Posts Tagged ‘Shepherd’

One voice among many

May 11, 2019

Easter 4 – 2019

John 10:22-30 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who demands nothing more than that we respond to God’s love. Amen.

I make no secret of the fact that I revel in the academic study of the scriptures and that the discovery of patterns, the uncovering of clever writing styles and the revelation of contradictions excite and energise me. A more comprehensive understanding of the gospels – why they were written and for whom, the techniques used by the authors to pique our interest and to ensure that we the readers see the teachings of Jesus in the way that they want us to – answers my questions and helps to deepen my faith and my relationship with Jesus and with the God who lies behind the texts.

I know that my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone and that some of you would prefer me to keep it straight forward. That said, I believe (Or perhaps I hope) that you continue to indulge me because you know that underlying my scholarly interest is a passion for the gospel and a deep and sincere conviction that at its heart faith has little to do with how we interpret the bible, with how we worship or with the doctrine of the church. What lies at the centre of my faith is not a question about who said what when, or whether Mark’s retelling is more authentic than Luke’s but my relationship with the God who created us, Jesus who redeemed us and the Spirit who enlivens us. I am convinced that at its core faith is an absolute confidence in God’s love for each one of us and a willingness to accept that love no matter how undeserving we might feel.

Relationship is central to John’s gospel – Jesus’ relationship with the Father, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and the disciples’ relationships with each other. Over and over Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one (10:30 eg) and he urges the disciples to be one as he and the Father are one (17:11). It is Jesus’ unity with the Father that enables him to do the things that God does (3:35, 5:19f, 10:38 eg) and to speak the words God would speak (3:34). Jesus unity with God is reflected in Jesus’ unity with the disciples (14:20) who will not only do the things that Jesus does but will do greater things (14:12).

We enter into relationship with God (Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier) by responding to God’s call. Throughout John’s gospel there is an emphasis – not on doing the right thing, or behaving in a prescribed way – but by hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice (5:24f). This is an image that Jesus returns to in chapter 10 in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He claims: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.’

My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.

In today’s world there are many distractions and many competing voices. Even those of us who claim to follow Jesus can find it hard to focus on Jesus when there are so many other things clamouring for our attention – families, careers, social media and advertising. Even our church membership, volunteer work and other ‘worthy’ pursuits can prevent us from truly hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice. Changing values challenge our certainties. Different cultures and faiths can blur the clarity of our vision and make the edges of our beliefs more fluid.

Even within our scriptures there are voices which distract and detract from the message that relationship is at the centre of faith. It is possible to read scripture in such a way as to see God as a retributive, demanding judge who demands that we behave in a way that will earn God’s approval rather than hearing the voice of God crying out for us to be in relationship in with God.

The doctrines of the church present another set of voices that can confuse and distract from this core idea of relationship – God’s with us and ours with God. We can spend inordinate amounts of time trying to understand the Doctrine of the Trinity instead of seeing it for what it is – a description of relationship – the relationship between God the Creator, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – a relationship which we are called to enter so that as the lives of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are indistinguishable from each other, so our life is indistinguishable from that of the Trinity.

In the midst of all these clamouring and competing voices, there is one that calls us to himself – to life in the present and life in the future. May we who claim to be Jesus’ sheep hear his voice amid the competing voices of the world and follow wherever he may lead.

Not just sheep

May 10, 2014

(Please remember in prayer the 180 Nigerian girls who remain in captivity, their families and all women and girls who are trafficked or who are victims of violence.)

Easter 4 2014

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us by name and who trusts us to know the shepherd from the thief. Amen.

I wonder just how much you absorb when you hear the gospel read on a Sunday morning? How well do you think you would go if I threw a good old-fashioned comprehension test at you today? My suspicion is that none of us would achieve a particularly good result – myself included. Today’s gospel is full of confusing and inconsistent metaphors and allusions. There are gatekeepers, thieves, bandits shepherds and gates and the difficult question is – what represents whom? Presumably, the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper or the shepherd or all three? Who are the strangers – are they the same as the thieves and bandits or do they represent someone else? One problem is that the text seems to jump from one idea to another – gate keeping, following, listening, destroying, giving life. It is difficult to work out just what Jesus is trying to get across. No wonder even Jesus’ listeners were confused (10:6).

If you were in my New Testament class and we were examining today’s gospel, the first thing I would suggest is that you read and reread the text, preferably in Greek.

Once you were familiar with these ten verses, I would suggest that you read them in context, that you investigate what comes before and after the text and whether those passages shed light on what you have just read. In this instance it is obvious that what comes after is important for our understanding of the passage. The theme of shepherd continues in some way or another until the end of chapter 10. However the connection with Chapter 9 is less evident. Only if we take a closer look does it become clear that what we know as chapter 10 is in fact a continuation of Chapter 9. The first sentence of chapter ten continues Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the connection between the two chapters is strengthened when we see that 10:21 refers to the discussion about the healing of the blind man.

What all this means is that if we really want to understand the ten verses set down as the gospel for today, we have to read from the beginning of Chapter 9 to the end of Chapter 10 and to try to make sense of the relationship between an account of healing and a discussion about shepherding.

A number of things are going on here, but the key to the relationship between the two chapters is the controversy about Jesus’ identity and the argument between the man who was blind and the Pharisees. The blind man whose sight has been restored is convinced that Jesus is a prophet sent from God. He holds firm to this view in spite of the Pharisees trying to convince him otherwise. Not only that, he identifies Jesus as God – in response to Jesus’ question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he acknowledges Jesus as Lord and falls down and worships him. The Pharisees however, refuse to accept that Jesus can have been sent by God let alone be God. They prefer to believe that Jesus is a sinner (9:16, 24,31) or worse still that he is possessed by a demon (10:20,21). Jesus threatens their position and what they believe about God and God’s way of relating to the people.

At the heart of the discussion then, is an issue about leadership and authority. Who can be trusted to lead the people of God – the priests and the Pharisees or this itinerant teacher/healer – and who decides between the two? The eyes of the blind man have been opened. He can see that the true leader, the true shepherd is the one who is trusted by and who cares for and respects the people. The Pharisees demonstrate their blindness, because they cannot see Jesus for who he is.

Contrary to expectation it is not the Pharisees who have the authority to determine who is or is not from God – that authority belongs to the people. The fact that the man born blind identified Jesus has demonstrated that the “ordinary” people, those of no status in the Jewish worldview, are able to make up their own minds about God and about God’s representatives. No matter how hard the Pharisees try, the blind man refuses to be cowed, or to change his opinion about Jesus. He does not need to be told who to follow. Whatever arguments the Pharisees use, he knows that Jesus cannot be a sinner because God does not listen to sinners – only to those who know and obey him. He knows (despite the Pharisees’ statements to the contrary) that if Jesus was not from God he would not be able to do anything (9:33) let alone give sight to the blind.

The question of true authority, true leadership is decided by the people. They (the sheep) will not follow a stranger nor will they listen to thieves and bandits (the Pharisees). It is the people, the sheep, who recognise where true authority lies. They know instinctively who it is who will lead them “in right paths” and allow them “to go in and go out and find pasture”. Their eyes have been opened to the true nature of their religious leaders. They are thieves and bandits, strangers whom they will not follow.

Jesus (the good shepherd) is not a benign, harmless figure in the world of first century Palestine. Quite the contrary – he is a revolutionary who turns everything upside down. Not only does he undermine the authority of the Pharisees he also makes the radical claim that the sheep – the ordinary, uneducated people – are able to make up their own minds as to whom they should follow. It is they, not the religious leaders who are able to recognise the true nature of the Pharisees and of Jesus and to decide between them.

Jesus – the gate, the shepherd – has made it possible for us to have a relationship with God that is not mediated by Temple rituals, a priestly caste or by the observance of the law. It doesn’t matter whether we are ordained or lay, well-educated or poorly educated, professional or manual laborer each of us through Jesus can have direct access to God. The gate is open, the shepherd is calling us by name. All it takes is for us to respond.

God of many names

April 20, 2013

Easter 4 – 2013, Good Shepherd Sunday

John 10:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose nature cannot be described by human language and whose name is above every other name. Amen.

I wonder how many different expressions do you use to address God or how many names you know for God? Most of us use the word “Father” – partly out of habit because that is what we were taught as children and because it is the form of address used in the Lord’s prayer which we have used for as long as we can remember. While the expression “Father” is not exclusive to the gospel of John, it is this gospel that firmly established “Father” as a name for, and descriptor of, God. In this gospel, Jesus consistently refers to himself as God’s son and to God as Father.

Father is a useful and relational term, however, the biblical language for God is much more complex. In the OT, God is addressed and described in many and varied ways. In Genesis alone, God is acknowledged as creator and Lord. God is called Elohim, El Shaddai and simply El. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses asks whom shall he say sent him, God answers: tell them YHWH (I am who I am) sent you.

In the Psalms we find a rich source of expressions for God. The Psalmist says: God is my fortress and my tower; God is my strong defence, my help and my deliverer. God is named as a judge, a shield and a king and is described as awesome, righteous, gracious and merciful. The Psalmist can call God a rock, a sun and state that God is more majestic than the everlasting mountains.

The prophets likewise draw on a wide range of imagery to name and to describe God. Often they speak in the first person, as if God is actually speaking: “I will bear you up on eagle’s wings”, “I am he who blots out your transgressions”, “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you and so on.” God is envisaged as a potter in Jeremiah and Hosea imagines God as a bridegroom – an image that is taken up again in the Book of Revelation.

Sometimes the language used for God reveals the people’s experience of God, sometimes reflects the situation in which the people find themselves and sometimes it is drawn from the environment around them. So for example because God is seen as the protector of Israel, language like tower, refuge and defence are seen as appropriate terms to apply to God. A rock or a mountain, suggest that God is solid and steadfast. An experience of God’s comforting love might lead one to think of God as mother.

One expression for God that is found throughout the Bible is that of shepherd. From Genesis, through the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels and right up to the Book of Revelation, God is described as a shepherd. As a nation of herders, the Israelites would have been all too familiar with the imagery of shepherding. Their well-being and their livelihood would have depended on their flocks being well cared for. They would have known first hand the difference between and good and a bad shepherd. They would have observed the relationships between shepherd and flock and seen the results of good and bad shepherding. Even those people not directly involved in the care of the animals would have noticed that some of the shepherds were more protective of their flock and they would have seen how well those animals responded to being cared for. They would also have seen that carelessness and neglect led to the destruction of the flock at the hands of wild animals and that cruelty led to flocks that were timid and easily startled.

Given their intimate knowledge of animal husbandry, it is not surprising that the image of shepherd was used of God. God embodied everything that was good in a shepherd. God provided for the people, kept them safe from their enemies, knew and responded to their needs and led them where they needed to go. God was their shepherd and they identified themselves as God’s flock (Ps 79:13, 100, 95:7).

It is little wonder then, that Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. The Jesus of John’s gospel, consistently argues that he and the Father are one. If God is the shepherd of the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep. If God has promised to send a “shepherd after his own heart”, Jesus is the shepherd whom God has sent. If God is able to protect the flock from harm, Jesus can guarantee that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand – not in the present nor for all eternity. Unlike the leaders of Israel, who were as varied in their commitment to the flocks as shepherd with their sheep, Jesus’ commitment is total. He is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep. Those who hear and respond to his voice are those who recognise that they belong to his flock. Those who do not respond demonstrate by their behaviour that they do not belong – they self-select to stand outside and to refuse the gift of life that Jesus the shepherd offers.

Shepherd, king, rock, shield, father, mother – ultimately, all our expressions for God are merely human expressions of what we believe God to be, what we experience God to be or what we hope God to be. Even so, as the variety of biblical names indicates, our language is completely inadequate to capture or to begin to describe everything that God is. God is so much more than mere words can express.

In Jesus we have a glimpse into the nature of God. We discover in him a God who gives himself completely to us and gives himself completely for us. All we have to do is to recognise Jesus as God and respond to his voice – and that, after all, is why we are here.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9)

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