The lamb, the sheep, and the good shepherd

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C, Euclid, Ohio, 2019

In the book of Revelation, the Lamb has become the shepherd, just as in the gospels of Jesus’ Incarnation, the Shepherd became a lamb, and lived among us sheep. Revelation, a lament against oppression and a vision of God’s redeeming glory, proffers the ultimate reconciliation between sinners and their saviour; between life’s joys and hardships; between every language, people, nation, and tribe, and their religions, too; between the human and the divine realms.

This is the glorious vision that we celebrate in every Holy Communion, submitting our differences, our doubts, our souls to the reconciling love embodied by Jesus Christ, Messiah; becoming one Body with him and with one another, a foreshadowing and foretaste of the reign of God.

But in the meantime, in the gospel of John, and in the psalms of David, and in the lives of those who follow Jesus in the way of the cross, there is a long way to go and there are some serious obstacles to that ultimate vision of reconciliation.

Let me be uncomfortably honest for a second: whenever I am required by the church and its lectionary choices to read aloud in the midst of the congregation phrases that carry frankly antagonistic sentiments against “the Jews,” I am ashamed. I am embarrassed, I am concerned, I am conflicted, and I am ashamed; not of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be clear, but of the history of Christianity which has too often failed to be a sign and sacrament of reconciliation to many.

According to Marilyn Salmon, author of the book Preaching without Contempt, when John Dominic Crossan was asked once at a speaking event about the problem of John’s hostile language toward “the Jews” in much of his gospel, Crossan replied that we might just need to refrain from reading the fourth gospel in public for the next thousand years.* I would love to be freed from speaking the bitterness of John the Evangelist in the middle of the church, although I would miss his poetry terribly; but such a move would not solve the problem of the language that, even during our private reading and prayer, has the potential to poison hearts, nor undo a long history of Christian anti-semitism, wrapped in White supremacy.

Let me be even more uncomfortably clear: in the months and weeks following the deadly attacks on synagogues from Pittsburgh to Poway, California, reading John, putting into Jesus’ mouth the words, “you do not belong to my sheep,” cannot go unexamined or unchallenged. It is not enough to say, we don’t read much into that, nor mean anything by it; because if we do not, then others will make meaning of it, and we have seen where that can and does continue to lead; and it has not been to the vision of reconciliation and universal worship that John of Patmos proposed in his Revelation.

So what do we do with these harsh words that John writes? Different translations have been tried. In another sermon, I described “the Jews” whom John names here as a beltway elite, not the people themselves. Many books have been written to understand and explain the relationship between the church of John the Evangelist and the rest of the Jewish community. But how do we shield our hearts and our neighbours from the violence of contempt? The answer is in the gospel itself.

In fact, the gospel of John is steeped in Jewish tradition: the festivals, the temple, the scriptures of their ancestors. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman he is proud to identify himself as a Jewish man, telling her, “Salvation comes from the Jews!” (John 4:22).

It is John the Baptist who, at the beginning of John’s gospel, hails Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and in the other gospels, it is John the Baptist’s disciples who ask the question that is here attributed more anonymously to “the Jews:” “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). In those other gospel accounts, Jesus is exasperated. “Have you not been paying attention? Do you not see that the liberty of God has visited those who rejoice in the healing I have brought them? Open your eyes! And blessed are they that take no offence at me.” In this gospel, it is written that his words divided the community between those who believed that he was the Messiah, and those who thought it madness.

However sharp that division, it is clear from broad sweep of scripture that the promises that God made to God’s people from the beginning, from the days of Abraham and Jacob and Moses, through the exile and restoration, and the resistance under Roman occupation; it is abundantly clear that those promises cannot be rescinded nor removed nor undone; for “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand,” the psalmist proclaims (Psalm 95:7); and the Good Shepherd does not abandon his sheep, nor does anyone take them from his hand.

The promises of God from ancient times are not cancelled out by the revelation that we have received of God’s grace and mercy through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the tight-knit, sectarian circle of the church of John the Evangelist (as described by David Rensberger** and others), recognizes that it does not tightly contain nor fully define nor dare it claim to curtail the reach of God’s revelation and grace, however enthusiastic its faith in Jesus Christ, Messiah. For even John also has Jesus say, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold.”

In the reading from Acts that we hear today, Peter mimics the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, Elijah and Elisha, as much as he follows Jesus in the raising Dorcas from the dead. In the book of Revelation, the vision of John of Patmos borrows heavily from the Jewish apocalypses of Daniel and the prophets. There is no Christianity, no New Testament, no Jesus of Nazareth without the Jews. There is no Good Shepherd without the psalms. There is no God as mother bear without the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 13:8), and the Lamb of God is expected by John the Baptist only because of the prophets that preceded him.

In Psalm 23, so beloved of generations of Christians, we hear the voice of David, the shepherd anointed by God to be a king forever. When we hear him pray, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” let us be sure that by our words, and their tone, and by our silence we are not numbered among the tormentors of God’s anointed, nor casting shade across the paths of any of his flock.

In the age to come, John of Patmos envisions, every tribe, language, people and nation will worship together in spirit and in truth, gathered around the throne of God. When all political divisions, partisan denominations, petty arguments and violent pogroms have been put to rest, then we will find ourselves face to face not only with God but with one another.

This is the worship that we foreshadow every time we celebrate the Holy Communion, remembering God’s mercy and grace to God’s people from beyond our memory, and beyond our understanding. Remembering our own need for God’s forgiveness and faithfulness, we submit our selfish pride to the humility and kindness of Jesus of Nazareth. Relying not on our own achievements, but on the never failing love of God, the broken body and willing blood of the Lamb of God, and the tenderness of the Good Shepherd, we offer the worship of a fallen but ultimately hopeful people, formed for love, led by the Lamb of God.

*Marilyn J. Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism (Fortress Press, 2006), notes to Chapter 4:

Crossan made this comment during a reading and discussion of his book, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots or Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), at the Hungry Mind Bookstore, St. Paul, Minnesota, Spring 1996.

**David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (The Westminster Press, 1988)

Featured image: a house on the square at Joppa/Old Jaffa

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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