First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Family Snapshots: a Healing Community (Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-18; John 10:11-18)

Family Snapshots: a Healing Community (Ps. 23; 1 Jn. 3:16-18; Jn. 10:11-18)

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” as almost everyone that’s been near a Christian church knows. I both grew up in a church and worshiped in another for many years that featured beautiful stained glass windows featuring artists’ conceptions of this saying. It’s always been a favourite of mine. In the background that Jesus (and John, who tells this story) would have shared with their hearers and readers were the many “shepherd passages” in the Old Testament, found from Genesis (“Jacob blessed “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…) to Isaiah (“God will feed the flock like a shepherd, will gather them…will carry them…will gently lead those that are with young” ) and many places in between, God is Israel’s shepherd. In a long passage from Ezekiel 34 we find God the shepherd. Here are words from that passage:

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks…I will rescue them…I will bring them out…I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses…and I will feed them with good pasture…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will help them lie down…I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. (34:11-16)

This includes, of course, those famous words of the 23rd Psalm which we read as an Old Testament Lesson. Psalm 23 declared that God has all the qualities of a good shepherd, who provides sustenance, protection, and comfort for the flock, as well as a safe place to stay as long as may be.

In all this shared tradition, God is declared to be Israel’s shepherd, so, when Jesus claimed that he is also the good shepherd he was claiming a close relationship with the very Shepherd-God of Israel. In addition it was also common in Israel’s tradition to think of their rulers as shepherds, as other parts of that Ezekiel 34 passage, and many others, could illustrate. Again, Psalm 23 is connected with King David. If we think of David’s story, the figure of a shepherd is much to the forefront. So Jesus made sweeping claims by saying “I am the good shepherd.”

The Hebrew word for “good,” really means “appropriate for its purpose,” or “competent,” or “just like the ideal job-description puts it. Although the New Testament authors were, mostly, thinking in Aramaic (which is like Hebrew in many ways), they wrote in Greek. In telling this story of Jesus here, John used a particular word for “good” that not only means “appropriate to its purpose” or “competent,” but also “attractive.” Jesus makes being a good shepherd attractive to others.

I’ve said all this as background to Jesus’ statement about being “the good shepherd.” If we turn back to the story itself, I should say, first off, that it was appropriate for John to tell this story of Jesus the good shepherd at just this point in his Gospel in order to counter a contrasting story that has just preceded in John’s Gospel. It’s really a horrid thing. Here it is:

One Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who had been born without his sight. When he showed the leaders of the man’s synagogue that the most wonderful thing had happened – he could see! – instead of meeting him with great joy, they responded with suspicion because Jesus had actually worked on the Sabbath to heal him, and that was against their strict construction of the rules. The synagogue leaders were zealous to cross-examine any who might have had a role in this breach of the rules. The man who had been healed thought that they were all missing the important point: that he could see now! Because this man could not see that, in that particular synagogue, orthodox rule-keeping was more important than his sight (better to be blind and pure after all), the elders of the synagogue ended up throwing him out. After this, Jesus found this man, who must have been quite bewildered by all this, and, helped him to see spiritually as well as physically. Jesus, then, told the synagogue-leaders that, in fact, they who were the blind ones, because they willed themselves so. A religion of rules didn’t live up to following the God of their ancestors who, said Jesus, valued people more than rules.

That gathering (which is what “synagogue” means) was intended to be a community of healing, and it wasn’t. If we don’t at least allude to this awful story of a community that chose to hurt rather than heal, then we won’t understand why Jesus said what he did next. In other words, this was the most important passage that we didn’t read this morning. The fact that this community chose the rules over people, in fact, led Jesus to observe, for starters, that good shepherds go into the sheepfold by the gate not over the wall, and good shepherds know their sheep and their sheep know them. The leaders of this synagogue shrugged their shoulders and said, “So?”

So Jesus tried again. He said he was the gate through which sheep came into the fold. By that he meant that the way people come into his sheepfold, or community of faith, was through following his example of healing not hurting, as he had done with the blind man, and they had not And then he said those words we’ve said again and again, “I am the good shepherd.” All through his words here, Jesus is trying to say that good shepherds must live up to the great shepherd, God, who is more joyful over sight for those who haven’t been able to see than over rule-keeping.
First of all, this story helps us think about Jesus. He is the good shepherd. It is not a “hat” he puts on sometimes. It is not something he does as a “job,” it is who he is. He does what good shepherds do because he is one. That’s the difference between a shepherd and a hired-hand. The latter does it for money, power, or position. Shepherds do it because it’s who they are. They are natural care-givers and healers of sheep.

Four times in this brief passage this passage, words are said to the effect that a good shepherd lays down his life.” Twice he added, “on behalf of (or for the benefit of ) sheep.” This way of speaking is not simply a reference to the death of Jesus that’s coming in our story (it is that, of course). The idiom really speaks of an attitude that values the community of sheep enough to take the risk of life and limb on their behalf. That protective, caring, tending, nurturing attitude for sheep is at the core of the God of the Bible, and at the core of Jesus’ work as good shepherd. And followers of Jesus should imitate such caring willingness to risk itself on behalf of others. The community of Jesus is a healing community.

And, speaking of the community, taking the whole story found in chapters 9 and 10 together, they also help us think about the kind of community God is calling us to be. I usually try to say something about this on the Sundays we have quarterly meetings. This morning’s Epistle Lesson from 1 John also moves us in this direction. It starts this way: “We know love by this…” The next words are: “That he (Jesus) laid down his life on our behalf” (Jesus said this same thing four times in our Gospel lesson, so we shouldn’t be able to miss it), “and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of one another.” As I say, this passage moves from looking at Jesus the good shepherd to looking at the community that follows him. It’s such a common biblical principle: God’s people share God’s values and imitate God’s actions. At First Baptist we often say that following Jesus means following him outside the four walls of the church to love and care for the folks out there. We are an outwardly facing healing community. And that’s true, but before we get to that, we also need to that kind of community within ourselves. Our We also often say our “outside mission” is rooted in our “inside mission.” John raises a question that could have been directed to the leaders of that synagogue that threw the blind man out: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Short answer, “It doesn’t.” It is absolutely crucial that we not be a community like that. The Lord is our shepherd, Jesus is the good shepherd, to follow, we must be sure that we follow their shepherd’s willingness to put ourselves on the line for others.

We live in a world that has become so polarized that, often it’s hard to talk to people with whom we disagree without getting angry and cutting them off, or without being cut off ourselves. I don’t know just when this happened. I remarked about this in our 2017 Christmas letter. If there was a line in it that brought a response, it was that one. “That’s happened to me too!” It continually amazes me at the anger and viciousness that folks are perfectly unashamed to hang out there for an entire world to read on Twitter and Snap Chat and Facebook. (Or at least I see it second hand, or reported, I’m not on any of them because of these reports.) O, I know there are puppies and bunnies, and cute grandkids, but there are also things there that folks seem to feel as if it’s their right to say to the universe that we wouldn’t even have said to “Dear Diary” only a decade or two ago. It’s interesting to note how concerned have become about sharing personal data with “who knows who” on Facebook and Google, when some share their own worst outpourings of anger with the world. Is unfriending and lacerating all who disagree with us a contemporary equivalent to throwing the blind man out of the synagogue? A community of faith that belongs to the good shepherd needs to tend and care for folks we know as well as those we don’t and this applies to how we relate electronically as well as face to face. It used to be said by some dubious popular counselors that it was good to “get our anger out,” so just express it. We fail to realize that, for all the anger that gets out, more rushes in to fill up the void, and we never get rid of it. The more we vent, the angrier we become. A community of anger cannot be a healing community nor a community of the Good Shepherd.

John ends up our Epistle lesson by saying: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Our love for others is not just about the words we use. Of course, as I have been saying, the words we use are important, but, you know the old saying, “your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word you say.” It’s not a matter of advertising or marketing, it’s about living up – and loving up – to the name of God in Jesus that we bear. And our words and actions can heal as well as harm.

As I look out on this congregation, I see empty places that used to be filled with those who have passed from us. I will never forget listening to a tape that Joyce Dannhoff, one of the real saints here until about three years ago, made for her children to hear when she was gone, a tape she actually made in the 1990’s when she thought she hadn’t long to live (it didn’t turn out that way, I’m glad to say). One line that has stayed with me is this: “If someone wants to know what my faith is, they will see it in what I do.” And we could. Who could say more about us than that? And that should also be our goal as a community, for the kind of community we are is a choice.

In the words of 1 John 3: “We know love by this…” by attitudes and actions that put ourselves on the line for others. As I say, this is a choice. Now, in case you wonder, I do think we do this as a community of faith, and it is my prayer that, as we follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we may continue to make the same choice to live into and live up to the name of Jesus. Let us remember who we are and whose we are. John wrote:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us. (1Jn. 4:11-12)

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.