Last year right after Good Shepherd Sunday, someone posted a video on Facebook depicting an experiment: do sheep really listen to and obey only their master, as Jesus speaks about in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John? I made a mental note to myself to remember that video for use this year on Good Shepherd Sunday, and thankfully the Holy Spirit reminded me to search for that video again and use it today. Some of you who have been around sheep will not be surprised at the results of this experiment, but even though I’ve seen it already, I find myself still amazed at what happens here. So, let’s take a look.
So, this dramatic result of what happens when the farmer calls his sheep helps me to understand what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel when he says that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and that they will listen to his voice. But, what struck me this year as I read this text was Jesus talking about other sheep that “do not belong to this fold,” and how he must “bring them also,” and there will be “one flock, one shepherd”. And the questions that I ask are these: How will there be one flock and one shepherd when we Christians are so divided? We all think that we’re listening to Jesus’ voice, and if that is so, why does one person hear Jesus saying one thing, and another hears Jesus saying the exact opposite? Why is it so hard for us Christians to hear the voice of Jesus? And, more than that, why is it so hard for us Christians to agree on what Jesus is saying to the church? And why do we feel the need to condemn those who do not hear Jesus’ voice in the same way that we do? These are questions that I’m not sure have any answers, or at least any good ones, but today I would like to offer my thoughts on them.
The first thought I offer is this: disputes among Christians are not new. Our Thursday morning Bible study has taken up the study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And we have re-learned that Christianity, when it started out, was a movement within Judaism. Jesus was Jewish, and the first Christians were Jewish Christians who continued following Jewish laws even after Jesus died and was raised from the dead. Those Jewish laws included keeping kosher, that is, following Jewish dietary laws, and circumcising males. But then, the Holy Spirit began driving them to preach the good news to the Gentiles, that is, those people who were not Jewish. And this question arose: Was it necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish first in order for them to follow Jesus? This was a huge argument, and it was just as divisive to the church as the question of homosexuality is today. It was eventually decided that it was not necessary for Gentiles to first become Jewish, and Christianity became a Gentile faith. Christianity survived that dispute, but at the cost of largely leaving behind the Jewish version of itself, forgetting its Jewish roots, and, over the years, becoming anti-Semitic. And while the church has, in recent years, been working to correct this attitude, it still has a long way to go. So, while Christianity survived this first dispute, it was not without a cost. Just so, the Christian church today will survive whatever disputes divide it, but it will not be without a cost.
So, why do all of these disputes exist? My second thought is this: I have heard a theory, and I believe it largely to be true, that disputes in the church come down to two threads that exist throughout all of Scripture, and those two voices are the voices of Jesus that Christians hear: the command to do what is right and to be holy and pure on the one hand, and on the other the command of Jesus to love one another. While these two things can be done at the same time, more often than not, as we look at the big questions that divide us today, they come into tension with one another, and we end up choosing one side over the other. Some Christians hear Jesus more strongly affirming the moral law and continuing in line with what is taught in the Old Testament, and they follow that voice. Other Christians hear Jesus more strongly giving the morality laws secondary status under the new command to love one another as he has loved us, and that is the voice of Jesus that they follow. So we Christians today divide ourselves up into different sheep folds depending on which voice of Jesus we listen to.
With this being the case, how can we be one flock with one shepherd? And here is my third thought: It’s not up to us to declare who is in and who is out, but rather, it is up to the shepherd. If a person says that he is a Christian, we should provide him the benefit of the doubt. If a person says that she is a Christian, but has a completely different viewpoint from us on whatever issue is dividing us today, then we give her the benefit of the doubt. It should not be up to us to draw lines in the sand over issues that are unclear. The one thing that we should all agree to is this: Jesus Christ is God’s Son, who came to earth as one of us, who loved us enough to die for us on the cross, who rose again on the third day, who still loves us who live 2000 years later, who still shepherds us today, and who will one day come to take us to be with him forever. When other things divide us, we should agree to disagree, and let Jesus sort it out when he comes again.
And here is my fourth thought: There is a difference between the phrases “Christian community” and “Christians in community”. Now, you might think I’m being the academic and splitting hairs on this, but hear me out, please. If I say, “We are a Christian community,” that brings certain images to people’s minds. Perhaps this Christian community doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, dresses modestly, is happy all the time because they think this is what the Bible says that Christians should be, and agrees on everything that their pastor says that the Bible says. Have you ever seen the movie, “The Stepford Wives”? If you have, then you know what I’m getting at. This is the image that comes to mind for me when I hear the phrase “Christian community”. In contrast, if I say, “We are Christians in community,” that gives room for people to be individuals. It gives us room to forgive one another when we mess up. It gives us room to welcome a wandering sheep back into the fold, just as Jesus would do. It gives us room to hear different interpretations of Scripture, and it gives us room to discuss where we think Jesus is calling us. And most importantly, it gives us room to disagree on divisive issues and still agree on what unites us, and to be a part of one flock, with one shepherd.
And, my fifth and final thought: we need one another in community to be able to hear the voice of Jesus. The more liberal folks among us need to have the more conservative voices, so that the community doesn’t get so much into loving one another and serving one another that we forget that we are also called to worship God and to be holy. And the conservative folks among us need the liberal folks to remind us to get outside of our shells, and that loving one another doesn’t mean just loving the folks in our congregations, but also those who are outside of the church. For Jesus has sheep that are outside of the church, too, and he will gather them in as well. And when I say liberal and conservative, I’m not talking simply about the people here at Hope Lutheran. I’m also talking about the different congregations within Powell. Sometimes, our congregations don’t talk to one another very much, which is a shame, since we really are all one flock under one shepherd. The issues that are divisive often prove to be too much for us to bridge. And although we should keep trying to build those bridges, sometimes our sinfulness will be too much to get past. In the end, we have faith that Jesus will come again and bring us all into one flock.
Even though we in our sinfulness divide ourselves into different sheep folds, we are, somehow, mysteriously, all one flock under one shepherd. We need each other to help us hear the voice of our shepherd calling to us and showing us where to go as we tell others about him. So let’s treat one another with kindness. We think we’re on the right side of an issue, but so do they. Let’s hear one another and pray for discernment. And if we can’t resolve the issue, then let us agree to disagree, to remain in different sheep folds for now, but to continue to work together for the good of the community. And let us pray for the day to come when Jesus will return, will utter his call to us, and, like the sheep that we saw in the video, we would all lift up our heads and run to be near him. Amen.