The Discernment of Shepherds and Sheep

Week of Sunday April 26 - Easter 4, and Anzac Weekend 

Epistle: 1 Jn 3:16-24

1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How 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?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

Gospel: Jn 10:11-18

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words. 20Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

A reflection
"What this country needs is strong leadership and good fiscal management." It's standard political rhetoric.

In Israel we might have heard a politician say, "What this country needs is a good shepherd. We need a good strong shoot out of the stump of Jesse." (Isa 11) It was saying the same thing.

Shepherds, aka the religious and political leadership— the two were not separate— often had strained relationships with God. Listen to Ezekiel 34.

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

There are another 20 verses.

Of course the shepherds of Israel in Jesus' time knew these verses. They disapproved heartily of the shepherds of the time of Ezekiel. They were not like them. In fact, I imagine they were rather proud of their faithfulness to God.

We have preserved the right to worship without the Roman Gods being in the temple. There're not many places like that in the Roman Empire. We've managed pretty well. The Romans are hard, yes. But play by the rules and the Pax works to Israel's advantage. We are not like the Shepherds of old.

Classic Cliche image of Jesus the good shepherd holding a lambThis background about shepherds is 'in the air' in Jesus' time. When Jesus talks about shepherds in John 10, no one is thinking of Persil white robes and lambs and Pantened and combed fair hair. It is an immediately and obviously political discourse. There is no separation of church and state. Like Tea-Party christians, or the christians in Australia who are sympathetic to the ACL, the separation of religion and politics is rhetorical rather than actual.

The shepherd verses are set in the context of the man born blind. (John 9) In verses 35-41 Jesus has just told the Pharisees— they stand in for all the "Jews" (9:18) at this point—  that they are spiritually blind.

 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Then he says to them— don't read the text in isolation—

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

They did not understand!?  I think this might be called dramatic irony! A sheep of Israel, the man born blind from birth, has not followed the shepherds, but has followed Jesus!? Do we really think they don't 'get' this?

Their 'lack of understanding' creates a space for John and Jesus to mix their metaphors nd drive home the message. Jesus is not only the shepherd, he is the gate to the fold.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

The implications of this language are not immediately clear to us with our images of Jesus holding lambs and sitting with children. But in context, the scene has the emotional intensity of a church service where someone stands up in a rage and calls for the pastor to be kicked out… and where, indeed, some members are of a mind to do it physically, right then and there. Indeed, by verse 31 "The Jews took up stones again to stone him."

The immediate cause of this is the blasphemy of verse 30: "The Father and I are one." But verse 30 has been implicit from the beginning of the conversation about the sheep because, in Ezekiel 34, God said,

10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  (Ezekiel 34:9-12)

When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd many of his hearers recognise that he is saying he and the Father are one. Repeatedly he has said, "I am," the name for God. (John 10:9,10,14)

John's Church
The sheep of John's church, ordinary folk like us, could take great comfort from the words of John 10:10-18. Jesus is the good shepherd who has come to give us abundant life. He is no pawn among the powers that be. No one takes his life from him. He lays it down of his own accord. He has the power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again. And he does it for us. He is not a hireling who abandons us to the wolves; instead, he dies for us.

The first response to this reading in our weekly bible study was that it is an image of comfort. It is no wonder that the Persil white image of Jesus on this page occurs thousands of times upon the internet. It carries a truth. But the truth is far greater than that picture shows.

The shepherd faces the harsh realities of life. Jesus will go to the wall for us. Boardman Robinson's 1916 antiwar cartoon carries this deeper truth. Jesus stands between us and the Powers.

Jesus being executed by firing squad of 5 European powers

Being Australian, our bible study could hardly avoid talking about Anzac Day this week. We were allegedly forged as a nation 100 years ago at Gallipoli, a side skirmish to the Great War. Ill conceived, badly executed— who lands an invasion force on the wrong beach!?— and a military defeat.

How do we live as sheep amongst the great powers? 

A retired colleague in our congregation is old enough to remember listening to the fascist Nazi sympathiser Oswald Mosely stumping to  an audience at Brighton (UK).

"People soaked up what he said!"

How do we discern truth? How do we see propaganda and emotional blackmail for what it is?

How do we know when we stand against the wall like Miguel Pro, whether we have been fools or martyrs for the Faith?

 Miguel Pro Execution

How do we know we are on the side of right, or merely a jailor at Abu Grahib? History has not been kind to those who thought they were right. 

Jailer and prisoner Abu Ghraib

By what authority might we draw Boardman Robinson's cartoon of Jesus staring disapprovingly at the war mongering minister William Manning? By what right do we claim to speak God's word?

 Rev. Dr. William T. Manning, Rector of Trinity Parish, New York City, had declared "Our Lord Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price...Every true Amercan would rather see this land face war than see her flag lowered in dishonor...I wish to say that, not only from the standpoint of a citizen, but from the standpoint of a minister of religion...I believe there is nothing that would be of such great practical benefit to us as universal military training for the men of our land." Boardman Robinson illustrated Manning's quote, showing the preacher getting a long and dirty look from Jesus and his Apostles, outraged at such militarism coming from a supposedly Christian man of the cloth.

 Rev. Dr. William T. Manning, Rector of Trinity Parish, New York City, had declared "Our Lord Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price...Every true Amercan would rather see this land face war than see her flag lowered in dishonor...I wish to say that, not only from the standpoint of a citizen, but from the standpoint of a minister of religion...I believe there is nothing that would be of such great practical benefit to us as universal military training for the men of our land." Boardman Robinson illustrated Manning's quote, showing the preacher getting a long and dirty look from Jesus and his Apostles, outraged at such militarism coming from a supposedly Christian man of the cloth. 

Bringing it Home 
Great Britain invented the Concentration Camp during the Boer War. We learned. In the World War One concentration camp on Torrens Island near Adelaide, the commandant

Torrens Island Internment (Concentration) Camp... Captain Hawkes … encouraged an atmosphere in which guards became routinely offensive and violent in their behaviour, and soon afterward stories of brutal treatment began to be circulated. Subsequent enquiries found evidence of prisoners being punished for disciplinary offences by exposing them to the weather in an open barbed wire compound, prisoners habitually being prodded with bayonets, and illegal punishments in which internees were stripped, handcuffed and publicly flogged..  on one occasion Captain Hawkes had fired his pistol into a tent full of internees, wounding one. [He had an American flogged!] … (Photo Credit)

 Nothing, it seems, has changed. When the Sunday Mail exposed conditions at Torrens Island the records of the camp were destroyed, but we still have our own Abu Grahibs and Guantanamo Bays at Manus Isand, Christmas Island, and Nauru while we glorify our heroes of war. (Photo Credit) When I visited Creswick a week ago the town was festooned with old World War One propaganda, but silent about the voices of conscience.

We conveniently forget the voices which called us to examine our hearts during the First World War... as though there was only ever one option to a right choice before God.

Anti conscription rally 1916 Melbourne Protesters attend a huge anti-conscription rally at Yarra Bank in Melbourne, 1916. National Library of Australia, n6487142CC BY-NC-ND 

The Blood Vote, the poem credited with influencing many votes in the conscription referendum. Reproduced from a pamphlet, How to Defeat Conscription: a Story of the 1916 and 1917 Campaigns in Victoria. Bertha Walker, Solidarity Forever!CC BY

Hearing God amidst the propganda
During Bible Study we looked at the reading set from 1 John 3.

1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

This small community lived in hope, knowing its difference from the culture around it, and not seeking appeasement. It held onto the comfort of a good shepherd who would not abandon it.

We recognised how easy it is to go from that position to "weaponising" our faith and condemning those around us. How are we to stand apart in our conviction as people who have discovered God's love, and yet avoid becoming hard of heart, and judgemental violent Christians?

We saw that we are to live the love among ourselves: "For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." (1 John 3:11) 

"12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother." Whatever else this says, it says war is a failure of love. I admire and marvel at men like my father and uncles who went to war. They exhibited a courage I have never needed to draw upon. But the situation into which they were called was a failure of love.

That failure of love is deadly. It kills something within us.

14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 

 
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When we listen to the politicians, when we choose to vote, when we stand against a war or for it what is our heart doing? We ask this question because 1 John 3 says, "19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything."

So in the face of war do we regret, or do we rejoice? Do we weep at our past history and present crimes against humanity, or do we glorify the violence?

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How 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?

Do we lay down our lives? Do we care for others, or secretly send them back to the governments from which they fled? Are we sheep who run with the mob on such travesties, or do we speak up?

And if we become a Shepherd...? How then will we live? In all the political pragmatisms we face, when will we make a stand? How will we be remembered?

Boardman

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boardman_Robinson#/media/File:The_Father_and_Mother.jpg

"18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." Rhetoric counts for nothing. Prayer and bible study count for nothing if we then live its opposite. 

1 John 3 concludes with these words

19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

How can we believe our hearts? How do we know we are not led astray by the mob? Only if we love one another. If I do not seek the best for you, if I do not seek to understand how life seems for you, I can have no confidence in what my heart tells me is God's righteousness. My conscience can only be clear if I love you as he loved me and you.

Otherwise I am one more sheep at the mercy of wolves, and unable to tell who is the good shepherd. And the admiration of bigots will be my judgement as I glorify in the violence of our past. What condemnation of us as a nation when a bigot looks to us as an inspiration— insult laden though it be. Katie Hopkins:

Australians are like British people, but with balls of steel, can-do brains, tiny hearts and whacking great gunships... Their approach to migrant boats is the sort of approach we need in the Med... They threaten them with violence until they bugger off, throwing cans of Castlemaine in an Aussie version of sharia stoning...

Her extraordinary article - published shortly before 700 people were feared to have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean - should serve as a wake up call for Australians.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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