Any time sheep are mentioned in the Bible people sometimes go a little soft in the head, inflicting a nursery-rhyme cuteness on stories and images that often have a political, subversive edge. This Sunday’s passage from John’s gospel should give us pause if we are tempted toward such silliness. The text is cryptic, even a little caustic, and it’s not at all about sheep, but about deceivers who pull the wool over the eyes of the unsuspecting.
Jesus is talking about authority and rival claims of leadership. He warns his hearers about those who would lead people astray, and his name-calling is direct: “thieves” and “brigands,” he labels such posers. Jesus is probably referring to certain leaders with whom he regularly clashed, but the point shouldn’t be lost on us: We can confuse our call to be loyal to Christ alone with appeals to loyalty by other seductive voices, other persuasive powers who play on our ignorance or our fear.
But when we heed the Shepherd’s voice we return, as the writer of 1 Peter says, to “the guardian of our souls.” We are home. Home. And what is home like? Well, home is where God sets a feast for us: “Thou hast prepared a table for me,” the Psalmist declares. God, the homemaker, puts out a spread. But not for us only, because this table is prepared for us “in the presence of our enemies.”
And we protest: couldn’t we just have a nice family meal where we eat with people like us, with people we like?
Last Sunday in Duke Chapel, Sam Wells preached a sermon on the Emmaus text from Luke called “Food is Politics.” In it he raised this question: “Who am I eating with?”
“ Food,” Dean Wells says, “is both need and pleasure… Food is best eaten in the company of those in need and those who give you pleasure… Those in need become friends, rather than just objects of benefaction, when you eat with them… And when those in need and those you love come together in such a way that they get all tangled up around the meal table, we call it the kingdom of God.”
Also last Sunday my husband, a pastor, took a chicken dinner to a hungry family living in a cheap motel. They had called the church office early that morning asking for help. After worship he shared a simple meal with these strangers in need. As he was leaving, the 20 year-old son pulled him aside and asked him if he would preach his mother’s funeral if she died soon. Taken aback by the question (Jim had detected no illness or infirmity in the woman) he assured him that he would, but encouraged him not to think on such things right now. The boy, with a matter-of-factness that belied the crushing burdens of his young life, revealed that his mother had recently tried to commit suicide.
Who are we eating with?
In the passage from John, Jesus says that he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. We like the sound of that, of course, but we forget sometimes that abundant life doesn’t mean “easy life.” God’s abundance—green pastures, still waters, a table prepared, a cup overflowing—is a life where we share the suffering of others and where we “do right and suffer for it,” as 1 Peter says. It seems odd, perhaps, to say that suffering and abundance go together, but what it must mean is that only when we risk the kind of community that goes way down deep into the heart of human pain and fear—where enemies are real, where false shepherds lurk, where suicidal mothers despair—only then do we meet the one whose wounds heal us (1 Peter 2:24), the one who is the abundance he promises.
When we read in Acts 2 that the early Christians “ate their food with glad and generous hearts,” we note that only after they had opened their eyes to the need around them and dispossessed themselves of everything, that such conviviality, such wholeness of life, was possible. “To be healed,” Wendell Berry says, “we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.”
Noting that some translations of the John text use the word “door” for “gate,” Peter Marty relates this story about Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Bonhoeffer once noted the advantage of celebrating Easter from a prison cell. You become entirely aware, he reasoned, that the door is the only way out. More than that: The door of a cell can be opened only from the outside. When Jesus speaks of saving those who pass through the door, he has rescue in mind. Those who find that door are saved not only from the phony shepherds on the outside aggressively seeking their soul; they’re also saved from a potentially much worse enemy on the inside—themselves.”
May God save us from ourselves, from our ignorance and fear of the stranger that keeps us huddled and lonely at our own tables of plenty. May we know that the abundant life God has in store for us is a life shared with those in need—the needy who become our friends, not objects of our pity and benevolence. And may we know that to heed the Shepherd’s voice and pass through the gate of rescue is to make our way home, where we together with all those in need and all those we love will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
(Originally published Thursday, April 10, 2008)