Fourth Sunday of Easter
One morning, when my daughter was about four years old and deep in another “Daddy is Doo-Doo” phase during which my wife’s presence was infinitely preferable to mine, she called for her mother from the comfort of her own bed. My wife was in the shower and unable to answer, and the tone of my daughter’s voice quickly escalated from polite request to imperious demand. Even today, when I think of my now nineteen year-old daughter, I hear Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying, “though she be but little, she is fierce.”
I stepped to the threshold of her room and peeked in to reassure myself that my daughter wasn’t in distress, but that was too much for her. She sat bolt upright from her pillow, glared at me with what I recognized as her “evil stare of death,” and bellowed, “Not you again!”
I took it on the chin that morning – at least verbally – but my daughter and I laugh about that encounter now. She’s an accomplished young woman with astonishing emotional intelligence, and if she hasn’t lost her knack for tactical ferocity, she knows I’m on her side and rarely, if ever, bares her teeth in my presence.
I thought of that morning as I read this week’s readings and said, less emphatically than my daughter, “Not sheep again!” I’ve shared my feelings about sheep here before, drawing on memories of my days on the Navajo Nation. I don’t begrudge the little critters their place on earth, though they’d likely vanish as a species without humans forever saving them from peril. For this week’s readings, however, I attended less to the dumbness of the lambs than the witness of the shepherd.
Jesus explicitly links his title of “Good Shepherd” with his willingness to give his life for his sheep. The Greek word, kalos, translated here as “good,” is better understood as “noble,” “ideal,” or even “beautiful,” than as “highly skilled,” or “good at his job.” To die for a flock is idealistic, perhaps even noble, but it leaves at least one human dead and the sheep defenseless. As with any metaphor, we must read this passage with what Wendell Berry calls a “humorous intelligence,” aware that Jesus is at least as much NOT a shepherd as he IS one.
If we trust the text to reveal how this shepherd is noble, ideal, and beautiful, however, there are at least three discoveries to make. First, what distinguishes this shepherd from the hired hand who runs rather than face the wolf is that the shepherd knows and cares for his sheep. In fact, he and the sheep know each other as intimately as the Father knows the Son.
Now there’s very little I know for certain about God, but I’m confident I don’ t know or care for the Son as thoroughly the Son knows and loves the Father. If this is a true picture of the Son – and I think it is – then I must assume I’m either out in the flock or in it only by the grace of God. I don’t presume to know where you stand, but I suspect I’m not alone in this.
Second, Jesus says he has other sheep he will eventually call into one flock with one shepherd. It’s a cryptic saying with no obvious textual referent. Does he mean future generations of believers, Gentiles who will come to believe between the death of Jesus and the composition of John’s gospel, other Christian communities tracing their lineage to someone other than John, or even righteous non-Christians? Cautious scripture scholars aren’t certain.
What is clear, though, is that any group imagining itself in sole possession of all necessary and sufficient ideas for salvation is mistaken. There will be sheep in the final flock that look and smell quite strange. Membership depends on grace alone, not purity of doctrine or conspicuous merit.
Third, the Shepherd says he’s beloved of the Father because he freely lays down his life and freely takes it up again. Divine love is free and total reciprocity. A few chapters later, John makes it painfully clear that Jesus dies – not a docetic shucking off of some corporeal husk, leaving the “essence” untouched, but a real, physical death. The Son takes up his life again freely, in the love of the Father and obedience to the Father’s command. We, too, live in hope of life to come after our own bodily death, but entirely by the grace of God.
This Good Shepherd will die – already has died – for his sheep, and lovingly defends them with no weapon but grace. No other weapon is necessary to save us from ourselves. The dumbfounding thing about Christ’s grace is that it finds sinners as they are – witless, defenseless, and obstinate – and transforms them into friends (John 15:11-17). Friends aren’t held at arm’s length for fear of being soiled or lightly patted while the host holds his breath against the stench. Friends are embraced, held close, kissed, loved.
I loved my four year-old daughter even when she made it clear she didn’t want me around. I treasure our friendship now. From the little I understand of God, my love for my daughter compares to Christ’s love for us as a drop of water to the Pacific. If being a sheep leads to such oceanic love and intimate friendship, I want to be in the flock. I want to be a sheep.