Fouth Sunday of Easter
April 22 2018
Acts 4 5-12; John 10 11-1
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
How clearly can you explain Einstein’s special theory of relativity? Now there may well be people here who can do so, though I doubt it! Some things are rather more complicated than loaning themselves to a simple explanation, we may never fully understand them. Not surprisingly one of these things is our relationship with God and what we refer to as salvation. In this sermon I want to look at the idea of the Shepherd and the flocks. It raises difficult questions about our faith and other faiths too.
The passage from John chapter 10 is a very well known one. The image of Jesus as the Shepherd of the sheep is one we have all known since childhood. Here in the Holy Land we see sheep and shepherds frequently. Just the other day I was driving on route 1 and there was a shepherd walking ahead of his flock of sheep – just as they did in the time of Jesus. The sheep in Palestine did, and still do, follow the shepherd, whose voice they know, they are not compelled to do so, they are not driven along by dogs and a stick, as in many other parts of the world, they instinctively know that the interests of the Shepherd are for the good of the flock and so they willingly follow. This is the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the followers of Jesus, as the flock that is the church.
Verse 14 develops this “I am the Good Shepherd: I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus’ relationship with his Father, and his dedication and sacrifice for the sheep, his followers, is affirmed. In a complex world of conflicting loyalties and challenging questions of Justice and Peace in a world at war with itself – we need to hear this reassuring message and take it to heart. While Jesus’ relationship to us is beyond words, too complicated to express in simple terms – the image of the Shepherd and the sheep goes a long way. All who are believers in Jesus, all who are a part of the “Church” any church which follows the way of the Good Shepherd, can be assured of the love of the Shepherd.
But the passage gets harder. What then do we make of the next verse? “I have other followers who are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Who are these sheep? What does it mean to be brought into the one sheepfold? The one shepherd seems to be clear, it’s Jesus. But what is this new united flock which is still be led by the Good Shepherd?
The conventional wisdom has been that this verse is one that applies to ecumanism. The differing flocks being the differing churches, which in the fullness of time will be brought into one under the leadership of Christ. Nothing wrong with that as an idea, but can this verse really mean this? If we are right in believing that these are the words of Jesus, and of all the words ascribed to Jesus, in the New Testament, the ones we can have the most confidence as coming directly from the mouth of Jesus himself are the “I am” sayings such as “I am the Good Shepherd” – what sense would the words have in a time before any of the divisions reunited by ecumanism had ever developed? The writer of John’s Gospel knew nothing of a divided church. Part of the power of scripture is that the words can apply in differing times in differing ways, and even if we accept that the ecumenical understanding of the words as a legitimate one for the twenty first century, it certainly was not for the first century. How would they have understood them?
The only understanding of this verse that could have been accepted by the early church was that it referred to other believers not yet in the Christian Fold, – Jews, Greeks and other faiths known to the first century believers. Christ, the good Shepherd, head of the church, was also the head of all other faithful believers in the one true God, whatever fold they might for the moment be in. We are all ultimately one family in Jesus.
Today the first century understanding of the verse is echoed back to us in the twenty first century calling us to reassess our attitude to those who today are in the other sheepfolds, Muslims, Zoroastians, Druze, Hindu’s, Bhahi, Sikh’s, all unknown to the church of the first century, as well as the Jews, and others who were known.
This idea is difficult, but not wholly outside the understanding of the Old Testament, the Priesthood of Melchizedek in Genesis (who though Canaanite was referred to as “Priest of the living God.”), the Universal nature of the message of Isaiah “Israel a light to all the nations,” the Kingship of Cirus, the Babylonian King in the exilic period who is described as being used as an instrument of God, all point to a diversity of understanding of God.
But it does not sit happily with the other reading we had today. Acts 4 12 says “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
Some verses in our scriptures affirm other faiths, and other verses exclude them.
Today the impact of one religion upon another threatens the future of the whole world. Christians in Syria, Pakistan, Northern Nigeria and Yemen are being killed for their faith by extremist Muslims, and religious extremism in many parts of the world are create massive conflicts. Bhudists are killing Muslims in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka and those are only a few of the inter religious conflicts effecting the world today.
So may I suggest briefly some ways through this dilemma. Firstly there is much more in the New and Old Testament that unites us as brothers and sisters under the one Father than those that divide. This is itself remarkable when you consider how and where the Bible came into being. Verses like Acts 4,12. or John 14 6 that speak of divisions seem isolated passages where most speak of diversity. The context of these verses is also significant, Peter and John’s predicament, being tried by the temple authorities, is hardly the place where sensitive theological dialogue can take place. John 14 6 comes in the chapter where Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure, and speaks of “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” a passage that speaks about diversity in heaven.
I believe passionately that we need to preach the saving Love of Jesus, and to lead the many people who hold no faith of any sort into a loving relationship with God. However today this must be undertaken with much greater openness to the impact of our words on people of other faiths.
May God grant us wisdom to find the right words to share our faith.