Ten thousand years ago in the West Asian regions where many years later Abraham journeyed and many years later still, Jesus walked; in these very same lands, most of your diet began. Wheat and barley, lentils and green peas, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows: human agriculture begins there in the Fertile Crescent. The first farmers, the first cowboys and the first shepherds were all there in what today we know as Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon. Scientist and popular author Jared Diamond calls this combination of earliest domesticated plants and animals “a potent and balanced biological package”. This package spread quickly and to this day forms the base of most of the world’s diet and renewable resources. All this is to say, that in West Asia shepherding has roots as deep as civilization itself.
I am the good shepherd. Beautiful, and deeply ancient. Of all Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements it is certainly the most obvious and least metaphorical. A shepherd is a leader, a shepherd is human. I am the vine. Also deeply ancient, however, um, Jesus, we know what vines look like. You do not look like a vine. I am the bread. Um. Huh?
John’s gospel isn’t the most straightforward. It is a mystical journey with Jesus that assumes you already know the story. You know him, his incarnation, his teaching, his death and his resurrection. These ‘I am’ statements are poetry and metaphor pointing beyond the details and back at himself in ways that are almost magical. Trying to bring forth that un-nameable thing that draws us to him.
I am the good shepherd. I want to stop for a moment and examine that qualifier: good. Good is both a throw away word and one of those words that maybe should only be used by God. How are you feeling? The noncommittal casual answer is ‘I’m good.’ Have you noticed those ‘life is good’ t-shirts? They tug at our deepest hopes and bring to mind memories magical that make us utter ‘yeah’. In English the adjective good can mean high quality, or high-but-not-excellent quality. Good can mean suitable, pleasant, proper and loyal. The competent-but-not-excellent shepherd doesn’t sound like someone who would lay down his life. The proper shepherd doesn’t sound like Jesus at all. The Greek word here actually means something like model or noble. It hints at originality, this is the shepherd from which all shepherds descend. This is the icon, the ultimate one that we should strive to find ourselves in. He is the good shepherd, the ultimate holy-enchanted-beloved kind of good shepherd.
It all started there, these people, this witness. John is telling us what happened before Jesus laid down his life, but he is also telling us what resurrection means, telling how in Jesus God broke open our systems of death and destruction. John is telling us both of these stories at the same time. If you walk forward three verses you learn more about the third story that is being told. “There was another division among the Jews because of Jesus’ words. Many of them said, “He has a demon and has lost his mind. Why listen to him?” Others said, “These aren’t the words of someone who has a demon. Can a demon heal the eyes of people who are blind?”
|Ancient Eucharistic Bread stamps|
The third story being told is much like the situation in our Acts lesson, where there has been a healing by the Apostles in Jesus’ name, and the authorities are upset. The proclamation of the Good News brought new life, but it also brought division with the early church’s closest friends and neighbors. The mission to fellow Judeans was being met with division and deafness. By the time that John and Acts were written divisions are deeper and sharper and meaner. The invitation that 'I am the gate' and 'I am the good shepherd', this is filling out the deeper truth of the healing of the man born blind. He is one who steps outside the boundaries established by the authorities. He enters the gate, which is Christ our Lord. Outcast by his or his parents presumed sins, this one who was outcast and rejected, he is a sheep who follows the loving voice of his original master. Where the proclamation failed at home, it spread elsewhere fast and far and wide. This Good Shepherd brought light, and life and food and healing. The witness of the early Christians wasn’t just words about healing, feeding, light, and life. It was the actual experience of healing, eating, seeing and knowing new life.
It isn’t enough to think Jesus teaches righteous things, it isn’t enough to think he is adequate. The early church struggled with neighbors and empire, just as we do. Yet they were so bound to the experience of the Incarnation that no human boundary was able to quash or silence it. To know this good shepherd is to know the one who loves us beyond what words can say. Walking through this gate, following this shepherd, sharing this bread, it pulls us into the an ancient community that reveals God’s desire for a world healed of violence, death and destruction.
The archeological record shows that all that prehistoric shepherding and gardening spread incredibly fast and broadly through temperate the zones of Asia, Europe, and Africa. I find it interesting that the early spread of the Christian witness followed almost the exact same pattern and speed. Good news that changes everything for the better is like magic. Gardens and herds for people who had only known subsistence, this was good news. It found hungry people seeking nourishment, in need of guidance, healing, and love. It was very good. So too did this One who says he is bread, vine, gate, way, truth life. He is the amazing-awesome-holy and way beyond everyday good shepherd.
Walla Walla, Washington
April 26, 2015