Listening to the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-11)
There’s no doubt in my mind that two of the lessons for this morning are among the best-loved readings in the Bible. The first is the 23rd Psalm, the second is Jesus’ Bible study on that Psalm in John 10.
If we start, as we should, at the beginning, with the Old Testament, we find this most wonderful description of the God of Israel. I know there’s a lot of thunder up on Mt. Sinai, and there’s a lot of noise about war and killing and punishment and many other disturbing things about God, ourselves, and others down in the valley – and we can find room to think about them all – but at the core of it all, when it comes down to basics, this experience of Israel’s God towers above the others.
The LORD’s my shepherd, I lack nothing.
in pastures of greenness God beds me down.
Beside waters of restfulness leads me.
my very life God revives.
And leads me on the right paths
for the sake of God’s own good name.
Even when I walk through a valley of deep danger
I fear no harm, for you are with me,
Your rod and your staff, they hearten me.
You set a table before my face,
With my enemies there to see.
You anoint my head with oil, my cup is full.
Surely what is good and what is faithful
will pursue me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the LORD’s house
to the end of days.
I remember one of Maxine’s stories about her days as chaplain of Onalaska Care Centre. When a visiting minister was reading the 23rd Psalm, he was shocked when, as he began to read, the congregation of senior saints, simply began to recite it from memory along with him. He was so surprised he could barely finish. It is interesting that for at least a hundred and fifty generations of godly people, some of them very sophisticated, some of them not, this experience and confession of who God is sticks with them, as the Psalm itself says, “to the end of days.” And it is, often, the things that remain there with us to the end of our days that really touch the deepest within us.
I believe this Psalm touches those deepest places because it affirms that God is, whatever else, trustworthy, life-giving, life- restoring, and one who sets banquets before those who haven’t paid for them, can’t afford them, and even, don’t deserve them. The picture of God here is of one who mightily and gently feeds, leads, and heeds the flock of sheep. I also believe that this Psalm sticks with so many to the end of their days (and especially then) because, if God’s the shepherd, then we are – well – the sheep, and sheep are creatures in total dependence on the shepherd. When it all comes down to it, we have the choice of arriving at the end screaming and kicking and trusting no one and nothing, or giving ourselves in complete trust to, as 1 Peter 2 says, “the shepherd and guardian of our souls” (a clear reference to Psalm 23). The choice we make of how to go out is, many times, made long before the end, and it depends, at least in part on the people we have met who have spoken to us and enfleshed to us this God who is our shepherd.
And that’s where we get to Jesus’ Bible Study on Psalm 23. It isn’t a scholarly study of the passage (not that those scholarly studies are bad things). It is, of course, really the Bible study that John had composed as he had meditated on the words and deeds of Jesus for decades.
For thinking about this study I would suggest that we put our analytical skills in our back pocket and look at the whole effect. We can’t let it bother us, for example, that Jesus is both the gate of the sheep and the good shepherd. We can’t let it bother us that, in one place the thieves and bandits are trying to climb over the wall to get in the sheepfold, and in another they’re standing at the gate calling for the sheep to come out. For one thing, thieves and bandits are endlessly resourceful.
As John’s meditation opens, there is a marked contrast between a legitimate shepherd and a bandit. Shepherds come in through the front door, bandits come over the wall. Jesus (or John) doesn’t identify any particular thieves and bandits, although you and I, and myriad readers through 1,900 years, may make our own identifications from our experience.
As gate of God’s sheepfold and good shepherd, Jesus claimed that following him gives people access to the “Psalm 23” experience of God. This God is the giver of good pasture and water, and the maker of abundant life. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “If you want to experience God like that, come, follow me.” And, as a Christian, I affirm that. If you want to know what God’s like, look at Jesus.
As I read these lines, it strikes me how deeply they trust mere sheep. There’s no hand-wringing here that thieves and bandits are trying to get into the heart of the flock. There seems a simple, some might say naïve, trust in the fact that the sheep will only follow the true shepherd. But what of the reality that, in fact, sheep can follow thieves and bandits rather than the true shepherd? And do!
One response to this apparent sense of confidence in the sheep is to put an emphasis on the personal pronoun his in verses 3-4. These interpreters say that the “his” is Jesus the shepherd, or God. Only God knows who the “his” (the real) sheep are. Only they are truly called. Others might think they are, but they will be tempted and fall away, but that’s OK, because they were never really his sheep.
Others place an emphasis on the fact that “his” sheep hear or listen to the shepherd’s voice. And that voice, though it may have belonged to Jesus, now belongs to leaders of the flock, and the way sheep demonstrate they are of “the right” flock is by following certain rules. Unfortunately, very much experience will show that some flocks follow these rules (or leaders) and others follow those rules. They end up saying, “Just toe the mark. And what mark depends on who the leader is. This can become scary because the rules may become bizarre, including “Just drink the Kool-Aid.” Both of these things, though common, will lead to the introduction of a foreign category, “good sheep” and “bad sheep” into the story. They will lead to suspicions about the purity of our fellow sheep.
It is, without doubt true in my experience that these approaches have failed pastorally and driven more people to despair than into a deeper relationship with God through Christ. Jesus said he came to bring abundant life, and such understandings of the way God is don’t measure up, at least in my book. I think it’s best to deal with the passage in a simpler and more positive way by saying that sheep have a role to play by listening for the shepherd Jesus’ genuine voice. Is what is being taught sound like Jesus? What’s the message and the outcome?
Is the message about spiritual sustenance and abundant life for all, or about things that are divisive and damaging to people and the world? Is the message about learning to follow God the Shepherd in green pastures, by quiet waters, and even through dark valleys? Is the message about support, love, acceptance and abundant living in Christ? Or is it really about the spirit of criticism, narrowness, phoney purity, and condemnation? What’s the outcome of what’s being offered. Don’t look only at the number being attracted, look at whether people are lifted up, as by a shepherd; or are held up, as by a bandit. And that’s where we get to the Acts Lesson.
If we belong to the Shepherd God of Psalm 23, if we belong to the Good Shepherd of John 10, what kind of a community ought to grow out of it? Here’s what Acts 2 says. First, they devoted themselves to four matters: The apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. Look at these things
Communities that follow God the Shepherd will be teaching-learning communities. This learning and teaching will happen both formally and informally, and not just by what we say, but by what we do. We teach by our lives, with ourselves. Communities that follow God the Shepherd will also be communities of fellowship that share deeply with one another. This word koinonia (fellowship) does not mean simply sharing food (though it does not exclude this), but also sharing the common life of being humanly united in Christ at deep levels. Communities that follow God the Shepherd will be devoted to the Breaking of the Bread. This is not a repetition of what we already said about fellowship, but refers to sharing the Lord’s Supper and the other distinctive acts of public worship that shape Jesus’ community (baptism and mission are two more). And, of course, communities that follow God the Shepherd will be communities in which prayers of praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, and intercession are offered to God when we’re together, and even when we’re not.
These basic commitments of the Community of Jesus are enriched in Acts 2 by insight into some specific ways in which they worked out in that community: they held things in common, sold possessions, pooled resources, gave to the needy. They ate together with glad and generous hearts. And they praised God. Does every Community of God the Shepherd have to look just like this? My answer would be yes and no.
First, at heart, yes. There must be a commonality of worship of God as well as care and concern for one another and for the world at the core of what we say and more importantly commit to and do. But, then, no, we don’t have to shape this worship, care and concern by aping the apostles’ world. As nearby as Acts 5:4 we see that there were different ways of working this care and concern out even then. Some so-called literalists think all we need to do is somehow recreate the biblical world to be relevant to our own. That’s silly. One might as well argue of the religious value of outdoor plumbing. We must find contemporary and local ways of making this care and concern for one another and the world real and meaningful here and now. The world around was grasped by the fact that these early Christians were in touch with God (that is, awe came upon them because of the wonders and signs that were being done by the apostles). What is necessary today is for the world to see that we are in touch with God the Shepherd, not by recreating biblical miracles, but by reaching out to the world in love and allowing new and exciting miracles to happen.
Often today, I hear people making the case that the more people in “the world” think you’re a jerk the more godly you are. I wonder what it means here, then, that the witness of these early Christians led to “having the goodwill of all the people” and that God added to the church those who were being saved?
When people in a community genuinely care, other people eventually know it. We must work away at letting that happen, by word and by deed, as we have opportunity in our community, so that people will be attracted to God the Shepherd, so that their lives may be lived in the simple trust of the shepherd’s leading, feeding, and heeding; and so that, at the end, they may abandon themselves in complete trust to the great shepherd and guardian of their very selves.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.