Matthew T. Phillips

I Just Wanna Be a Sheep (John 10:11-18)

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)
Informal Worship Service
Centenary United Methodist Church
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

John 10:11-18 NRSV

I was blind and now I see…

All of the Gospels have miracle stories, including healings, but they are usually relatively simple affairs. Amazing, but simple. Jesus meets a sick person, he asks if the sick person has faith, and then says, “you are healed.” In John’s gospel, though, healings become the foundation for an extended theological discussion. In the ninth chapter, Jesus encounters a man who has never been able to see. His disciples wanted to know whose fault the blindness was, but Jesus wanted to set about the work of healing rather than the game of blaming. He made a paste for the man’s eyes, told him to wash it out, and the man could see.

If ever there was a community that could gossip, it’s us, so it will come as no big surprise that a few days later, everyone was talking about the blind man who now could see. They had trouble believing that the same person they had identified as “that blind guy” for all those years could now see; they don’t even seem to know his name, and indeed neither do we. The church council quizzed him. “Who healed you? How did he do it?”

Have you ever heard the joke about the teacher who asked a troubling student, “are you ignorant or just apathetic?” and the student replied, “I don’t know and I don’t care?” With different reasons, that’s essentially what the no-longer-blind man said. “All I know is I used to be blind and now I can see. I think Jesus is a prophet. After all, he harnessed God’s power, and God is not at the beck and call of sinners” (cf. John 9:10-33 The Message). The church council, upset that this man was being smart with them and that Jesus healed him on Sunday, which was clearly tacky, began to fear for their authority.

And then we find ourselves at today’s scripture passage, where Jesus begins to explain how he is different than those naysayers who had settled into their prestigious leadership positions. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, and the shepherd “puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him” (John 10:11-13 The Message).

For the shepherd, the flock of sheep is the family business. He wants to protect the sheep because they are the way his children will have work to do and put food on the table for generations; it’s no mere job to him. A hired hand is more concerned with his own wellbeing than with whether or not the shepherd’s kids get to take over the flock one day. In the same way, Jesus’ horizon is much longer than the even best church leader; he is willing to make sacrifices in the present—even of his own life—in order for the good of his flock and his mission, which lasts for all time.

Inheriting the family business

Jesus’ sacrifice was risky to say the least. If we carry the “family business” analogy a little farther, we see how small were the chances of his sacrifice reaching very far into the future: two-thirds of family business fail to survive the pass to the next generation. A little rough division tells us that we are about 80 generations removed from Jesus—about nine of those generations represent the life of Methodism—and so the business is chugging along better than could reasonably be expected.

Why do you think it is that so many family businesses fail? Once the person who started it all is gone, the children disagree about who should control the business. They argue about who should get what salary and who should get to pass control onto their own children one day. Someone inevitably wants to leave the business and do something else, but they almost always want to take their share of things with them, crippling the operation they leave behind. Pretty soon the family and the business collapse under the weight of individuals’ concerns for themselves.

Falling Apart

Jesus was shrewd, and he knew about these challenges to the mission he would leave behind. The gospel writer John understood too, and he highlights the things that could cause failure. After Jesus healed the blind man, the church leaders had trouble figuring out how to understand what had happened. John writes, “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’” The gospel writer then observes why these leaders were eventually going to fail: it wasn’t because they had trouble believing or because they were critical, or even because they missed the point of the healing, but rather their failure would derive from the fact that “they were divided” (John 9:16 NRSV).

In Jesus’ illustration using the sheep, he says that the hired hand doesn’t truly care for the sheep and so if a wolf comes along, the hired hand will run away. But what does the wolf do? We all know what a wolf does to sheep. It eats them. All the more important, then, that Jesus doesn’t say the threat is that the wolf will kill the sheep, but rather that the wolf will take and scatter the sheep (John 10:12). Jesus’ mission—the church—does not fail when a part of it dies, but when a part of it is separated from the rest.

Jesus goes farther than just illustrating his desire to keep the flock of the church together. We easily fall into the trap of thinking that the point of being church is maintenance—to keep each other happy and to keep a steady budget going, and grow our numbers at the same rate as the church down the street, but Jesus has bigger goals. “You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen,” he says. “I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd” (John 10:16 The Message). This is where Jesus’ radicalism gets a little scary and we usually try to tone down what he’s really saying. There are other people who are his sheep now, who are just as important and just as close to him as we are, and he wants to bring his flocks together into one. We will almost certainly have to change a little bit ourselves in order for Jesus’ people to be brought together into one flock with one Shepherd. God’s vision is of one flock, and any division in God’s church is unfaithful.

The Church uses lots of different words when it celebrates communion, but the traditional liturgy—the words shared the most by the many cultures and denominations and congregations that gather in Christ’s name—say, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet” (United Methodist Book of Worship, 38). When Jesus shared the first Lord’s Supper, he said that we should do it until our very lives become a remembrance of him, and so we ask that when we share the sacrament now, it joins us in communion—in the deepest kind of community—with all of God’s people, whether they are in our flock or not.

There’s a children’s song I learned up in the Tennessee mountains one summer years ago. The words are not overly complex or even poetic, though there are some catchy rhymes and the chance to make animal noises:

I just wanna be a sheep—baa;
I just wanna be a sheep—baa;
I just wanna be a sheep—baa;
I just wanna be a sheep—baa;

Of course, being a sheep excludes some other possibilities, and so we also need to be clear about what we don’t want to be.

I don’t wanna be a Pharisee;
I don’t wanna be a Pharisee;
‘Cause they’re not fair, you see;
I don’t wanna be a Pharisee;

The song continues, “I don’t wanna be a Saducee, / ‘Cause they’re so sad, you see,” and, finally, “I don’t wanna be a hypocrite, / ‘Cause they’re not hip with it.” “I just wanna be a sheep—baa.”

This is a children’s song in part because no self-respecting adult would stand up in front of a group of people and go “baa,” but also for the same reason “Jesus loves me” is a children’s song. It sounds too simple, and frankly grownups feel a little silly claiming either that Jesus loves us and we know it because that’s what the Bible says or that what we really want to be more than anything else is a sheep. Baa. Deep down we know that being a sheep is a lot harder than the song makes it out to be. Avoiding the pitfalls in the song—not being fair, being sad, and not, well, being hip with it—is the easy part. If we’re going to be sheep, we also have to stay with the flock and come wherever the shepherd calls us.

If we think the grass looks greener on the hill to the south and the flock is going to the north, then it’s too bad—we go to the north. If we think we’d like a different kind of grass better, we still stay with the others: if we split off it won’t really matter what we eat because we’re done for anyway. If we think the flock’s way of processing into the pasture is intimidating or overly showy, then we might want to bring it up with the other sheep, but at the end of the day, what’s important is that we’re together.

So how are we doing with the family business? There are several hundred Christian denominations in the United States, and we fail to have successful discussions about what our theology means and how we can find common points. Some churches claim to rise above this mix by being “nondenominational,” but that really means they are split not only from other churches, but also from the history of our faith. More often than not we blow the chance for meaningful connections by dismissing the differences: “churches are all basically the same.” The Episcopal and the United Methodist churches are both in grave danger of splitting over views about homosexuality, which is no better a reason to divide than disagreeing about whether Jesus should have healed on the sabbath. We all have the freedom to decide what we believe about things, but we’re the stewards of the family business—the church—and the evidence is overwhelming that division leads to failure.

The Good News

Of course the gospel—the good news for us today—is that, in the end, the family business analogy fails. The church is not like a family business because the founder remains: the Good Shepherd still leads his sheep. And the sheep know his voice and can follow, but sometimes the hired hands—those who help the shepherd lead the flock—decide that it’s in their best interest to stray, and a few sheep follow them, and when a wolf comes up, the sheep might scatter further without their leader, because this is an awfully big flock and you can’t always spot the shepherd up at the front of the pack. The hired hand might have good reasons: he thinks another pasture is safer, or the sheep might like a different kind of grass, and we have an overwhelming capacity to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing when we have such goals, but when the flock is divided, this communion table doesn’t mean what it is supposed to. When we try to do things our own way, even if it’s for admirable reasons, our prayer that we will be one in the Spirit, one in Christ, and one with each other becomes vanity.

I just wanna be a sheep. Baa. I just wanna hang out with the other sheep, do our best to spot the shepherd and follow the tones of his voice, and stick together. Amen.