1 John 3:16-24 has this text as background music. Such a lovely, harrowing, inviting and challenging text! Raymond Brown calls it (in the Greek) “infuriatingly complicated,” and he awards it the “prize in grammatical obscurity.” St. Augustine and John Calvin read the passage as about the severity, the high demands of God; Martin Luther, always the contrarian, sees the text as all about God’s mercy. The ambiguity is pitch-perfect, isn’t it? Scripture is obscure; we keep digging; it’s demand, it’s mercy. Life as a follower of Jesus, and life for the Body of Christ, is just like that, always.
Easy to moralize on verse 17’s hard rhetorical question, How can God’s love be in someone who has stuff, sees someone in need and refuses to help? Is this a sign God’s love isn’t in or with such a person? Is it aspirational? Not fully there just yet? Aren’t there pagans with means who help those in need? And is it a constant helping of those in need, a genuinely sacrificial helping? Or an occasional spasm so you can check this off the list? I think simply raising such questions in the sermon is a good exercise for the listener, and prevents the preacher from wagging a finger of accusation.Luther must be right on the mercy since in the next verse we’re called “little children,” not “you grownup dufuses.” Let us love, not merely talking, but “in truth and action.” We might prefer him to have said “action,” and leave off “truth.” What makes love “in truth” beyond “in action”? I can’t interview the writer… but I will explore stuff we’ve heard in recent years, starting with “toxic charity.” What a relief (I suspect) for many of our people to learn there is such a thing, that doing for others can actually cripple them. Just let them be!
And yet, in what I’m still regarding as maybe the most important theological book of the decade, A Nazareth Manifesto, Sam Wells reveals how the Christian doesn’t mail in or drop off charity, and we also don’t just ignore others because we fear we’ll damage them by our charity. There is a doing for people that diminishes them. There is mission-as-fixing. You have a problem? I’m the solution? – which is an inch from You are a problem. We can do for others. We might think it nobler to work with others, or to be for them. Sam says God invites us, best of all, to be with them.
Indeed, the seeds of a community’s redemption lie within the community itself. Jürgen Moltmann: “The opposite of poverty isn’t property; the opposite of both poverty and property is community.” We have coffee with someone, not to save them, but to enjoy friendship. Only in this way are they ennobled; only in this way are we ennobled. Could 1 John imply this is the true way to care for (and really with) those in need? Or do we drift even further to Mother Teresa’s articulation of things: we don’t do what we do for other people. We do it to Jesus. Literally.
And so we come then to John 10:11-18. Jesus speaks of, and is, the “good” Shepherd. The Greek kalos may well mean “beautiful,” or even the “model” shepherd. Bonhoeffer was onto something when he showed us how our goodness can be a block to doing God’s will. We want to be good, to keep our hands clean; but God asks us to get our hands dirty for God. Shepherding is dirty work. Out of doors, exposed to the elements, trudging through mud and overgrown fields. That’s Jesus’ beauty, right? And ours, when we are the Church in this world.
And costly work. Ben Witherington points out that in John’s plot, at this point they are in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication,” which celebrated the military victory of the Maccabees: “True leadership does indeed mean laying down one's life for the sheep, as some of the Maccabees had in fact done.” Yet Jesus isn’t fighting the enemy with weapons, but with vulnerability, his own body, the instrument of love.
What does this text say to us as pastors? Pope Francis reflected on bishops who “supervise/oversee” versus those who “keep watch,” like a shepherd: “Overseeing refers more to a concern for doctrine and habits, whereas keeping watch is more about making sure that there be salt and light in people’s hearts… To watch over it is enough to be awake, sharp, quick. To keep watch you need also to be meek, patient, and constant in proven charity. Overseeing and watching over suggest a certain degree of control. Keeping watch, on the other hand, suggests hope, the hope of the merciful Father who keeps watch over the processes in the hearts of his children.”
How to preach all this? Be sure that it looks, when delivered, like this thought from Jason Byassee: “In John 10, an odd text is read in an odd way by an exceedingly odd Savior and dished up for an odd people becoming odder. That is, holier.” A superb goal all of us might keep in mind as we study, prepare, write, practice, deliver, and reflect on what unfolded...