Third Sunday of Easter

Image Christ the good shepherd
Which kind of messiah would this lead us to expect?

[A sermon on John 10:1-15 …]

Here’s a story I’m told is true:

It’s about the Soviet foreign minister of the 1940s, Vyacheslav Molotov. Molotov was the kind of leader who would negotiate a deal with the Nazis to keep them out of Russian territory (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939), and would support that pact by bombing Finland for them during the “Winter War” of 1939-40, and tell Soviet radio that the Russian planes flying bombing missions distributing humanitarian aid to the starving Finns. The Finns started calling the bombs “Molotov bread-baskets,” and then named the cheap grenades they made out of bottles and gasoline to throw at Soviet tanks “Molotov cocktails.” In other words, Molotov had something of a reputation for being … “tough,” to say the least.

On the other hand, his boss was Joseph Stalin, who was even … tougher. So, the story goes that a newspaper reporter managed to overhear a conversation Molotov was having with Stalin by trans-Atlantic telephone during the course of some critical negotiations with the West. Molotov’s side of the conversation went something like “Yes, Comrade Stalin,” “Yes, Comrade Stalin,” “Certainly, Comrade Stalin” – but, at one point the reporter noticed that Molotov got really agitated, and insistent, and started saying “No, Comrade Stalin! No. That’s, … no, definitely, no; a thousand times, no!” Then, it was back to the “Yes, Comrade Stalin.”

So, when the conversation ended, the newspaper reporter – thinking he had maybe uncovered a rift in the Soviet administration that might affect the negotiations – had to ask, “Excuse me, Secretary Molotov, I couldn’t help but hear you say at one point in your conversation “No, Comrade Stalin” – would you mind telling me what you were discussing with him at that particular moment?”

Molotov said, “Yes, you may. And I will tell you: Comrade Stalin asked me if there was anything he had said with which I disagreed.”

That’s how people deal with the kind of leader we sometimes call a “strong-man” – even other strong-men, like Molotov. People are afraid to disagree with them, at least out loud, for one very good reason: the hallmark of their leadership style is force, and the fear it brings out in people. Their goal is control, power – sometimes, maybe, in the service of a larger vision … but sometimes the larger vision is just their own greatness.

Joseph Stalin was no doubt an extreme example of that kind of leader, but he was certainly not the first. There’s a long line of such “strong-men,” stretching all the way back to the ancient world, to the Babylonian emperors and the Egyptian Pharaohs. In Jesus’ day, the reigning strong men were the Roman Emperors, who had knocked over the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar, named themselves Emperor with Octavian – we might be more familiar with his title Augustus – and then kept up the tradition under Tiberius.

And lots of people down through history have praised these kinds of leaders, too. According to the Renaissance political theorist Macchiavelli, a prince will succeed better by being feared than by being loved. And fearsome, powerful Kings and Kaisers and Chairmen who unify the masses and win wars and kick foreign occupiers out of the country or march into other countries and become foreign occupiers themselves – they might gain a kind of love, because strong-men are winners, and “everybody loves a winner.” Especially if they’re not too picky about how they win. So people can get excited about these leaders, arguably we still do, and – according to what we’ve been taught about Judea and messianic expectation in Jesus’ day, would have been excited about then.

This will be news to some listeners, but old hat to others, since it has been a staple of Christian preaching for at least decades, namely: the Judeans, the Jews, were expecting a Messiah, and a lot of people expected this Messiah to be a world leader in the strong-man mold. Messianic expectation was basically political expectation. It looked forward with hope to the restoration of Israel. Given the pattern of the times, that meant the establishment of a functionally independent kingdom. Given the way things worked in those days, that meant mobilizing a fighting force that would win the fights that would need to be fought. So people were waiting for this Messiah to ride in, kick butt, and go for the big win.

(Actually, maybe it’s too optimistic to say that was “the way things worked in those days.” It’s often the way things work in these days, as far as that goes. We, too, often seem to rely heavily on being able to win the fights that need to be fought, on being able to force the opponents to back down, and we seem to accept that sometimes that requires the threat, or even the use, of deadly force. We still fall back on the idea that if we can make them lay down their lives for their cause and avoid laying down our lives for ours, if we can kill more of them than they kill of us, we’re the winners.)

Sometimes people talked about this messianic figure as a “shepherd.” People in those days and in that part of the world knew a lot about sheep and shepherds, from their everyday experience. They had called Kings shepherds for hundreds of years: they were over the people, protecting them, the way shepherds stood over the sheep. Unfortunately, the prophets, like Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, had called the kings and priests of their day out for being rotten at the shepherd job: they were negligent shepherds, greedy shepherds, who treated the sheep with cruelty, slaughtered them for their meat, let them get scattered or devoured by wild animals, that kind of thing. The messiah people were anticipating … assuming people were anticipating this messiah … this messiah would act like a good shepherd, would protect the people, would not let them be scattered and snatched away by predators (other empires for instance), would win for a change.

So at first, when Jesus starts talking about sheep, a sheepfold, a shepherd, a shepherd who is good, who gains an ovine following (ovine, btw, is the word for “something to do with sheep”) – this sounds messianic, because it’s messiah language, it’s king language, it’s national leader language. Maybe Jesus is talking in code, saying he’s the messiah. (Cool.)

Except that what he says about the messiah confuses, confounds those strong-man messianic expectations. Because he says “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

That kind of statement does not follow the script. It probably doesn’t even follow the script for an actual shepherd, because shepherds presumably expect to win out in contests between them and wolves, or thieves, who are menacing their sheep, and that’s probably what real life sheep prefer, too, all things considered. In fact, if “sheep” is code for “subjects,” and “shepherd” is code for “messiah,” then we might expect that the messiah’s followers would be the ones who would lay down their lives, loyally, for their long-expected king and the long-awaited kingdom.

And since Jesus begins repeating this message, that he “lays down his life,” for the sheep, here and will repeat it several more times before his speech ends, we know this message matters. He uses it to frame his comments about himself, as he identifies himself with this good shepherd; he makes the criterion of good-shepherd-ness that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. So Jesus is not talking about the kind of messiah some people are expecting and looking for, a strong-man who would definitely not sacrifice himself for others. Jesus is describing a different kind of messiah altogether.

This messiah-shepherd Jesus describes actually sounds a little bit crazy about these sheep. This is the kind of shepherd who names the sheep, and then calls them by their names, who perceives individuality in these sheep. So the sheep matter to this shepherd. This shepherd will do anything for these sheep, because he cares for them; we get the impression the shepherd loves the sheep, values them – and not just as balls of wool or packages of lamb chops on the hoof, which is all the value they have for the thieves and bandits. This shepherd comes so the sheep can live, really live. And the sheep seem to be a little crazy about this shepherd, too – they answer to their names, they know him, they follow him because they know him. Maybe they’ve figured out the shepherd is crazy about them.

But we know Jesus is not talking about sheep, right?

Jesus is talking about people. Jesus is talking about the people who, when they hear what he has to say, it touches something in them – they feel a tug of recognition, they recognize him as “the one,” the one, as the disciples say elsewhere in this gospel, who has the words of life. Jesus is talking about people who recognize in Jesus a quality of life they want, a kind of life that really feels like life, and they trust that he can lead them to that life. These people, if they recognize him as the messiah, they are probably starting to get the message … or maybe, they’ve already gotten the message … that he is not that “strong-man” kind of messiah, his leadership style isn’t based on force and fear, and his guiding vision is not bounded by his ego.

This messiah, the messiah Jesus is talking about, the messiah Jesus says he is, leads from love, leads with love, leads towards life, and the threat he doesn’t run from is death itself.

Because ultimately, the wolf that threatens this messiah’s flock is death. The messianic good shepherd Jesus says he is won’t run away from that threat. The messianic good shepherd Jesus says he is will be the kind of messiah who can call a dead man out of a tomb, by name, and empower him to walk out newly alive. [like in the story of Lazarus, in John 11.] And because the messianic good shepherd Jesus is has come so that the people who hear him might have life, and that more abundantly, the messianic good shepherd Jesus is will do battle with death itself by laying down his own life, and by taking his life up again, new. And he will be able to do that because this messiah is the author of life, is the original word of life.

Jesus is no strong-man messiah. Which is good news for us, because no strong-man ever defeated death. They may have built their force and fear on the threat of death, they may have depended on death for the power they held in life, but in the end, they have been death’s subjects as much as everyone else. The good news for us is that Jesus refuses that strong-man model; comes as the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep;” confounds the very concept of “winners” and “losers” based on the limits of this life; and finally turns the tables on death itself.

This is why Jesus’ voice, the good shepherd’s voice, can call each of us by name, into fresher pastures in this life and – we believe – also into realities beyond this life. Because Jesus’ voice is the voice of life deeper than any life that can be cut short by death, the voice of life larger than any life we already know, the voice of life that reminds us of the promise of the life we were created for.

And this all explains probably the biggest difference between Jesus, the messiah who is the good shepherd, and the strong-man. The strong-man’s followers say “yes” from fear. Jesus’ followers say “yes” from love.

[title edited 05-02-17]

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