A meditation for Good Shepherd Sunday
The Gospel reading from John 10:1-10 was not actually "I am the good shepherd" but "I am the gate for the sheepfold." ("I am the good shepherd" comes in the very next verse, v. 11.) Still, the reading begins with Jesus describing the good shepherd who is not like the thieves and bandits (think Ezekiel chapter 34 here, who described the bad shepherds who pushed aside the sheep and fouled their water with their dirty feet). The bandits are those who have climbed into the sheepfold without authorization from the gatekeeper (who is God). But the good shepherd knows the sheep by name and calls them by name; the sheep hear the good shepherd's voice and know that voice and follow it. They respond to the good shepherd's voice.
In the Gospel of John we can think of several times when this calling and answering plays out. When Jesus goes to see Mary and Martha in Bethany after Lazarus has died, Martha tells Mary that the teacher is calling her and Mary runs out to meet him. Then at the tomb, Jesus calls to Lazarus and he comes out of the tomb. And then in the garden after Jesus' death, the man Mary Magdalene mistakes for the gardener says her name and she recognizes him as her "rabbouni."
The last verse in today's reading is one of my very favorites, and one that really sums up what Jesus is about for the Gospel of John: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." Jesus is the life. He tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. At the very beginning of this Gospel, in verse 4, we learn that "what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people." So the good shepherd, unlike the bad shepherds who scatter the sheep, who push the sheep aside, who foul the water for the sheep, is the one who gives the sheep life abundant.
Many of us struggle with the idea of life abundant for all of God's children, even though it is a central theme for Jesus in John. Jesus is all about life abundant (see the wedding at Cana, the loaves and fish, the huge haul of fish, etc. in this Gospel). But we still struggle with the concept. Aren't we supposed to embrace poverty and not do too much dancing and enjoying and all? Does life abundant look like a nice car and house and many possessions? Does life abundant have anything to do with money or success? How do we measure success? How do we imagine life abundant for ourselves?
And how do we think about life abundant when it comes to others? As a society, Americans hold sacred stories of those pioneers who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps; we revere the self-made person; we say that anyone can become president or be successful if he or she (usually he) works hard enough. We can make our own abundance. So why do we need to worry about others having life abundant? They can have that for themselves if they do the right things. We don't need to provide it for them.
But do you hear that? We can make our own abundance... And we don't need to provide it for others...
At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to some of the disciples who had gone fishing. He makes them breakfast on the beach. And as they are sitting around a charcoal fire (there had been another charcoal fire, when Jesus was arrested, around which Peter stood warming his hands and denying Jesus three times) Jesus turns to Peter again. He asks Peter, "Do you love me?" And Peter says, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." And Jesus says, "Feed my sheep."
Three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" And three times Peter says, "Yes." One yes for each previous denial; all cancelled out now. And three times Jesus commands Peter: Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.
Jesus came so that his sheep might have life abundant. And Jesus told Peter, "Feed my sheep." Do we have anything to do with providing abundance for others? You do the math.