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Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013

I had a great group of friends in high school. We were the band kids for the most part (except me – I was in chorus). We got together most weekends at someone’s house and we celebrated one another’s birthdays. Some of us are still friends today. I enjoy being able to write on their timelines on Facebook to wish them a happy birthday. It is so good to have friends.

I have a great family too. I try to see everyone throughout the year, though I often miss my Michigan brother, but our big gathering is at Christmas. Everyone tries to make it to my sister’s house for at least 24 hours so we can catch up and see how everyone has grown. In 28 years, this is the first time we have missed one of the nephews. My sister’s elder son John spent Christmas in England and France with his British girlfriend. It is so good to have a great family.

Being in relationship with family and friends is a big part of my life, but there is a bigger part and that is my longing to be in relationship with God in Christ. That is the greatest belonging that there is. To be one of God’s sheep satisfies a need that nothing else will.

Jesus is walking in the temple during Hannukah when he is asked – again – by the Jews to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. They want a yes or no answer. They want to put Jesus into some category that fits with their religious history and traditions. And as usual, Jesus does not answer them directly. He says he has told them, but they do not believe. They have seen his works done in God’s name but they are still skeptics. They do not believe because they do not belong to his sheep. Commentators say it is not certain whether all the religious authorities are acting out of hostility. Some may be asking out of genuine interest and might become sheep at some point, but for now, none of them is a sheep.

So what is the difference? Why are some people Jesus’ sheep and not others? And what does it mean to be a sheep? Joining Jesus’ fold comes from having a hole in our hearts that we cannot fill by ourselves. We may try, but it just does not work. We are looking for God’s particular call – for the song that will resonate with us and make us whole. When we hear the song, we go toward it because it is full of hope and love and caring. Another way of looking at it is to imagine ourselves as a jigsaw puzzle that has one piece missing from it. We are incomplete without it, yet we cannot go and find it ourselves. The piece must come from God, so that we may be the beautiful human beings we were meant to be.

The people that do not belong to Jesus’ flock are the ones that have temporarily filled themselves with the temptations of this world. They feel complete in their life and work, and do not think they need anything else. They are the ones who have given up on God, who have put God out of their lives. Sometimes they long too, but they have no place to go.

John’s gospel has a paradox about being sheep, commentators say. It is always God’s invitation to us that helps us respond to the grace offered and become one of the flock. John seems to be saying here that people are not sheep because they have not been invited and some may never be invited. This is called the doctrine of election. Yet we know that God loves everyone and so wants everyone to be a sheep. God’s grace is the initiator, but there has to be some response on our part. The paradox of election vs. free acceptance makes the call very ambiguous, but the inclusivity of Jesus, who is one in purpose with his Father, means that all must be called in some way. Yet people can refuse.

There is another reason people do not become sheep who follow Jesus. They cannot hear the voice of God amidst the difficulties of their lives. People who carry terrible burdens such as abuse, illness, and addiction may go anywhere, follow any voice to get some moment of comfort (John M. Braaten). They have sick souls, and they need the shepherd to restore them but they cannot see it in the moment.

What is it like to be one of Jesus’ sheep, to hear his voice and to follow him? Being a sheep is about experience; it is not about facts. Even if the religious authorities could understand the facts about Jesus’ signs, it would not have been enough to believe. Facts only go so far. It is experiencing God’s action in our lives that makes us follow. Belief is about relationship, not reason. It is about need and not knowledge.

Being Jesus’ sheep does not mean being dense and mindless as sheep are often described. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and can distinguish it from the other false shepherds in their lives. They are able to follow and do the works of Jesus (William Hethcock).

Doubt is part of faith. We are not excluded from Jesus’ sheep because we doubt. There are times when most if not all of us have some doubt about Jesus and what he means to us as Messiah (Thomas Troeger). There are times in our lives when we have questions that have no answers, and we must learn to live with the questions and still listen well to instructions and follow. At these times, we can act ourselves into belonging. We can be willing to belong and wanting to belong but having a very hard time with something, such as the wrath of God that is so prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures especially or the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. If we continue to follow Jesus’ teachings of loving one another as he loved us, we will encounter Christ in others and the experience will strengthen our faith again, so that we can once more confidently follow the good shepherd.

There are benefits to belonging to Jesus’ sheep that come about from the relationship with the shepherd. When we are part of Jesus’ flock, we have everything we need, especially relationship with God. But Jesus also feeds us with good pasture and good water. That there are so many hungry people in the world is a sign that the shepherd’s idea of righteousness is not being met. The world needs more sheep – more sheep who are devoted to justice and generous with their gifts.

The good shepherd also protects his sheep from evil. Belonging to the good shepherd does not mean no evil will surround us or try to attack us; it means that the shepherd will supply our needs and guide us even when we go through the darkest valleys of life. Jesus will also care for us in the middle of our enemies. No matter what trials we undergo, nothing and no one will be able to snatch us out of Jesus’ hand – not the voices of idols calling to us to make them our gods, not people who hurt or abuse us, not those who claim our belief is not right, that we cannot be sheep because we think wrongly. Remaining under Jesus’ care and being faithful followers even when we’re scared of what is going on in our lives is assured if we will keep listening for the shepherd’s voice.

Being Jesus’ sheep means Jesus will pursue us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. He will look for us if we are lost, he will bind up our wounds and he will gently carry us in his arms when life is a particular struggle.

Finally, the good shepherd will give his sheep eternal life and they will never perish. In John’s gospel, eternal life begins with the resurrection and is ongoing through our own deaths and resurrections. It means that we will live with God the Trinity through eternity.

Jesus is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. It is essential for us to be in relationship with the shepherd in order to have a full life, a life in which we are loved greatly and protected always. God and Jesus have a united purpose, and that is to love God’s people so much that we can always be sure of someone to trust. Psalm 37 says if we commit our way to the Lord, then God will act on our behalf. In the assurance of God’s love, let us trust God’s goodness. Then we will know the voice of our shepherd and follow him to eternal life.

AMEN

  - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
John M. Braaten, “Safe with the Shepherd” from The Greatest Wonder of Them All: Sermons for Lent and Easter, Sermon Suite, April 21, 2013
William Hethcock, Tuesday Morning, April-June 2013, p. 11
Thomas Troeger, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 445