The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Acts 4:8-12 and Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-29 (The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone)
1 John 3:1-2 (We are God's children now; what we are to be has not yet been revealed)
John 10:11-18 (Jesus is the Good Shepherd: "I have other sheep...these also I must lead, and they will hear my voice")
Philippians 1:27-30 (Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel...that you may stand firm in one spirit)
I have several ways to go with today's meditation, running the gamut from the classic shepherd in the pasture with the sheep (nice photo op) to a treatise on Psalm 23 and the many musical settings thereof (and I like them all). In fact, the latter was what I thought I was going with as I lay in bed waking this morning.
Then I revisited the text of today's Gospel passage and the paradox of "one fold, one shepherd" prompted me.
Obviously there's something wrong with that prospect. If there's only supposed to be one, then which one? Why? And, why are there so many - more than there were at the time Jesus walked the earth and when John recalled this sixty years later? And why aren't we all Jewish? And why are Jews still waiting for the First Coming of the Messiah?
As I've been writing and have come to understand, Paul of Tarsus (fka Saul) was a devout Jew - studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the best teachers of the time - and saw all these liberal Christ-following Jews as an aberration; as anathema to the proper practice of the Jewish faith. Even there, though, was division - the Pharisees on one side and the Saducees on another, with still another group - the Essenes - showing viability.
I've thought about this strange paradox. It flies in the face of an ideal called unity. The Christian Profession of Faith calls for "one" holy Church; yet there are hundreds of denominations. Catholic Church theology speaks of "unity in diversity", something hinted at in the Gospels and in Paul's writing. But even that is an ideal not quite realized. How can we speak of unity among Christians when there isn't even unity among Catholics? (Further, for the benefit of my other Christian friends and readers, this rift isn't limited to Roman Catholicism. There is a sense of disparity everywhere, and one doesn't have to look hard to see it - just look outside themselves and it's rather apparent.)
I believe the biggest obstacle to understanding what Jesus teaches us in being the Good Shepherd is that each fold, each denomination, carries to some degree a mark of exclusivity. Nobody owns any exclusive access rights to God. (Sorry, Benjy; you too, Henry, Marty; and everyone else.) No lofty status, no degree of knowledge, no high or low, no near or far makes any one person or any one path more accessible to Jesus and to God than the one you're on right now.
I grew up (in wisdom and spirit, no less!) holding some rather exclusive teachings. In some ways, as a preacher I should be perpetuating the sense of elitism and separation that those teachings suggest. But that would be very, very wrong! Our life should be devoted to an understanding of God, not a possessiveness. For example, let's say that Notre Dame and DePaul (or Southern Methodist and Illinois Wesleyan) tie in a football game. Each wonders why the game ended in a tie. Each believed as they went into "battle" that God was on their side. Problem is, God was on the other side, too!
The walls that separate and divide us from God and each other are walls humanity built for themselves. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are still among God's Chosen People - for if it were any different, God would have to abandon His promise, something He would never do. It took a little thought, but it didn't take long for the early Church to see that the message of the gospel was meant for everyone, and having received this Good News, we should live in the manner in which the message calls us.
Today, I pray that my mind will always be open to hear God's message, even if it is not in the 'usual and customary' way.
Shepherd me, O God,
Beyond my wants;
Beyond my fears;
From death into life
God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want
I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love
I walk by the quiet waters of peace. (Refrain)
Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul
You lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth
My spirit will sing the music of your name. (Refrain)
Though I should wander the valley of death
I fear no evil, for you are at my side
Your rod and your staff my comfort and my hope. (Refrain)
You have set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred
Crowning me with love beyond my power to hold. (Refrain)
Surely your kindness and mercy follow me
All the days of my life
I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.
Shepherd me, O God;
Beyond my wants,
Beyond my fears;
From death...into life!
--Shepherd Me, O God (1986)
setting of Psalm 23 by Marty Haugen