Good Shepherd guides flock without force

1/16/2007

Good Shepherd guides flock without force

 

By Allison Trussell

 

Feb. 4

Protection from Evil

Purpose: To help us learn to live in newness of life under the guidance and protection of Christ the Shepherd.

Bible Lesson:  John 10:1-5, 7-18

Key Verse:  “ ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’” – John 10: 11

 

How many pictures has this scripture inspired? How often do we picture Jesus holding a small lamb, and how many of us place ourselves in that lamb’s place?

 

I recently heard a sermon describing shepherds. Shepherds, the minister said, were once self-made men of high ranking. After all, they owned and were responsible their flocks, their livelihoods. If they failed in their responsibilities, it wasn’t just the animals that suffered. They and their families did as well.

 

But somewhere along the line, shepherds became the low man on the totem pole. They were generally considered dirty, uneducated, the lowest of the low. And yet, those are the people the angels chose to announce the birth of Christ.

 

And those are the people that Jesus compares himself in today’s lesson. Why? Why would Jesus compare himself to the lowest in society?

 

Sheep are funny animals. They are big, stubborn and easily panicked, and they’re not the brightest creature in the animal kingdom. Once they get it in their head that they’re going in one direction, little will dissuade them.

 

What the sheep do know is that they can trust their shepherd. They know him and his voice. They know he will watch over them and keep them safe. A good shepherd knows his sheep and will call them by name.

 

A child asked a farmer if he knew all his cows. The farmer said he did, but when pressed by the child admitted they did not have individual names. After all, they would soon be sold.

 

Jesus does know our names – “I know my own and my own know me” – and that assures us that we will be with him always.

 

A good shepherd knows how to make his flock go where he wishes without force. He guides them. He must guard his sheep against predators. And a good shepherd can offer them comfort through just a word.

 

Is it any wonder that Jesus would choose to compare himself to that profession?

In the verses leading up to the lesson scripture, the Pharisees are questioning Jesus and his healing of a blind man. They expressed dismay and outrage at the act.

 

The Pharisees were concerned with the letter of the law. Jesus, more concerned with the intent of the law, was deemed a lawbreaker by them. His answer highlights the differences between Jesus’ teachings and those of the Pharisees. Pharisees forced their followers to follow; consequences for straying were often stiff.

 

Jesus, like a good shepherd, invites and guides but never forces believers to follow his way.

 

Shepherds would protect their flocks even if it meant injury or death to themselves would occur. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice Christ makes on the cross for us all.

 

Jesus knows what sacrifices good shepherds must make, and he is reminding his listeners that a good shepherd willingly gives his life to protect his flock from harm.

In what other ways is Jesus like a good shepherd? What does Jesus’ statement mean for us and our faith? How many times has Jesus acted as a good shepherd in our lives?

 

Another issue separating Jesus from the religious leaders of the time was his openness. Jews weren’t the only ones invited to follow Jesus. Others are invited into the flock by Jesus. This was tantamount to blasphemy for the Pharisees. The morally suspect, ritually unclean Samaritans and Gentiles were shunned by the religious leaders. However Jesus not only invited them to follow him, but openly and frequently interacted with them.

 

Wouldn’t we be shunned by the Pharisees? After all, how many of us live up to their exacting standards?

 

Jesus commanded us to love. That is the hallmark of Christianity – God sent Jesus to the world in and with love.

 

We recognize the truth in Jesus’ words, but we don’t always follow them. How often do we act like the Pharisees and shun those we see as different from ourselves?

The law, according to the religious leaders, taught followers the proper way to relate to God. Jesus turned that idea on his head by emphasizing a relationship with God. The Pharisees’ way to know God began in the head; Jesus’ way came from the heart.

 

Feb. 11

Life After Death

Purpose: To explore how the cosmic Christ is Lord over life and death and what this means for our present and future life.

Bible Lesson:  John 11:17-27

Key Verse:  “ ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’” – John 11: 25

 

Everyone experiences the pain of death, and everyone can relate to the grief of Mary and Martha. We know the story of today’s lesson – Lazarus has died, and Jesus comes to Bethany to offer comfort to Martha and Mary. He ends up doing much more, raising Lazarus from the grave.

 

Lazarus has been dead four days when Jesus arrives. Cultural beliefs dictated that the spirit of the deceased remains nearby for three days. Thus, on the fourth day, mourners would have believed that Lazarus was completely gone. That makes his resurrection all the more miraculous to those who witness it.

 

When word comes that Jesus is on his way, Martha makes her way to him and his disciples. Upon meeting Jesus, Martha’s first comment is remarkably frank. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

 

Don’t we try to find a reason or something to blame when death touches us? How many times do we echo Martha in our grief? Don’t we all play a game of what ifs?

 

I’m not sure Martha really blames Jesus for her brother’s death, but she is confident in her faith that Lazarus would have been healed had Jesus come earlier. Yet, Martha also professes her continued faith in Jesus, noting that God would respond to any prayers of Jesus.

 

After hearing Jesus’ words of comfort, Martha reaffirms a belief in resurrection, causing Jesus to proclaim, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Martha recognizes the truth of his words and joins the few who rightly recognize Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

 

Are we like Martha? Do we receive comfort from our knowledge and faith? How are we different from Martha?

 

The actual resurrection of Lazarus is told brilliantly, building up and pausing three times. With each pause, the reader is forced to consider what has happened.

I was an English major in college. My creative writing professor would go on and on about the tempo of a paper. “You must control not only what the reader is reading, but how the reader is reading,” he would tell us. The writer of this Gospel learned that lesson well.

 

Jesus, his disciples, the mourners, Martha and Mary go to the tomb, where Jesus commands the stone be removed. Martha stops the action, reminding everyone, that Lazarus has been dead for several days and uncovering the tomb will not be pleasant. Jesus responds with the rhetorical question, “Don’t you believe? Didn’t you just say I could raise your brother?”

 

The stone is rolled away, but then Jesus pauses the action by praying to God. With the order to appear given, Lazarus appears. And here’s the third pause.

 

When I think of resurrection, I remember the death cloths of Jesus being neatly folded. That’s the image that appears to my mind. The resurrected person appears in regular everyday clothes. But that isn’t the case with Lazarus – he’s still bound. So Jesus gives yet another command, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

 

Lazarus’ return to life fully and completely unbound mirrors the mission of Jesus. He came that the world would have live abundantly and eternally.

 

Jesus taught that death is not a permanent reality for those who have a relationship with him, and that lesson brings great comfort to those who face death and those who grieve.

 

Feb. 18

A Guide For Life

Purpose: To discuss how Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and how his power is available in our lives.

Bible Lesson:  John 14:1-14

Key Verse:  “ ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”  – John 14: 6

 

Growing up, dinnertime at the table was a requirement in our household. If we weren’t sitting around the table, we were at least together (usually at a ballpark). Dinnertime wasn’t just a time for eating; it was a time for checking up on each other. School, friends, music lessons and anything else was fair game for conversation. And it didn’t matter where we were eating. Whoever was around was brought into the conversation. Lessons were learned, whether intentional or not. That’s what’s happening in this week’s lesson.

 

Jesus and his disciples have participated in the Passover feast, and they’re sitting around talking. This was a method of teaching of rabbis during Jesus’ time. He offers assurance to the disciples with a much beloved Scripture of preparing a place for us. “And you know the way to the place where I am going,” he tells us in Verse 4.

 

But he is questioned by Peter, Thomas and Philip. We don’t know where you’re going, they tell Jesus. How can we know?

 

Aren’t those universal questions? How often do we find ourselves lost and wanting to be found?

 

Again, Jesus assures them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Of course, you know the way, he tells them. You know me and because you know me, you know my Father.

 

This is a radical idea, both then and now. Jesus is claiming his divinity – God’s truth lives within him. “Life” also reminds his listeners of the topic of last week’s lesson – the resurrection of Lazarus. With these three words – way, truth and life – Jesus helps the disciples come to God, know God and see God.

 

Philip, however, won’t be persuaded and wants to be shown. Show me, and I’ll believe. I rather like Philip’s stance. Most of us can certainly relate to it. Seeing is believing, after all. We all want proof, but faith can’t be quantified. And there’s something almost quaint in Philip’s belief that Jesus could show him God.

 

Jesus rebukes Philip: You want to see God? Look at me! “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (Verse 10).

 

Despite all the questioning and doubt, Jesus continues to assure his disciples. He recognizes that his time was drawing short and it is imperative that the disciples have enough confidence to continue his ministry. He is laying out a road map for their continued ministry and is confident the disciples will be able to yield greater works. He, in fact, guarantees their success in Verse 12, “ … the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

 

The touchstone of Jesus’ mission, as we discussed two weeks ago, was love. And that continues to be front and center in Christianity.

 

At the core of ministry, whether that of the disciples or that of your church, is love: love for Jesus, love for one another, love for the stranger and the enemy, and love for God.

 

Feb. 25

Secure Connections

Purpose: To show that true life is life in Christ and that such life bears fruit worthy of him.

Bible Lesson:  John 15:1-17

Key Verse:  “ ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’” – John 15:5

 

Jesus is still encouraging his disciples in today’s lesson. In the key verse, he stresses that relationships are necessary for a full Christian life. Without the vine, the branches cease to exist, and without the branches, the vine produces no fruit.

 

Like the shepherd, a grower would have a unique relationship with his crops. The grower must pay careful attention to the plant from seedling to harvest. Likewise, God cares about and tends to each and every one of his children.

 

How is the health of your branch, your relationship with God? Do you, metaphorically speaking, need more sun, more water, more food? What do you need to grow and flourish?

 

This passage reminds me of a graduation of sorts. No longer are the disciples students of Jesus. He calls them “friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Verse 15). In the terminology, he is harvesting the vine, preparing the branches for continued harvests.

 

Part of his preparation is re-emphasizing his mission as a command to his followers: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is, after all, what has been the hallmark of his existence. That is what he has stressed again and again and again to his followers.

 

In order to carry out his command, the disciples must go and bear fruit, i.e., love others, offering them Christ’s love, developing relationships.

 

By doing so, the disciples serve and glorify God, producing enduring justice, wholeness and peace in the world. By following Christ’s commandment to love, the commandment becomes an invitation, and we are reminded again that Jesus is the good shepherd, inviting and guiding but not forcing his followers to a path.

 

Relationships between Christians are just as important as a Christian’s relationship to God. Count the number of people who influenced you as you were growing up. Maybe it was a coach or a teacher or a minister; maybe it was the next door neighbor. Every person with whom we come into contact – coach, Sunday school teacher, family members – has the potential to affect your outlook on life. How did they influence you? How did you influence them?

 

Often, we learn from those we believe we are mentoring. Those lessons come as a surprise because we aren’t looking for them; we’re concentrating on the other person. Thus the relationships become even closer because each person is giving and receiving. And that, after all, is the ultimate goal for Christians.

 

John says that being connected to Jesus is essential if we are to be productive in our lives. Certainly, that is the case if we are to be productive in our spiritual lives. A relationship with Jesus leads to relationships with others merely by his command to love.

 

How does being connected to Jesus affect our everyday activities?

 

Trussell is editor of the South Carolina ‘United Methodist Advocate.’