Monday, 18 May 2015

Shepherd's warning

(Study passage John 10:1-18)
[This study was submitted to Salvationist magazine months ago.  They haven't published it.]

I remember, as a child, hearing the old saying, ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.’  I have no idea whether this is accurate or not, but my interest in it is the contrasting pictures it paints.  This is a common motif in the Gospel of John, who seemingly has an obsession with dualisms, with contrasts between light and dark, love and hate, life and death, sight and blindness, and the list could go on.

  My other reason for mentioning that saying is the shepherd.  In churches, the words ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’ are frequently used.  They are generally associated with those in leadership positions within the church community, and carry connotations of caring, of nurturing.  The origin of the word pastor is Latin, where it is the word for shepherd.  The pastor is the shepherd of the flock.  The exemplar of this, of course, is Jesus, who described Himself as the good shepherd in John chapter 10 (verse 11).

  John 10 is a wonderful chapter, but the key to tapping the rich resources of this passage lie in its juxtaposition with the preceding chapter (John 9).  These two, together, provide a classic Johannine contrast, and offer up several more, which will be clear as we proceed: good and bad; give and take; in and out; life and death; come and go; security and insecurity; generosity and jealousy.

  John 9 sees Jesus controversially giving sight to a man born blind.  This leads to the Pharisees investigating the healing.  It’s hardly the stuff CSI is made of, but there you go.  The Pharisees bring in the heretofore-blind man for questioning.  They try to discredit the man, and Jesus.  They even bring in the man’s parents as witnesses.  The parents duck the questions, for fear of being put out of the synagogue (9:22).  The Pharisees, here, are seen as oppressive and exclusive.  Everyone and everything must fit into their categories, and on that basis they decide who gets to participate and who doesn’t.

  When the seeing man is thrown out, Jesus finds him, and has some stern words for the Pharisees.  And the Pharisees overhear.  And it is then that Jesus starts John chapter 10, by talking about thieves and bandits trying to get in on the act.  That most famous and ever popular phrase “life in all its fullness” comes a few verses later, but even this verse (John 10:10) in all its fullness is a contrast.  It starts with the statement that, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” The thief is self-seeking, self-serving.  In contrast, says Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.  Jesus is open, inclusive, liberating.

  What kind of outlook do we have, as individuals, as Corps, as a church and organisation?  What is our attitude, our contribution?  Do we give, or take?  Are we about life in all its fullness?  Or are we stealing, killing, destroying?  Are we only out for what we can get?  Members signing up, more money in the pot, or whatever we might seek to gain?  Or are we, instead, all about promoting and presenting and providing abundant life?

  Are we secure in ourselves (and in God), or insecure?  Secure people don’t grab and snatch and grasp.  They are relaxed, ‘light touch’.  Gentle and humble (sound familiar?).

  Jesus, the gate for the sheep (10:7), offers salvation (10:9).  And this is coupled with the image of the sheep coming in and going out and finding pasture.  Interesting that pasture is not (only) found “in” but “out”.  Could it be, then, that Jesus never intended a cosy club, a holy huddle, in specific sacred, sanctified and sanitised places?  But rather, that ‘pasture’ is found ‘out there’, on the road, in our ongoing journey with Him, and with one another – note that this passage is about sheep, plural.

  A final observation.  “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand … sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (10:11, 12).  To reiterate, the word pastor means shepherd.  And Jesus is our model.  He lays down His life for the sheep because they are His.  The hired hand doesn’t have that deep connection, commitment, investment, with the sheep.  So when the chips are down, he’s not there.  He’s looking after himself, his own interests.  Perhaps herein is the shepherd’s warning: how good are we as shepherds?  Not just the Officer, or the PCC.  At every level of The Salvation Army, what kind of shepherds are we?  How deep is our commitment to our people – to one another, to those who really need us?  Are we really investing in people’s lives?  So that, when the wolves come – relationship problems, health concerns, employment issues, financial crises, and so on – are we there, laying down our lives?  Or do we disappear?