Life Abundantly

A Sermon for Sunday May 3, 2020. Fourth Sunday in Easter. John 10:1-10. 

During this time of quarantine, the kids and I have been watching the Marvel animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. At the beginning of each episode, there is a recap of the storyline containing certain scenes and details to help viewers know what’s happening in the current chapter. The recaps are quite beneficial when you’re on episode 18 and you need to recall something that happened in episode three.

In similar fashion, a recap of John 9:1-41, which was the text for worship more than a month ago on March 22, is necessary for understanding today’s scripture reading from John 10:1-10. To rehash, Jesus and his disciples are walking along when they encounter a blind man from birth. Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud with his salvia and spreads it across the man’s eyes before instructing him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man complies and after washing, he is able to see.

The people in the community, who have known the blind man as a beggar on the streets whose needs are ignored, are astonished by the transformation. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, on the other hand, ignore the man’s testimony that Jesus healed his blindness. They reprimand the man and insist that his sins made him blind and that to claim Jesus recovered his sight is also sinful.

The Pharisees refuse to see the holy and powerful presence of God in Christ and in the marginalized whom Jesus heals. At the end of John 9, Jesus points out the religious leaders’ hypocrisy –telling them that it is they who sin, who miss the mark, who refuse to acknowledge God. Their own arrogance blinds them from seeing the wonder of God in others and the gift of grace that restores dignity to those who’ve had it blotted out from their lives.

Jesus is still debating with the Pharisees when we turn to John 10:1-10. With his disciples and others nearby, Jesus—who typically doesn’t teach through parables in this gospel—paints a dramatic picture a parable like “figure of speech,” the gospel writer states, to explain his identity and purpose:

 “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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. … Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Jesus identifies as the gatekeeper of the sheep. The gatekeeper is the one who properly takes care of the sheep by opening the gate for the sheep to come in and out, protecting them as they go. To be a vigilant gatekeeper means one is then a skilled shepherd. Jesus—in the ensuing passage, 11-18, Jesus—attempting to explain the parable to his confused disciples—says he is “the good shepherd.”

The Greek for “good,” kalos, means “real and proper” or “true,” as opposed to “morally good”, as in: “I am the true shepherd” or “I am the genuine shepherd.”  Early followers of Jesus were familiar with a description of the Messiah as an “experienced shepherd”: The language is used by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah compare the holy shepherd with “ ‘worthless shepherds’ who neglect, exploit and scatter the flock.’” [1]Jesus warns the disciples and crowd about the worthless shepherds, “thieves and bandits,” who sneak into the sheepfold, a pasture enclosed by stone walls and a wooden gate, to “steal, kill and destroy.”

The worthless shepherds, of course, are the Pharisees who interrogated the blind man and question Jesus’ authority. They’re supposed to be legitimate shepherds of Israel who care, protect and nourish the people. Alternately, they rob the dignity and destroy the hope of those who are hurting. They are more worried about securing their power than tending to the well-being of others.

Lindsey S. Jodrey, minister and teacher at Princeton Theological Seminary, citing other scholarly work, notes that the worthless shepherds or “thieves and bandits” could also refer to the Greek and Roman political authorities of Jesus’ day. She writes:

 The tradition presents kings and emperors as “good shepherds” who foster a life marked by security and abundance for the empire’s subjects.Throughout his story, John presents Jesus as an opponent to imperial rule, so much so that he is killed for his opposition to Caesar (John 19:12, 15). … The description of Jesus mirrors the role of the emperor as a ruler who keeps secure borders, a warrior who saves the people from attack or economic harm, and a benefactor who offers provision and even abundance (John 10:3, 9). In a Roman world where 70-80 percent of the population was food insecure, protection from theft and the image of a green pasture was a poignant promise.6Jesus’ claim to be the ultimate good shepherd who brings abundant life is further supported by his actions of healing and providing wine and bread. The presentation of Jesus offers a critique of the Roman Empire, which claimed … to bring wholeness and wellbeing to society, when its structures actually brought sickness and poverty to most of its subjects. …Rather than a military warrior, amassing power through violence, Jesus absorbs the violence of the Empire.[2] 

Jesus is not the warrior king, thief or bandit who steals, kills and destroys. Jesus is the good shepherd and gatekeeper who leads, protects and nurtures the the sheep. Knowing the shepherd’s care and voice, the sheep trust and follow—becoming one with the shepherd who has their best interests at heart.

As Christians, we, the people of God’s flock, follow the voice of Jesus, our shepherd and gatekeeper who guides us in the ways of love, grace, hope and wellness—who desires that we have life abundantly.

The world is full of worthless shepherds—voices that deceptively try, and succeed at times, in diverting our attention toward selfishness, greed, wealth, and success. Such voices bring about despair and injustice. Such voices attempt to gain our allegiance by presenting us with a shiny alternative to the abundant life that God provides.

Lutheran pastor and theologian, Elisabeth Johnson, observes that the life abundantly is life that “begins here and now” in communion with God. She writes:

It is knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. It is knowing the voice of the good shepherd who truly cares for us. It is life in community, finding security and nourishment as part of his flock. It is life that abounds in meaning and value and endures even beyond death.[3]

This is clearly a comforting message for all those who view themselves to be God’s sheep. The sheep know the voice of the good shepherd and therefore are able to have life abundantly.

But do we always know God’s voice, the shepherd’s voice?

There is an uncomfortable truth in Jesus’ parable that demands our attention, specifically those of us who fall into the category of white Christian mainliners. You see, it’s easy to think that we are dutiful sheep who always know God and to critique the Roman Empire of and the Pharisees of the ancient world, or the current Empires and the religious right of today for divisiveness, mistrust, violence and oppression they cause. It’s effortless to view them as the worthless shepherds or thieves.

However, we also have to look within ourselves and our Protestant history to remember that there have been many times when we’ve also been worthless shepherds who haven’t tended to the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized or have robbed people, especially people of color, of their dignity and rights.  There have been times in the past, and even instances today where Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc., have either cozied up to the thieves and robbers of human dignity or have acted like a bunch of swindlers themselves.

As such, Lindsey Jodrey suggests we ask a few questions when we read this text from John 10:

Where do we participate in systems that oppress others?

Where do we grapple and grasp for power?

Where are we challenging the systems even when it will cost us something?

How are we critiquing these systems and following the path to abundant life?[4]

I don’t have all of the answers to these questions because, like you, I’m still figuring it all out—constantly examining and learning from my mistakes and discerning how to follow the voice of the good shepherd and not be pulled in a different direction that goes against the well-being of my neighbors.

It’s challenging to tune out the voices that entice us to go against our heart and better judgment. Voices that paint others as “enemies.” Voices that pretend to care about people but are actually more concerned with their authority and agendas. Voices that promise quick fixes at the expense of someone else’s suffering.

One can even empathize with how a person can be conveniently allured by deceitful voices, particularly during moments of hardship. Consider, for instance, Johannes “JoJo” Betzler, the 10-year-old protagonist of the acclaimed 2019 film, JoJo Rabbit.

It’s not surprising that young JoJo, a member of The Hitler Youth, is mesmerized by the voices of Nazi ideology and propaganda. His small town near Berlin and the nation of Germany has bought the lies of the Third Reich for years and is painfully embroiled in World War II. Nearly every German resident has been indoctrinated to believe that the persecution of Jewish people is a righteous act, thus JoJo’s conscience is corrupt as most any other child or adult in his country.

Though, for JoJo, the voices of hate uniquely manifests itself in an imaginary friend who is none other than a fanciful version of Adolf Hitler. And at first, the ridiculous antics of imaginary Hitler seem innocuous. Until one day when JoJo discovers that his mother Rosie is hiding Elsa, a teenage Jewish girl, in their attic, forcing JoJo to question his beliefs and the imaginary friend who has seemingly been a voice of confidence and encouragement.

Despite JoJo’s zeal—which is his psychological way of coping with the culture, the war and his father fighting overseas—Rosie does everything in her power to guide and persuade her child to listen to the voice of the only person who loves and cares for him unconditionally.

One evening, after JoJo has gone to bed, Rosie is checking in on Elsa when she laments about JoJo’s fascination with the Nazi party. Rosie says to the young woman:

He’s a fanatic. It took him three weeks to get over the fact that his grandfather was not blond. I know he’s in there somewhere. A little boy who loves to play, and he runs to you because he’s scared of thunder, and thinks you invented chocolate cake. In the end that’s all you have. Hope. … that your only remaining child is not just another ghost.

A few days later, Rosie and JoJo are enjoying an afternoon stroll by the river in their town, and the mother looks at her son and says: “You’re growing up too fast. 10-year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics. You should be climbing trees, and then falling out of those trees. JoJo retorts: “But the Fuhrer says when we win, it is us, young boys who will rule the world.”

Rosie blows a raspberry, swats the air with her hand, dismissing the comment, and replies: “The Reich is dying. You’re going to lose the war, and then what are you going to do? Hmm? Life is a gift. We must celebrate it. We have to dance, to show God we are grateful to be alive.”

Rosie does a little dance, and JoJo watches for a few seconds before scoffing: Well, I won’t dance. Dancing is for people who don’t have a job. And without missing a beat, Rosie says with a twinkle of mischief in her eye: Dancing is for people who are free. It’s an escape from all this.

JoJo does eventually turn away from the voice that is leading him to death and destruction. He does finally listen and follow the voice of his caring and brave mother, a voice of mercy and compassion that leads him toward redemption and a new way of living.

Like JoJo, there is also hope for us. In the end, all that any of us have is hope…Hope that we too will question the voices that lure us toward our own demise, and instead follow the sound of our gatekeeper and good shepherd who leads us away from devastation and into life abundantly. Hope that we will dance and be free.

Amen.


[1] Salt Project Blog, Easter 4 for May 3, 2020: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/4/27/abundant-life-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-4

[2] Lindsey S. Jodrey, Commentary on John 10:1-10 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4450

[3] Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on John 10:1-10 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3244

[4] Lindsey S. Jodrey, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4450

 

 

 

 

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