Well, my Facebook newsfeed exploded this week, mostly with fears and anxieties about how the new healthcare bill passed in the House this week will affect people’s lives, especially those lives with preexisting conditions, which, well, if you live long enough (and by long enough, I mean–what–past 30?), are all of our lives. Admittedly, my own family is a bit nervous. Maybe yours is, too. We’re all sort of wondering–worrying–if, literally, it will all boil down to life or death. And that is a very scary thought.
One particularly disturbing post blamed Christians for this bill fraught with, and I quote, “malice and indifference to human suffering,” presumably because Christians make up the majority of people who voted for those responsible for the bill. Now, I don’t pretend to have read the bill (I’m guessing most people haven’t), nor understand it all, but I do know one thing–and that is that Jesus is most concerned with human suffering. Most concerned. I would even venture to say that it is his #1 priority.
Today is sometimes dubbed, in the church year, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” due to the Gospel reading and its use of the metaphor of “sheep” and “shepherd” and “gate” for us and Jesus, though we don’t actually hear Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd” line until the verse immediately following where we ended today. (Just wait until we get to communion–you’re going to be singing about a lot of sheep!) What we don’t always realize about this day, however, is that Jesus’ discourse on sheep and shepherds and gates is a response to what has just happened in the Gospel of John.
The ninth chapter of John tells the story of a man born blind whom Jesus heals by putting mud on his eyes and then ordering to wash in the pool of Siloam. My guess is that the man was quite okay with being blind; after all, he didn’t know anything else. What he likely wasn’t okay with, however, was the way in which his culture, namely the powerful religious authorities, understood his blindness to be a direct result of sin, either his own or that of his parents, and how that connection seemed to justify his being ostracized. And that people used his blindness–his pre-existing condition, if you will–as a reason to exclude him. He was a beggar, living on the margins of society. The purpose of Jesus’ healing, then, was not necessarily physical healing, which the man may or may not have wanted, but social healing, for it allowed him, finally, to be treated like everyone else. Except that, even after he was healed, the religious authorities didn’t like it–or didn’t like that it was Jesus who supposedly did it–and they threw him out anyway.
So, you see, when someone blames “Christians” for something that seems full of malice and indifference to human suffering, maybe they’re recalling a story like this, and maybe what they really mean is “religious authorities,” or simply “people with power,” and not true followers of Jesus.
Unfortunately, such a statement puts those of us who consider ourselves “followers of Jesus” on the defensive. “Malice and indifference to human suffering” is not what it means to be Christian.
This is why Jesus’ response with the imagery of sheep, shepherd, and gate is so important. Yes, I wish there were a more modern metaphor we could use (not many of us have much experience with sheep these days), but since I can’t think of one that works quite as well, I’m going to stick with sheep. The shepherd protects the sheep from the bandits; the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, the gate allows the sheep to enter the fold and seek protection.
If you apply it to the story of the man born blind, this is what you get: The sheep are all of those people whom Jesus loves, and whom, like the man born blind, have all sorts of pre-existing conditions that make them both unique and marginalized. The bandits are the religious authorities–those with power and probably money, who would steal and kill the sheep if they could, leaving them begging in the streets, at the mercy of others, or thrown out of the community altogether. They’re the ones who want to maintain the status quo. Jesus, then, is the shepherd who calls the sheep by name. That in itself is a remarkable fact, for while we name our dogs and cats, I don’t usually think of sheep in a pasture having names. Mary had a little lamb, sure, but it’s just a lamb that follows her around, right? I don’t really think of her calling that lamb in any other way than, “Come on, little lamb.” That’s the difference with Jesus, you see.
He cares for us enough to give us a name, he knows us by name, and then he cares for us as individuals. He knows all of our conditions and all of our needs, especially the need to be loved and included regardless of our traits or conditions, but also to be cared for with these conditions. If you’re wondering if excluding people–anyone–from care is Christian–well, this story would indicate not.
If you take one step further into the metaphor, things get even more interesting–or confusing. Not only is Jesus the shepherd who enters through the gate; Jesus is also the gate itself. This has always been my problem with this metaphor–how he can be both? The shepherd enters through the gate so that the sheep know he is not a bandit. How can Jesus enter through himself? This makes my brain hurt. I’ll never quite understand it, but Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. When it comes to faith, I think there are things we are not supposed to understand, for if we were to fully grasp them, they would lose a bit of their evangelical quality–that is, they’re good news. Some things are best left a mystery. So we’ll just say this: Jesus is the shepherd and Jesus is the gate, which means that Jesus is the One through whom the sheep enter the fold, through whom they are not threatened with death, but promised abundant life.
This has some interesting implications for us followers of Jesus, for it not only defines our community as a flock of sheep following a shepherd who calls us by name, knows us, and decides to care for us anyway, but it defines our work as that flock today. Though to call it “church” would be incorrect–the church as we know it did not exist during Jesus’ time–we might think of the church–the group of people at least attempting to follow Jesus–as the community where Jesus is our shepherd and where we are welcomed with all of our many conditions. Period. But if Jesus is also the gate, and if we are Jesus’s hands, feet, eyes, heart, body in this world today, then shouldn’t we also be figuring out how to make the abundant life that Jesus promises accessible to all? “You are the body of Christ raised up for the world.” That’s our dismissal now during this Easter season. And that means–we are the gate. We’re not gate-keepers–there’s a difference there. But we are the gate itself–we are access.
I don’t know entirely what it means to “be access” in the presence of politics, power, money, and those who would mistakenly accuse us (sigh) of denying such access. Does it mean being a place of welcome for people with all sorts of pre-existing conditions? Yes, but that doesn’t feel like enough. I think it means it also means advocating for abundant life for all. And if that means calling your elected officials–if that means using your voice on behalf of someone else who can’t speak as loudly–then do it in the name of the Good Shepherd–THE gate. Do it in the name of Jesus, because certainly that is what Jesus is advocating for, here.
These are challenging times to be followers of Jesus and we certainly have our work cut out for us. Let us praise God together–for we do have a good shepherd who calls us by name and who teaches us love for all people. In the name of Jesus, Amen.