Our Gospel reading is part of the parable of the good shepherd where the actions of the good shepherd are contrasted with those of the hired hand. The contrast is based on how each one responds to dangers that threaten the lives of the sheep. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life in protecting and caring for the well-being of the sheep. The hired hand is ready to flee to save his own life if the threat becomes too real. The hired hand is not fully committed to the good of the sheep. The hired hand, unlike the good shepherd feels no sense of belonging or connection to the sheep. So he is out to preserve his own life rather than the lives of the sheep.
Now, one question that we have to ponder that makes a big difference in how we read and apply this parable relates to the identity of the sheep. Who are the sheep? I said last week that persons can read the same scriptures, but then interpret them and apply in completely different ways. Many Christians read this in an exclusive sense. The sheep are Christians or maybe even their particular group of Christians. I’m sure you have heart all the jokes about particular groups of Christians who think they are the only ones in heaven. Other Christians, like myself, give this a more inclusive interpretation. The text itself hints at this. The good shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I read “this fold” to mean the Christian fold. The good shepherd has other sheep not of the Christian fold and they too are included in the one flock. They do not employ the same religious language and symbols as we do, but they also are sheep. Unlike the parable of the goats and sheep in Matthew 25 where a separation occurs, here there are no goats, we are all sheep. There’s a parable in Luke that we commonly call the parable of the good Samaritan. Clearly the Samaritan is one of God’s sheep. Jesus was speaking to his fellow Jews and was explaining what it means to love one’s neighbor. I suspect that most of Jesus’ Jewish audience had narrowly defined neighbor as a fellow Jew. Jesus wanted to move them beyond their exclusive beliefs and practices. So to make his point in a provocative way, Jesus made the one doing the inclusive loving and caring a Samaritan, not a Jew. Now, Jesus, of course, knew quite will that many of the Jews and the Samaritans had a long standing feud going on, and many Jews considered the Samaritans their enemies, even more so than the Romans and vice versa. Jesus could have told the story as the good Jew who cares for a Samaritan, a person of a different race and religion. But Jesus told the story in a way that made the person who was of a different race and religion the hero in the story, the one who was the model of what it means to love one’s neighbor. In fact, he even included in the parable two highly regarded religious leaders among his own people, the Jews, a priest and Levite, and he made them negative examples of not loving one’s neighbor. You can imagine how that went over with his exclusively minded Jewish brothers. About the same way it goes over when I tell my exclusively minded Christian sisters and brothers that God has many other sheep not in the Christian fold, even Muslims, some of whom may be better at loving their Christian neighbor than us Christians. That goes over with my fellow Christians, I’m sure, about the same way Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan went over with his fellow Jews.
Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher who said, “I do not believe in Jesus, but I believe with Jesus.” Ghandi said basically the same thing in different way. John Philip Newell, in a wonderful book titled “The Rebirthing of God,” asks with regard to the statement by Buber, “What if Christianity had got that one right? What if we had realized long ago that the important thing is not getting the world to believe what we believe, getting others to subscribe to our particular beliefs about Jesus? The important thing is inviting the world to believe with Jesus, to believe in the way of love.” And that, sisters and brothers, is the basic difference between an exclusive understanding of the Christian faith and an inclusive understanding of the Christian faith.
An exclusive reading of the parable of the good shepherd in John 10 says that only Christians are God’s sheep and if you want to be one of God’s sheep then you have to become a Christian. An inclusive reading of John 10 says that we are all God’s sheep, and what is important is to respond to the voice of the good shepherd, which is the voice of love. Inclusivists, like myself, learn how to love primarily and preeminently through Jesus, but not exclusively through Jesus. And we believe that anyone who loves one’s neighbor as oneself is doing so by the Spirit of Christ whether they realize it or not.
Both the parable of the good shepherd and the passage in 1 John emphasize that the main quality or attribute of being a Christian is doing love. If there is anything more relevant or more important, I would be hard pressed to say what it is. What the world needs now is for more Christians to actually express Christian love. The reason I talk about “doing love” is because if love is not demonstrated in deed, then it’s not really Christian love.
Michael Jinkins, the president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, writing in the Christian Century three or four years ago told about a ministry developed by then Associate Pastor Bob Lively at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Lively had been walking along a sidewalk in front of the church one day when he passed a homeless man sleeping at the base of the church steps. Lively walked into a colleague’s office and said, “That’s my Lord out there.” Then he, and his colleagues and congregational leaders began to ask themselves what they could do to address the problem. Over the next few years, the Stew Pot ministry was formed, which fed the homeless a meal every day and provided medical care and social services. Later they also offered educational and recreational programs to children and youth.
Jenkins said that the young people from the congregation that he was serving at the time helped with the Stew Pot ministry, as did their parents and others in his congregation. Over the years, Jinkins noticed that many of the youth who participated in the Stew Pot ministry pursued careers as social workers, teachers, and counselors, and many served as leaders of conscience in their congregations and communities. Jenkins recalls a message on the church sign of First Presbyterian Dallas, the home of the Stu Pot ministry that read: “Justice is love distributed.” Obviously, justice here is restorative justice, not retributive justice.” Unfortunately, many Christians have never even heard of restorative justice. When they hear the word justice in a religious context they think of retribution and judgment. At one time that’s what I thought, because that’s all I knew. Restorative justice is about lifting people out of poverty, liberating the oppressed, empowering the downtrodden, and doing what can be done to change the systems that help create and keep people poor, oppressed, downtrodden. Restorative justice is about working for a just and fair world. Jenkins said of that congregation, “They had seen justice in personal terms, as an extension of love, as a distribution of God’s love, and they came to understand love as something tangible and powerful.”
The writer of 1 John and the faith community he represents clearly understand that Christian love is something tangible and powerful. The writer asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Christian love is not primarily a feeling or emotion. It is rooted in action, not in mere confessions or claims. John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth is love in action. Truth in John’s writings is not doctrinal or propositional, it is proportional – that is, it is proportional to the degree that love is demonstrated and expressed in concrete and tangible ways.
When the writer says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” he is not suggesting that we not use words. He is not denying the power of words. Words of acceptance, words of compassion, words of hospitality, caring, empathizing words can be powerful expressions of love. However, if our actions and deeds do not back up our words, and that’s the point the biblical writer is making, then our words could possibly do more harm than good. Our words, then, become meaningless and hypocritical. But when our words are grounded in authentic service and action, then our words become concrete expressions of love.
Both passages – 1 John and the parable of the good shepherd – draw upon Jesus’ self-giving unto death as the Christian’s ultimate example of love. Jesus was willing to die for God’s cause and give up his life in the work of healing and liberating people from the sins of society and from their own sins, from injustice and from their own negative, life-diminishing patterns and behaviors. The writer of 1 John says that because Jesus laid down his life for us we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
I know that passages like this where we are exhorted to love like Jesus can be daunting. Are we willing to risk jobs, relationships, money, even our very lives in order to love like Jesus? We may feel like throwing up our hands in despair: Who can do this? Who can love like this? I can’t. Maybe this is why John encourages us by telling us that when our feelings condemn us, that when our hearts judge us, when we feel like we have let Jesus down or our brothers and sisters down, we need to remember that God is greater than our hearts. God does not abandon us or forsake us. God’s Spirit abides in us still and inspires us to keep trusting and becoming and growing in our capacity to love.
If we grow at all in the love of Jesus we will have to deal with hurt and personal offense. Our love cannot be selective. We are not called upon as followers of Jesus to just love those who appreciate what we do or who love us back. Jesus even instructs us to love our enemies – those who wish us harm and may actually do us harm.
A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. It is a pleasant afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the road. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father on the back, “Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! There’s a kitten back there on the road!” / The father says, “So, we’re having a drive.” / “But daddy, you must stop and pick it up.” / “I don’t have to stop and pick it up.” / “But if you don’t, it will die.” / “We don’t have room for any more animals. We have a zoo already. No more animals.” / “But Daddy, are you going to just let it die?” / “Be quiet, children, we are going to have a pleasant drive.” / “But Daddy, we never thought you would be so mean and cruel as to let a kitten die.”
Then, the definitive word. Mother turns to her husband and says, “Dear, you’ll have to stop.” So he turns the car around and pulls off the road. “You kids stay here in the car. I’ll see about it.” / He goes out to pick up the little kitten. It’s skin and bones, full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw, and it scratches him. He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car, and says, “Don’t touch it. It’s probably got leprosy.”
Back home they go. The children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and plead with Dad, “Can we let it stay in the house just tonight? Tomorrow we’ll fix it a place in the garage.” By this time the father is whipped, “Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo.” They fix it a comfortable bed. Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and here is this cat. He reaches down as he checks to see that no one is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress.
Now, is that the same cat? Well, it is, but it is isn’t. It’s not the same frightened, hurt, angry kitten on the side of the road is it? And we all know what made the difference. Love can do that. That is the power of love – to heal, to free, to make whole, to redeem, to reconcile. But it doesn’t always work. Because love is not always received. Love is not always reciprocated. Some people have been so scarred and hurt and beaten down by life that they don’t know how to receive and give love. And some folks who have had every privilege in the world are so narcissistic that all they basically know how to do is use people.
When Fred Craddock told that story about the kitten, he concluded by saying, “Not too long ago God reached out a hand to bless me. When God did, I looked at that hand; it was covered with scratches. Such is the hand of love, extended to those who are bitter.” When we act through the love of Jesus, there are times we will get scratched. Because the love of Jesus is not selective. It is extended to the frustrated, the bitter, the angry, the disappointed, the depressed, and the hateful. It does not show partiality. When we love with the love of Jesus we will acquire some scratches, probably some scars. When we love all people, without differentiation and partiality, we can expect to get hurt.
Is it any wonder why so many Christians have made Christianity primarily about believing the right things, rather than loving with the love of Jesus? What if more Christians today would adopt this understanding of truth? Truth would not be something you look for in a creed or in a statement of beliefs. It would be found in the ways we love one another, the ways we listen to one another, support one another, talk to one another, and serve one another. It would be found in the humility and honesty and integrity of compassionate action on behalf of others, which can be expressed in numerous ways: By fixing a meal for someone who is sick. By visiting someone who is lonely. By purchasing some groceries for a family you know or for the food pantry. Or, it could be demonstrated by standing along with and standing up for an undocumented person, who our government has made into a scapegoat.
One final thought: If we are going to enlarge our capacity to love, and be able to some degree to reflect the love of Jesus, then we must be able to love ourselves. Desmond Tutu puts it this way: “When we begin to realize that God loves us with our weakness, with our vulnerability, with our failures,” then, “we can love others with their failures and weakness.” Tutu says, “God’s love for us and our love for others is the single greatest motivating force in the world.”
O God, may we experience anew just how deep and wide, how magnanimous and inclusive your love actually is. And empower us in whatever ways we are able to mirror your love in our relationships and service. In the name of Jesus, our Christ and Lord, I pray. Amen.