One of the Crowd
We spent a few weeks after Easter talking about planting seeds, and during that series we explored several of Jesus’ parables. Last week, too, we heard another of Jesus’ parables. And we talked about how the parables of Jesus help us learn something about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign and how we can live in God’s reign in the now. We learned, too, that parables aren’t always allegories where this equals that, but stories that are meant engage our imagination, and unfold more and more as we look at them from different angles, see ourselves in different parts of the stories. They can be challenging, but for many, Jesus’ parables are favorites among his teaching.
You might have noticed, though, that while we heard parables from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we never read a parable from the gospel of John. In fact, the word parable doesn’t appear anywhere in John’s gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, which means they “look together with one eye,” because they have similar content, drawing on common sources to tell us about Jesus. But the gospel of John has a lot of material we don’t hear anywhere else. And, John’s style of telling us about Jesus is significantly different than that of the other gospel writers. Jesus does a lot of talking in the gospel of John - long discourses of teaching. These discourses include “I AM” statements - where Jesus gives us different images to understand who he is to us - two of which appear in our reading for today. John’s Jesus uses a lot of symbolism in his teaching. John’s style of writing is poetic and beautiful, absolutely. But as challenging as the parables of Jesus can be, I personally find Jesus’ discourses in John even harder to understand, particularly when I’m trying to figure out what they mean for my life and faith today. Still, though, John’s gospel contains my very favorite verse of scripture, and that’s the text I want us to explore this morning.
I’ve shared with you before that John 10:10 is my favorite verse in the Bible. Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” When I first really noticed the verse when I was a young teen, I just loved the idea that Jesus wanted us to have abundant, full life. I think a lot of spiritual formation for teens, at least as I experienced, was about what you should not be doing in order to be a “good Christian.” No sex, no drugs, no smoking, no swearing, no cheating, no lying, no this or that. It seemed like it was mostly about the “Thou shalt nots.” But here was Jesus saying that his purpose, his aim was for us to have abundant life. That sounded a lot more compelling than a list of things I shouldn’t do. It’s still a compelling message. But I think, as with all of Jesus’ teachings, we understand more when we look at the context.
John 10 actually brings us Jesus’ wods mid-discourse. There’s a context here that might help us understand more. In John 9, Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth. As was common, everyone assumed the man was blind because he or his parents had sinned, and his blindness was God’s punishment. Jesus tries to give them a new perspective through his healing of the man, but mostly, the Pharisees - religious scholars and interpreters of the law of Moses - mostly they just seem upset. Jesus had healed on a Sabbath. And if he was willing to disregard an important part of the religious law, how could he be from God? Instead of rejoicing in the man’s healing, the Pharisees question him and his parents about Jesus. I encourage you to read the exchange between the now-healed man and the Pharisees, as the man neatly challenges these scholars by questioning them as much they question him. At the end of the scene, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees, overhearing, respond, “Surely we are not blind, are we?’ And Jesus answers, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.” So while the Pharisees assumed the once-blind man was full of sin, and that Jesus was a sinner too, Jesus says that they are the ones who are blind to God’s purpose in the world.
And it is from there, continuing in conversation with the Pharisees, that he launches into the extended, complicated, and compelling message that we find in John 10. Jesus talks about a sheepfold. Some people try to enter the sheepfold by climbing in, breaking in, instead of coming through the gate - thieves and bandits. But not the shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd. They follow the shepherd’s voice because they trust the shepherd. Jesus says that he is the gate and he is the Good Shepherd. Others are thieves and bandits, and the sheep shouldn’t listen to them. Even a hired hand doesn’t have the same dedication as the good shepherd, and will leave the sheep vulnerable when danger comes. But the Good Shepherd is one who puts their own life on the line for the sake of the sheep. And in this context, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
If Jesus is the good shepherd who gives us abundant life, I most definitely want to be a sheep in his flock. And I think part of that is very appealing at first. Jesus is the shepherd, we’re the sheep. We follow him. He leads us by those green pastures we hear about. We don’t have to know much, do much, except trust Jesus. That’s a pretty good life, right? Except: sheep aren’t necessarily wise. We sometimes use the word sheep in a derogatory way to indicate someone who is just a crowd-follower, not thinking for themselves. Is that what we want to be? I can’t help but think of a video that I saw on facebook a couple years back - a shepherd pulling a sheep out of a hole in the ground that it had somehow gotten stuck in. The shepherd really had to yank on that poor sheep; it was so stuck in that hole, which you could barely see in the long grass, that it would have been easy to miss and walk right by. What an image for the places we get stuck in life when we wander away from the shepherd! What a compelling image for how much we’re sheep, even if we think we’re too wise to need to be ourselves in the hands of someone who will lead us! I know there are times in my life when I can relate deeply to that sheep stuck in the ground. You? If Jesus is our good shepherd, then we are sheep. And some days we’re happy to be one of the flock, but some days we chafe against following Jesus. Our best bet for claiming the abundant life the shepherd promises is following the shepherd at all times. That means putting the shepherd in charge instead of the sheep. Jesus in charge instead of you. God’s will instead of our own. Working so that God’s will and our will are in sync!
I think we do that work by making sure we know the voice of Jesus. Jesus says that the sheep know the good shepherd because they listen to his voice. They recognize his voice. And because they recognize Jesus, they don’t get confused and follow other voices that intend harm instead of good. How do we make sure we know Jesus’ voice? I think of some of the work our confirmands have been doing over this last year. They met with me regularly throughout the year and we read the Bible together and talked about different aspects of our faith. Being immersed in scripture is one of the more direct, literal ways we listen to Jesus’ voice. They also committed to regular worship attendance, even if by the end of their journey attendance meant watching worship on a computer screen! Being part of a community of faith, being part of a flock of sheep, is a way we can gather together to listen to Jesus’ voice. They committed to acts of service throughout the year, writing notes, and serving at dinners, and volunteering with outreach activities. Since Jesus’ life is marked by serving others, and he calls us to love our neighbors, we learn his voice through acts of caring and compassion. Tucker and Hannah also had to interview someone who was a member of the congregation, and they had to learn about our history - as local church and as a denomination. We learn to recognize Jesus’ voice when we learn from others who have been a part of his flock for a long time and know his voice well. How are you making sure you know Jesus’ voice?
Jesus, our good shepherd, offers us, the sheep, abundant life. What is abundant life exactly? What does it mean when Jesus promises us “life to the full”? He doesn’t mean that we’ll all get rich, and be able to get bigger and better houses and cars and bank accounts, I’m pretty sure. So what makes life full and abundant? I asked that question on facebook this week, and got a few responses. Nichole Fullerton shared this: “If you had asked me this question a year ago my answer would be completely different than it is now. Last year I thought my life was fulfilled by a job I loved but this year things are so much different. I honestly believe God blessed me with this time in quarantine. Although I love my job, this break has given me time I didn’t have before to focus on my family and the things I enjoy in life. I’ve built a stronger relationship with my children, my husband and God. I’ve found time to bake and try new recipes. I even mastered a cheesecake! I’ve become creative with arts and crafts and I started a blog hoping to help others grow in their faith and their relationship with God. I’ve even made connections to start becoming a lay minister. My life is always evolving but in this moment I am abundantly peaceful, content and hopeful for my future.” Maybe you can relate to Nichole’s response, finding that this difficult season of pandemic has caused you to reevaluate how we experience blessing and abundance. I also connect with Nichole on the way our experiences of abundance change over time, as God journeys with us through the stages of our life.
When I think about times I’ve experienced abundant life, some surprising things pop into my mind. I think about moments of deep grief - like when my grandparents died. Even in the pain, they were experiences of abundant life, both because we could treasure faithful lives well lived, lives entrusted to God, and because of the incredible bond I felt with my extended family in those times when we rallied together, pouring over family stories together, comforting each other. I think about worshiping with you all on Christmas Eves, and on Wally’s hill on Easter morning, or when we celebrate communion together, or when we rejoice together, like on Confirmation Sundays, and my heart is so full. I think about times we work really hard, and that hard work is deeply satisfying, because we’re serving others, or because we’re using the gifts God gives us, or because we were able to do something we thought we couldn’t, or because we know, with God’s help, we’ve made a real difference to others. I think about the fullness of life I experience when I know that I’ve wrestled with a hard decision, and found the peace that comes from hearing and understanding God’s call. The common thread of abundance, unsurprisingly, is in times when my relationship with God and my relationships with God’s people are flourishing. And that, that flourishing, that true joy that pervades even great sorrow, that deep peace that comes from knowing that we are created by God and that we belong to God - that’s what Jesus promises when we’re sheep who belong to the Good Shepherd. And that’s why this verse continues to be my favorite, long beyond my teenage fascination.
Do you want to be part of Jesus’ flock? Today we celebrate as Tucker and Hannah say “yes!” And as they are confirmed, we have a chance to say yes too - maybe for the first time, or maybe renewing our yes for the 1000th time, or maybe saying yes after saying no. Whatever brings you to your yes, Jesus welcomes you, too. Together, let’s continue to make sure we know his voice so well that we can follow wherever he leads. Life abundant as one of the flock. Amen.