaced by Caesar and Pilate and Herod. Again, God’s people and God’s Promised Land were in need of a deliverer. The religious experts must have wondered whether this radical rabbi, who preached unabashedly about the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, might be another Judas Maccabeus, another messiah. “If you’re the one, tell us plainly!” they begged him. But Jesus replied, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

What had Jesus told them? This chapter in John is full of Jesus’ explanation of who he is. “I am the good shepherd,” he had said to them. Of course, the image of a shepherd brought someone else to mind. Another anointed leader of God’s people had gotten his start as a lowly shepherd boy. But, by the time he died, King David had grown the kingdom of Israel to the largest and most prosperous it would ever be. He had led God’s army victoriously into battle. Under his leadership, they had overthrown the enemies of God’s people. In his own generation, David had been God’s messiah, and it must have been tempting for the religious leaders to imagine that this radical rabbi from Nazareth might turn out to be another David. But powerful leader wasn’t the kind of messianic shepherd that Jesus had in mind.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For Jesus, the role of shepherd wasn’t a quaint part of the story—a humble persona for the anointed leader to project. It was the very essence of messiah. It was the definition of the work God’s anointed one was commissioned by God to do. Jesus did not pretend to give up power and wealth in order to win over the hearts of the people. He believed that powerlessness and poverty are the way of God. He did not feign vulnerability in order to trick the enemies of God’s people and lead them into a trap. He accepted the cross as the fulfillment of his ministry. He accepted the crown of thorns as the symbol of his majesty. “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly,” we say, searching for victory and success and triumph within the one we follow. But he already has told us and has shown us what messiah means.

Some cannot recognize in the crucified one the anointed one of God. To them the concept of an executed savior or a defeated messiah is complete nonsense. Others can see it, but they understand and believe not because Jesus the lowly shepherd messiah, the Christ who is killed on the cross, makes sense. They believe it because they belong to him. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me.” Believing is belonging. “You cannot believe in me unless you belong to me,” Jesus said. That means that, unless we belong to the vulnerable, powerless Son of God, we cannot believe that Jesus, the crucified one, reveals the truth of God to the world. Until we belong to the one who empties himself and lays down his life for the sheep, we cannot recognize Jesus as God’s messiah.

Do we want Jesus the crucified one to be our messiah? Is he the one whose truth about God we want to believe? Is he the one to whom we want to belong? If he’s just a radical rabbi, we can enjoy his fiery sermons and then go back to our regular lives. But if he is the one to whom we belong, if he is our shepherd, then we cannot just listen and move on. We must take up our cross and follow him. We must give up everything we hold dear—family, friends, career, and wealth—for the sake of God’s reign. We must even die beside him because, in him, we see the way to eternal life.

If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have wealth as long as the poor are among us. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have security as long as there is violence in our schools or in our streets. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have a nation as long as there are refugees being turned away at the border. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have mothers or fathers or siblings or children as long as there are vulnerable widows and orphans in our midst.

Either Jesus is our messiah or he isn’t. Either he represents who God is and what God wants in this world, or he’s just another enthusiastic preacher who had some good ideas a long time ago. If he is our messiah, then the way of the cross must be our way because only by following him can we ever enter the reign of God. And, if he’s not our messiah, then power wins and greed wins and wealth wins and nothing ever changes. To whom will you belong?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Biblical Belonging

When I am preparing to preach, I spend the whole week reading and thinking about the passages. Usually, I read them in the morning and then think about them as I write a blog post, take a shower, drive to work, go for a run, or lie in bed falling asleep. Sometimes, in busy weeks, I spend more time thinking and less time reading, and the result is often a sermon that, while resemblant of the text, is not a direct reflection of it. This week, I've focused on John 10:26, the verse in which Jesus responds to the Jewish authorities who question his messianic identity, saying, "But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep." All week, I've been wondering what a sermon will be if my focus is on the relationship between belonging and believing, but, this morning, I discovered that the word "belong" doesn't belong in the text.

It just isn't there. In fact, there isn't really a Greek verb for belong (at least not in the NT). Maybe this is obvious to others, but belong is just a way of saying "be of." The English "belong" comes from the Old English "belangian," and it has to do with property rights. Although not fair to the etymology, think of the verb "to be" plus "go along with" to get "belong" or "something that goes along with." If I belong to you, I go along with you. If that hat belongs to me, it goes along with me. If I move, I'll pack it up and take it with me. If I don't want it, I release my possession of it, and it no longer goes along with me because it does not belong to me anymore.

The Greek of John 10:26 is "ἀλλὰ ὑμεῖς οὐ πιστεύετε, ὅτι οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐκ τῶν προβάτων τῶν ἐμῶν." Literally, that means, "But y'all don't believe because y'all aren't of my sheep." I understand why the NRSV (and the RSV before it) added the word "belong" to that verse. The preposition ἐκ, which means "of," means that those to whom Jesus is speaking are not from, of, taken out of his sheep. Forgive the cumbersome language, but those who are not not of his sheep are of his sheep, which is to say that they are identified as belonging to his sheep. The implication, of course, is that those to whom he speaks are not part of his flock and, thus, do not belong to his sheep. But there's no word for belong. Note that the NIV, ESV, CEB, CEV, and KJV all find other ways of saying it, ranging from "you are not among my sheep" to "you are not of my sheep" to "you are not my sheep."

Most people may not think this makes a difference, but I think it does. Before I launch into a sermon about belonging before believing and ask a congregation what it means to belong to Jesus, I need to recognize that, when Jesus spoke to the authorities, he wasn't asking them to think of themselves in that social, hierarchical, with-which-group-do-you-identify kind of way. He was asking them something more fundamental about their identity. This wasn't a question of what club or faction or persuasion they were. Jesus is naming that they aren't of his sheep. Are you of Jesus or not? Are you of his sheep or not? Not, when you woke up this morning, did you recommit yourself to Jesus' flock? Not did you remember to mail in your club dues? But are you of Jesus' sheep?

In biblical terms, belonging isn't part of our identity. I belong to a church. I belong to a civic organization. I belong to a neighborhood association. I belong to an alumni association. Those things go along with me until I put them down, stop paying my dues, or stop showing up. Being of Jesus' sheep is different. Sheep don't decide which flock is theirs. They are or they aren't. As I prepare to preach this week, I'm asking what it means to be of Jesus' sheep in that deep, larger-than-the-intellectual-decisions-we-make sort of way.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Good Shepherd Sundays

Although not an official observance in the Episcopal Church, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is effectively Good Shepherd Sunday. The collect reminds us that God's Son Jesus is "the good shepherd of [God's] people." The psalm is always Psalm 23, in which the psalmist declares, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Every year in the three-year lectionary cycle, the gospel reading comes from John 10, in which Jesus identifies himself as the "good shepherd," but what makes this liturgical observance strange is that, because we move through John 10 progressively each year, you have to have a pretty good memory to hold on what is being said about Jesus the good shepherd.

In Year A (2016-17), we read John 10:1-10, in which Jesus distinguishes himself from those bandits who would enter the sheepfold without using the gate. The gatekeeper, on the other hand, opens the gate and calls the sheep by name, leading out those who follow the voice they know. In Year B (2017-18), we read John 10:11-18, in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Because of its use in the burial office, this is the part of John 10 we know best. This time, Jesus distinguishes himself from the "hired hand" who runs away when the wolf comes and scatters the sheep. This year, we get to John 10:22-30, in which Jesus responds to those who question his identity by explaining that only those who belong to his sheep believe who he really is.

The challenge is that, when Jesus explains himself to the religious authorities who are questioning him by saying, "I have told you, and you do not believe," we need to remember what he has told us--that he is the gatekeeper who knows the sheep by name, that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. All of that good shepherd description happens right before Sunday's gospel lesson, but we need two year's worth of memory to remember it.

Maybe it's worth reading all of John 10 before we get to church on Sunday. It certainly seems like a good idea to read it before we preach in church on Sunday. Otherwise, this year's gospel lesson can too easily be construed as Jesus declaring that "the Jews" (John's word for Jesus' opponents) are condemned because they don't belong to his flock. That can't be what Jesus means. Read John 10:16, in which Jesus declares that there are "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" who are part of Jesus' flock. It may be that the religious authorities cannot recognize Jesus' voice because they don't belong to him, but Jesus' primary understand of flock is the People of Israel. It's we Gentiles who are those that belong to the other fold.

Instead, a fuller incorporation of John 10 helps us hear Jesus say that those who do not believe are those who do not live as belonging ones. Belonging precedes believing. The works make Jesus' identity plain, but, until one belongs to the flock of the good shepherd, those signs cannot be understood. This passage, therefore, isn't about a combative Jesus dividing elect from unelect along ethic lines. It's about realizing the consequences of following the good shepherd. Just as the good shepherd knows the sheep, so, too, do the sheep recognize the good shepherd.

Don't lose touch with the goodness of Good Shepherd Sunday (whatever that is). We hear good news this week. We hear it every week. But it helps to step back and read all that Jesus says about the good shepherd before we read the concluding part.