Friday, January 16, 2009

Other Sheep

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

                        John 10.16 


The instant Jesus identified Himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10.11 He launched Christianity’s lifelong romance with His metaphor. The Church idealized believers as sheep. Congregations became flocks. They called their leaders “pastors,” a synonym for “shepherds.” Prelates tightly gripped crosiers, ornate shepherd staffs symbolizing their pastoral office. To be sure, the metaphor is as powerful as it is lovely. It touches a primal nerve in us—a yearning for care and protection, a longing to belong.

It’s that last bit that gets a lot of us in trouble, though. Rather than trusting our Shepherd’s promise to accept us into His fold at face value, we insist on affirming we belong by asserting others don’t, can’t, and will never belong. But that’s a sheep’s mentality for you, as sheep don’t sit very high on the list of God’s more astute, perceptive creatures. Anyone who doesn’t look like them or bleat like them triggers panic in sheep. There are millions of Christians—entire denominations of them—who subscribe to similarly sheepish thinking. It’s us, just us; there’s just one fold and we’re in it. But if these precious lambs of God read a few verses beyond Christ’s “Good Shepherd” claim, they’d see there is not just one fold and they’re not the only sheep in His care. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also,” Jesus says. Uh-oh.

“So You Know…”

In true sheep style, a lot of believers tend to graze over this statement. Others attempt digesting it, but the most anyone can get is conjecture. Some interpret it as a “Universalist” doctrine—Christ proclaiming Himself the Shepherd of all faiths. Some see it as prophecy: Jesus is saying that His mercy will ultimately extend to people “outside the fold.” Some take it as Christ’s way of including Gentiles and Jews as equal inheritors of His grace.

Trying to pinpoint these other sheep, though, ignores the nature of the comment. Jesus is purposefully vague about the details in order to steer us to a broader, more essential truth. By not explicitly identifying His other sheep, Jesus gently tells us to mind our own business and leave the acceptance process to Him. How wise He is, and how well He understands us! Suppose He did say, “I’ve got Jewish and Gentile sheep, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim sheep, and sheep of every race, gender, and sexual orientation.” We’d take even His broadest definition of “sheep” as exclusionary criteria to keep others out of the fold. Basically, Jesus says, “I tell you about these other sheep without identifying them so you know there’s a lot you don’t know.”

Be a Sheep

The only information He divulges about these “other sheep” is: “They too will listen to my voice.” That’s what’s important to Him. That’s all it takes to be a sheep. When we’re clear about that, following Jesus becomes so much simpler, because it’s not about the other sheep. It’s only about the Shepherd. We tune out the bleating herd and listen solely to Christ. What does He tell us to do? Where does He call us to be? He cares for us and protects us. We belong to Him, not one another. He chose us and He alone leads us. Right now, He keeps us in separate pens, no doubt to prevent confusion and fear that would result if He combined so many different varieties of sheep together. But He promises, “There will be one flock and one shepherd.” When that moment comes, it’s safe to imagine there’ll be a lot of surprises and possibly a few disappointments. Until then, be a sheep. Just don’t be sheepish about it.

"There shall be one flock and one shepherd."

(Tomorrow: Empty Jars)


Julie said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this. I'm putting together a sermon on this passage and am thinking about highlighting this particular issue. I loved your idea that being in the flock is "not about the other sheep" it's about the Shepherd. Alleluia to that!

Tim said...

Julie, I'm honored by your comment. I think so many of us allow ourselves to get bamboozled by the "mystery" of what Jesus says, we fail to recognize how simple and straightforward the message is. (We do that lot--try to read what's underneath instead of take the actual message to heart.)

I have a friend who says a lot of believers suffer from "penned-up anxiety;" they're overly concerned about who qualifies as members of their fold and, consequently, lose sight of their Shepherd and lose strength by not grazing on the riches of His pasture. If we're preoccupied with looking around at others, we can't look up to find Him or look down to discover the incredible nourishment His Word lays before us. It's so basic...

Welcome to Straight-Friendly! I hope you drop by again (and often). The blog has been blessed with a caring group of believers who cover the entire gamut of God's creative expression. Nothing would delight me more than having you stop by when you find a spare moment and contributing to our discussions if you feel moved to do so!

Blessings always--and please do let me know how the sermon goes.