A video version of this text follows below
As you may know, if you
have heard me before,
I like to dig around in the context
of the gospel
to see if it offers us
a good perspective
from which to read and hear
the stories we are otherwise asked
to take at face value.
Whether Mark, Luke, Matthew, or John,
it is good to be curious
about when they were writing
and why they were writing
and who they were writing to.
And at the same time,
realize the answer to those questions
are anything but absolute
and in every instance,
have a multitude of scholars
each declaring their own answers.
So when I say what I am about to say,
and go down the road I am about to travel,
you know I am not giving you a recipe
that is universally embraced
as the one and only, absolute best recipe.
There are other ways to read it
and other ways to interpret it
and other ways to understand it.
This is merely the way I do.
John did not know Jesus,
that is not even controversial.
John lived far away, very far away
by the standards of that time and place,
from where Jesus lived.
That too is generally recognized.
At best, John wrote sixty years
and three-hundred miles away
from anything to do with
the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.
That is not controversial either.
Some scholars place him eighty years
after the death of Jesus.
And yet, John makes speeches for Jesus.
More than the other three gospels,
John places long, involved and often complex
prayers, sermons, and theological images
on the lips of Jesus.
That is just obvious
to anyone who puts the gospels
side by side.
So, if we get curious,
then we want to know where
John came up with these speeches,
prayers, and ideas?
I do not raise such questions in a hostile,
suspicious way –
although that is how I used to feel
about the Gospel of John.
Rather, I just wonder about him…
about his imagination or dreams
or whatever muse it was
that delivered fully cooked speeches
for the tender, young Messiah-movement
not yet old enough to be called “Christianity.”
So here is the skinny on John
as far as I have gathered it,
being a preacher more than a scholar
and a poet more than an historian.
John was not John at all, but several Johns.
Some of those who study such things for a living,
think that the Gospel of John
was written and edited
by several people over time,
and that what we read today
has been sculpted by many hands.
But they had to start from somewhere,
and some scholars who work on this Gospel
believe that the corpus – or original body of it –
had a basic coherence to which much was added.
When this gospel began to be written
it had two major purposes.
The first was to stand in opposition
to the synagogue –
meaning against the Jewish followers of Jesus.
In other words, John was originally written
as an argument against remaining
a reform movement of Judaism,
and instead, to become a church —
which did not exist yet.
“Church not synagogue”
could have been John’s campaign theme
and a major plank
in his theological platform.
The second purpose to John’s Gospel
is as an argument against
the John the Baptist movement.
You see, John the Baptist
was far more well-known
in his day than Jesus was,
at least that is what we think.
In fact, there is still a small sect
of John the Baptist followers
who speak a dialect of Aramaic
and live primarily in Iran, Iraq, and Syria –
though there are 10,000 of them
living in Australia.
Both John and Jesus
were executed by civil authority
as treasonous revolutionaries
so presumably they both had popular followings.
But in the several decades following their deaths,
John the Baptist had the edge
in carrying the popular imagination.
So the Gospel of John
takes considerable effort,
as do the other Gospels,
to subordinate The Baptist
We might say
that the Gospel of John
was an evangelical tract
that promoted Church-over-Synagogue
So with this understanding
of where John’s authors and editors
were coming from,
we can readily see
what the Good Shepherd image
is all about.
Who is the Good shepherd?
Oh, it is Jesus
not John the Baptist.
Jesus is the “good” one.
Then John has Jesus say:
“I have other sheep
that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also.”
Who are those other sheep?
The followers of the Baptist, of course.
Also, members of the synagogue.
“So there will be one flock”
John has Jesus say,
and “one shepherd.”
From the point of view
of the Gospel of John,
those other guys have to be put out of business
and brought into the fold –
a fundamental business consolidation strategy
of beating the competition
and taking them over.
I don’t fault John and his friends
for seeing the world
as a dog-eat-dog enterprise,
because we have been chewing on
that human flaw
for as far back as we can see.
But it really sticks out like a soar thumb today.
With the lunacy of
Afghanistan and the United States,
Israel and Palestine,
India and Pakistan,
Sri Lanka and Tamil,
Iran and Saudi Arabia,
Buddhists and Rohingyas in Myanmar…
the sectarianism found in John’s Gospel
seems, well, it seems stupid…
and utterly antithetical
to the core of any spiritual wisdom.
So today, I want to raise up that tension
that is always present
at the very moment we say,
“this is who we are”
and “this is what we believe.”
How do we claim identity
and participation in community,
without also drawing too hard a boundary
between “us and them?”
How do we make being a Christian meaningful
when the original arguments
that constituted Christianity
no longer shape what we believe?
How do we allow our identity as Christians
to feel good
when it also creates an association
with people who use that same identity
to behave in ways we reject?
How do we form a Christian identity
that is meaningful and positive
when we are pluralistic
and embrace the value of other religions
at the same time we uphold our own?
I am an Episcopal priest,
but I am a baptized Christian first.
But before that,
I am an agent of God’s love,
a creation of the Creator-of-all-that-is,
and so any human affiliations are thin by contrast.
We live in 2021
on a planet we have come to see
from the moon
We are not in John’s world,
persecuted for our affiliations
and in a war of beliefs
against competing religions
oppressed by a common enemy.
From our post-modern perspective
do we really believe that God insists
that there be one shepherd?
Are we a people who define ourselves
over and against Muslim believers,
or Jewish believers,
or Buddhist believers?
Are we a people who insists
we are right
and the others are wrong?
OR…are we a people
who can trust the voice of wisdom
we hear within the Gospels
while affirming that others hear a trustworthy voice
within their own, and different, traditions?
The shepherd I hear
does not worry about being the only shepherd,
and so I can accept
that he has sheep in other folds
I know nothing about.
It need not make us jealous
or feel threatened
that our siblings —
our fellow creatures
and adherents of other and no religions –
are well loved
just as we are well loved.
The Good Shepherd,
it seems to me,
is the one who loves us all
and releases us from the need
for fierce memberships
that keep us
at one another’s throats.
the Good Shepherd,
and the good sheep for that matter,
recognize that all the flocks
share just one pasture
and have no fear,
and no resistance to it.
I know John didn’t say it that way,
but he never saw what the earth looks like
from the moon, either.
Joanna S Adams says
Amen, Cameron. If you’ve ever been to Mt. Saviour Monastery in Pine City, NY, one of my favorite places to be for over thirty years, you’ll see sheep happily scattered over the acres of lush hillsides, seemingly oblivious to the dangers which could befall them were it not for their vigilant sheepdogs and monks into whose care they are given.
They aren’t the smartest animals on this planet, and are easily slaughtered by the hungry coyotes who invade the sacred, wild land every year. But one quality they learn well, they follow the voice of the shepherd in charge, ignoring anyone else who may try to order them around. The dogs, shepherd and flock behave in union, following the Shepherd’s will concerning their welfare.
i do agree with you that all peoples must have the freedom to worship as their hearts, culture, traditions and beliefs guide them to, and not be restricted to one dogma, one church, baptism, rules, faith tradition or communion. And I also believe that we do best that when we exercise this freedom, we listen to and honor this voice as it leads us into a place of life, safety and peace with the world and ourselves.
Cam Miller says
Have never been there, but it sounds lovely.