Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Good Sheep

I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. (John 10.15-16)

Take a moment and flash back on your school days. Pick a random grade and scan the classroom. Who do you see first? Whose names bubble up the quickest? When I tried this little experiment, here’s who rose to the top: the troublemaker, the clown, the pet, the flirt, the rebel, and the ne’er-do-well. What about the good kids? Where were they? By “good kids” I don’t necessarily mean the A students or the champs or the leaders of the band. I’m thinking of kids who did their homework, never caused any grief, and got along with everyone. They were good friends, good teammates, and did well in their studies without calling attention to themselves. I imagine they grew up to be fine parents and neighbors and probably achieved an enviable measure of success. But, in all honesty, I remember little about them. A few names surface, and there are several faces whose names I’ve lost. Other than that, I can’t recall much about them.

I’d guess you’re better at this game than I, because I’m terrible at it. But I put it out there to illustrate how easily we overlook good people. Because we rely on them to do what’s right and hold themselves accountable and not put themselves out front, we gloss over their virtues. This phenomenon follows us through life, at work, in neighborhoods, and, especially, in religious spheres, where two groups stand out: the super-faithful and the train wrecks. Those are the people we focus on and talk about. It’s just more exciting to stand in awe of the saints and sit in judgment of the sinners than to recognize how many good Christians we live with. And this disconnect is unfortunate, not as much for them as us, because our obsession with extremes results in a severely skewed—in some cases, badly scarred—picture of the Body of Christ. There is goodness all around us. But do we see it? And if we see it, do we take the time to let it sink in? I’m apt to think not. Otherwise, our impressions of what’s good and what’s not so good about the overall community of believers would be far less extreme.

In John 10, Jesus, once again, tries to explain His approaching death to His disciples. All along, He’s told them He will die and be resurrected. But His words don’t seem to stick. So He turns to metaphors that summon familiar images. He says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” invoking a leader who must be physically removed and then restored to corral and protect his flock. It appears that the visual doesn’t quite do the trick, because He expands on the shepherd analogy. This time around, He adds something new. After saying, “I lay down My life for the sheep,” He tells the disciples His flock is much bigger than they suspect. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice,” He says. In the gentlest of ways, Jesus assures the disciples that the community of believers they will shepherd after His departure is stronger, larger, and more inclusive than they imagine.

Chances are these “other sheep” are all around the disciples. They may even know many of them by face or name. But their experiences at Jesus’s side have conditioned them to focus on extremes. They’ve witnessed extraordinary feats of faith, as severely sick and unjustly marginalized people have reached out for healing and acceptance. They’ve encountered vile hypocrites and critics who embody all that’s wrong about “organized religion.” Yet between these two polarities, there is a wide swath of faithful believers who follow Jesus—not for the miracles and controversy, but simply because His voice calls to them in very real ways. They’re not stars. They’re not part of the touring company. But they’re there, even though our fascination with extremes blinds us to them. And, despite being overlooked, the Good Shepherd counts them as good sheep.

Many theologians read Jesus’s “other sheep” statement to mean the actual community of faith exceeds religious labels. They suggest it’s possible that Jesus is saying He claims all who abide by the principles of His teaching—whether or not they identify with Him by name. Our comfort with that matters little, however, because the basic idea leads us to realize there is more goodness around us than we’re apt to see. In the Body of Christ, superstars are few and far between. But it also turns out that scoundrels are equally rare. As we prepare our hearts to enter Jerusalem, where we’ll rehearse the final week of Jesus’s mortal life, we should open our eyes and hearts to millions and millions of overlooked, seemingly unremarkable Christians traveling beside us. “I must bring them also,” Jesus insists, “and they will listen to My voice.”

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