4 Easter — 7 May 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 a.m.
RCL: Acts 4:5-12 Ps 23 John 10:11-16
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
The picture of Jesus as the good shepherd is one of our most popular and by many most loved images of Christ. But typically, these are portraits of gentle Jesus with long flowing silky brown tresses, often carrying this cuddly little lamb curled around his neck.
Have any of you ever actually raised sheep? I had a parishioner once who raised sheep, and I’ve had a couple of encounters with sheep in the middle of the road, once in Scotland (where the sheep basically said, “Och, aye, what is it ye’re no’ understandin’ about whose country this is?”), and once in New Mexico, where the sheep didn’t say anything but I got to watch a really amazing demonstration by a cohort of sheepdogs.
So you know that the traditional depiction doesn’t have very much to do with real sheep, which are not particularly cute, or with real shepherds, who have to be pretty tough and rarely take time to blowdry their hair. Still, there’s something catchy about the image of the Good Shepherd, and in fact some of the earliest Christian art we have, reliefs and frescoes in the catecombs from the days of the Roman persecutions, include pictures of the Good Shepherd; though typically as a clean-shaven young man (for what that’s worth!). And on Good Shepherd Sunday, in the middle of Eastertide every year, we focus on this image of the shepherd, an image which Jesus is picking up from the Hebrew Scriptures: The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Most years on this Sunday there now follows a disquisition on what stupid and stubborn critters sheep are.
This year, instead, I’d like to look for a moment at another aspect of this shepherd-sheep image. Jesus has just said, a few verses earlier (we heard this part on Good Shepherd Sunday last year): “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And then today we hear him say: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is interesting, I think. And we might keep in mind here that in John’s Gospel (and for that matter in the Scriptures as a whole), “to know” doesn’t just mean “to be acquainted with,” it’s not just a cognitive or intellectual term, it’s an existential one. It’s the difference between “knowing something” and “knowing someone.” Roughly, the difference between wissen and kennen. In the Bible, “to know” signifies a deep relationship, one that implies commitment. This is the real point of “to know in the Biblical sense,” in which “to know someone” is “to be one with someone, to be united with someone.” Not only does the shepherd know his sheep, he says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The pattern for the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep—between Jesus and ourselves—is the relationship between the Father and Jesus. And that’s a relationship of the closest love, a relationship of union.
That’s really an amazing thing to say, when you think about it! We’re talking about union with God.
But this passage here in the tenth chapter of St John is not an isolated instance. This idea runs throughout the Gospel. For instance, at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And at the end of the supper Jesus prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And after his resurrection, as we heard in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “As ... so.” What powerful little words! “As ... so.” As the Father and Jesus are, so are Jesus and we to be. The loving union between God and Jesus is replicated in the loving union between Jesus and us. “As the Father knows me and I know the Father, so I know my own and my own know me.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Listen to this: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. As I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love, so if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” One step further! As God and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! The life of God is given us to live and share with one another! John’s Gospel isn’t fooling when it says at the end that it has been written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
These are not just mystical clouds, though this is a call into the depths of the mystery of God. Through Jesus we are caught up to a unity with God. As the Father and Jesus, so Jesus and us; as Jesus and us, so we with one another! Caught up into the divine life, to live and to share! Nothing less!
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead