Imagine that you are a first-century Christian—a member of one of the house-churches for which the apostle John wrote his Gospel. Perhaps you are a Jewish Christian—one of many who have been expelled from the synagogue because of your belief in Jesus.
You’re meeting in a small group, praying for strength and courage, clinging to unpopular beliefs. You face huge challenges, and you have plenty of reasons to be worried.
Then the worship leader begins to read the apostle’s account, and you hear the words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“I am the good shepherd.” You hear those words, and you remember. From previous worship services, you recall other “I am” sayings. Jesus said he was bread and light and life; a path, a gate, a vine. And suddenly your heart is rendered peaceful, as you remember that Jesus provides all that you need.
If you were a Jewish Christian, these images would have reminded you of your heritage. Your “manna in the wilderness” has become Jesus, the Bread of Heaven. Your light—the symbol of the Law—is now identified with the Messiah, to whom the Torah bore witness. The way promised to the righteous is now identified with Jesus the Way. And the shepherd—a common sight across the ancient world and a common metaphor for leadership—is now Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The Gospel that John wrote is full of such powerful images. These texts were meant to be read aloud during group worship, and they are wonderful examples of effective oral communication. They are brief. They are colourful. And they are memorable. In times of testing and persecution, these terse, bold affirmations of Jesus’ identity empowered believers to hold on to their faith.
It seems to me that we 21st-century Christians have much in common with those earliest believers. Because, increasingly, we also face testing and persecution. It may be subtler, but it’s no less real.
Those first Christians were the ultimate outsiders. To the Roman Empire, they were suspect because they refused to affirm that Caesar was Lord. To their fellow Jews, they were dangerous heretics. Their opponents in the synagogues worked tirelessly to discredit Christian claims about Jesus of Nazareth. They said his miracles were works of trickery. They said his teaching lacked credibility. They said the idea of a crucified Messiah was ridiculous, and that his claim to unity with God was blasphemy.
Today, we face opposition, too. The “new atheism” portrays religious faith as nonsensical, even dangerous. Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins style themselves as “brights,” implying that those of us who hold on to faith—especially Christian faith—are not so bright.
Perhaps even worse, those of us who still respect the tradition we received—those of us who hold to the ancient Christian doctrines, those of us who believe in a God who is “really real”—find ourselves all too often facing opposition from inside the church, from theologians who want to convince us that God is just a metaphor, and from preachers who tell us that we can get by “with or without God.”
We live in a culture where religions of all kinds —and faith of any kind—are being, increasingly, pushed to the margins—to the fringes of society. Christianity in particular is becoming once again counter-cultural—just as it was in the first century.
As we consider the world—as it is now, in the Year of our Lord 2017—we may want to ask: where can we find strength—and courage—for living in these days?
Certainly, one answer is: in the Church! We can find strength and courage within the Christian community—within a local, supportive congregation. Another answer is: in the Bible! In the words of Scripture. Our gospel text, from chapter 10 of John—and others like it—are good examples of that.
Just like the small faith communities of John’s time—which met in people’s homes, and whose members leaned upon one another for support—our faith community can draw encouragement from the “I am” statements of Jesus. Each statement, really, is a promise. Each one says something about Jesus’ identity—and something about our identities as individuals and as a community living in relationship with him. Or, to put it another way, each one of the “I am” statements says something about Christology and something about discipleship:
• Jesus is food for our souls—“I am the bread of life,” he said (JOHN 6:35);
• Jesus is light for our lives—he said, “I am the light of the world” (8:12);
• He is a path which we can follow—“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he said (14:6);
• He is also the way we get onto the path, for he said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7);
• Jesus is someone trustworthy to follow—“I am the good shepherd,” he said (10:11);
• More than that, he leads us on an eternal journey—“I am the resurrection and the life,” he said (11:25); and
• He offers us a way of living that bears sustaining fruit—“I am the true vine,” he said. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:1, 5).
These “I am” sayings in the gospel of John are simply stated and easily grasped. And that’s important, because—like I said—they are promises, and promises need to be understandable. They are, at the same time, invitations. They invite us into a lifelong relationship with Jesus—a relationship in which we live into the promises they make.
The dominant image in chapter 10 of John—the image of the Good Shepherd—makes an important promise. Jesus warns us about thieves and bandits, and then elaborates on their failings. They speak with an unfamiliar voice, they come only to steal and kill and destroy. They see the wolf coming and run away, because they do not really care about the sheep.
However, in the midst of this chaos—this swirling mass of negatives—the Good Shepherd stands firm, undaunted by danger, not intimidated by threats. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He holds his ground because he loves the sheep.
We are all invited into Christ’s fold. Because there is one—and only one—Good Shepherd, there is one flock that gathers around him. We are invited into that unity—that community—which mirrors the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The seven “I am” sayings make the invitation clear:
• Since Jesus is bread, discipleship means gathering around the table;
• Since Jesus is light, discipleship means coming out of our dark corners and gathering together in the middle of the room;
• Since Jesus is a path to follow, discipleship means travelling along it;
• Since Jesus is a gate, discipleship means paying attention to where we are walking;
• Since Jesus is an eternal journey, discipleship is about making a group pilgrimage along the way that leads to life;
• Since Jesus is the Vine, discipleship means being the branches, people whose lives draw their fruitfulness from him;
• Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd, discipleship means being sheep who find their life and well-being in his care.
That symbolism is truly rich. There’s a Lutheran theologian named Craig Koester who makes what I think is a brilliant point about the seven “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. He says that they “create a centripetal effect, bringing believers into relationship with each other by reinforcing their common relationship to Jesus.”*
The “I am” sayings create a centripetal effect. Do you know what that means? I didn’t. I had to look it up. And what I found out is kind of interesting. It has to do with the difference between centripetal force and centrifugal force. Centripetal is from the Latin “centre-seeking.” Centrifugal is from the Latin “centre-fleeing.” Centripetal force draws toward the centre—like those “I am” sayings of Jesus. Centrifugal force flings out toward the edge.
Have you ever been on that midway ride that operates by centrifugal force? It’s called different things in different amusement parks: “The Milk Churn” … “The Tornado” … “The Meteorite.”
Whatever they’re called … all of them make me sick!
The ride consists of a circular horizontal platform with a vertical cage-like wall around the edge. Right? You’ve seen this thing somewhere, I’m sure. The platform is attached to a motor on a hydraulic arm. The ride starts out by spinning until the centrifugal force is strong enough to push the riders against the wall and hold them there. Actually, trap them there would be a better description!
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for what can happen to us in our modern society if we do not find our identity in Christ: we end up hanging alone in mid-air with our backs against the wall!
The Good Shepherd offers another option. His sheepfold is a much better ride. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not always smooth … but it is a ride taken with friendly companions and run by an operator who cares for us above all. No matter how violently life spins us and churns us, the Good Shepherd will make certain that we stay on board with him. Because the Good Shepherd knows … sheep can’t really fly! Not yet, anyway.
So, let’s be grateful for the one who says, “I am.” And let’s be grateful for our membership in Christ’s flock. He is, after all, the one who calls us each by name, and we are the ones who respond because we know his voice.
He is our Shepherd, and we know his voice. What a blessing that is! Thanks be to God for it.
* Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 230.