Grace Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2015, Easter 4B
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12
A Time For Sheep and a Time For Goats
It’s beautiful stuff, to be sure.
If John 3:16 is the most memorized and most immediately familiar individual verse in the whole Bible, I’d guess that Psalm 23 is the most immediately familiar longer passage. It’s almost impossible not to know if you’ve spent even a small part of your life in the church. You can go in your average “Christian” bookstore and be bombarded with books about this one psalm. If you were to thumb through your hymnal you’d notice that the hymn we sang a few minutes ago is far from the only version of this psalm in the hymnal; in fact there are six different versions, total, and they are hardly exhaustive of the number of settings of this psalm that have been made. I’ll bet that a lot of you had trouble with the responsive reading earlier in the service, not because the psalm wasn’t familiar enough, but because it was too familiar – it was hard not to slip into the old King James Version of the psalm, with all the “thy”s and “thou”s, wasn’t it?
Just as the lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter always points us towards the story of Thomas, this fourth Sunday of Easter always features Psalm 23, and always pairs it with some portion of the tenth chapter of John’s gospel; this year, as you have heard, the passage that begins with Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” declaration is featured. So sometimes this Sunday gets called “Shepherd Sunday,” and sermons and songs about the shepherd-ness of Jesus are preached. This is of course highly appropriate; the care Jesus shows to his “flock” – comfort in time of fear, laying down his life for his sheep – are the stuff of faith, and should be preached and taught.
But, as is almost always true with these extremely familiar verses or passages of scripture, the scripture – or more accurately, our treatment of that scripture – can become a problem.
In this case, we get caught reading these passages about Jesus, full of attributes of Jesus, as if they are somehow about us. John’s passage really doesn’t address us at all. There is some contrast with the “hired hand,” one who is not the true shepherd and does not know the sheep, who cuts and runs when the wolves show up. Aside from a brief “I know my own and my own know me,” there really isn’t much in this passage about us, the presumed sheep under the care of the shepherd.
Psalm 23 is not quite as focused, but even there the way we respond to the shepherd is framed in response to the shepherd’s care for us. We fear no evil because the shepherd is with us. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever because the Lord is our shepherd. What the psalmist sings is the goodness of the shepherd.
Where we get confused is in the unspoken, yet no less powerful, assumption that if our Lord is the shepherd, then we’re supposed to be sheep. Other psalms are complicit here; Psalm 100:3 goes there explicitly, saying “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and other verses from other psalms make similar claims. Christians have naturally taken such a leap of logic and run with it.
How many of you know, for example, the children’s song called “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep”? That’s the title, for real. Anybody? [sing] “I just wanna be a sheep….I just wanna be a sheep…” And if you really want to do it right, you “baa” like a sheep between those phrases: “I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaaa baa!) I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaa baa!)…”
Our two scriptures for today, though, don’t particularly direct us to go there. Even that passage from Psalm 100 is pretty clearly an isolated reference, not even part of an extended metaphor like Psalm 23 or John 10. Our first warning, you might say, is not to read into scripture what isn’t actually there.
This is probably a good idea in this case, because sheep are not really very good role models. I don’t know how many of you, if any, have much background with livestock. I certainly don’t, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that sheep aren’t something you want to emulate. Perhaps the best way to say it is that sheep are very problematic animals. They aren’t necessarily stupid – for one thing, they’re actually incredibly good at recognizing and distinguishing faces – but they are possessed of so strong a herd instinct that whatever capacity for judgment they have is overwhelmed.
They go astray. Remember the parable about the man with a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, and the man leaves the ninety-nine to find the one? Well, the man would be lucky if only one got lost. All it takes is a good-looking clump of grass ready for munching, and if you aren’t keeping the herd together well it’s gone.
On the other hand, if not distracted by all that grass, a sheep will follow whatever’s in front of it, no matter what, even if it leads it right off a cliff.
Sheep literally have to be made to lie down for their own good. As long as the grass is available they’ll keep munching away even when the weight of all that grass threatens to hurt them.
They are largely helpless against any kind of predator. No real defenses.
They are largely helpless if they get into water, particularly running water. That wool picks up a lot of water, and sheep can’t swim. If that sheep isn’t rescued it will drown.
When you get right down to it, it seems like the reason that the shepherd metaphor works so well is that we humans are a little too much like sheep for our own good. We go astray—boy, do we go astray. We’re not above excessive physical indulgence. And we are prone to follow bad leaders, right off a metaphorical cliff sometimes. Being sheep is not an aspiration; it’s the problem with us, one it takes a Good Shepherd to solve.
Now all of that is one potential problem with being careless with such popular passages as these. Here’s another; if you spend much time at all in the Bible, you end up running into a lot of examples in which Christ’s followers, when at their best, are anything but sheep-like.
Our passage from Acts today is a pretty good example of this. You might remember from last week’s scripture that Peter and John had drawn a crowd after healing a man who had been paralyzed from birth, and that Peter had launched into a restatement of his Pentecost sermon. This was happening in one of the porticoes of the Temple, and it did not escape the notice of the Temple authorities. The authorities showed up and actually had the two arrested and held overnight! The next day the two were brought before the council, with all the big names present – not just the current high priest, but the whole high priestly family – and interrogated as to how this healing had happened: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
Peter and John stick to their story – this man was healed in the name of Jesus, whom these same Temple authorities had induced the Romans to crucify. No backing down.
Not very sheeplike, is it?
Not only is Peter preaching the very same sermon that had gotten him and John arrested, he’s doubling down; not only was the man healed in the name of Jesus (verse 9), there is no other name besides the name of Jesus by which such healing can happen (verse 12). Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” is being bold and headstrong in the face of the very authorities of his religion. The religious authorities tried to intimidate Peter into backing down, but Peter and John were having none of it.
Not very sheeplike at all. If anything, Peter and John are acting a lot more like goats than sheep here. Where sheep are regarded as docile and easily led about, goats are anything but. Headstrong, rebellious, difficult…that’s a goat for you.
Are they following Christ in obedience to the Holy Spirit? You bet. But doing so in this case is anything but sheeplike behavior.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink makes this point;
Christians have been instilled with a sheepish docility that has played into the hands of the Powers for centuries. Obedience has been made the highest Christian virtue, obedience that was to be paid to Christ's representatives on earth, the rulers and the clergy. As a result, Christians have colluded in their own injury. They have accepted without resistance totalitarian rulers. They have been submissive in the face of tyrannous hierarchies in church and state, corporations and schools. Women have submitted to battering, economic exploitation and wage inequality. Men have been led off to war like sheep, flocking to their doom without resistance, as if to do so were the height of glory.
Wink goes on to observe that not only were Peter and John being anything but sheeplike in their behavior, but that this behavior was actually pretty characteristic of both Jesus and those who had been his followers. Verse 13 adds the observation that the Temple authorities saw the two as “uneducated and ordinary” men – in fact, the Greek word here translated “ordinary” is the word from which we get our modern insult “idiot” – and yet were being extremely bold before people of whom they were supposed to be afraid. And that, they had already seen, was characteristic of these followers of this crucified Jesus.
They weren’t living fearfully – these disciples were a long way from the people who had been hiding back on the day of the Resurrection. They weren’t being intimidated. They were speaking boldly, proclaiming the name of this crucified Jesus. They weren’t sheep. They knew their scripture, and didn’t let the authorities intimidate them into accepting their “authoritative” interpretation.
And remember: they were showing this boldness, this “goat-like” stubbornness, to their own co-religionists. We Presbyterians can be a little bit intimidated sometimes in the face of a larger church that has some of its authorities who are really highly willing to tell the word that they are the only ones who Really Know Their Scripture. We have it, and we’re going to tell you how you have to read it. We’re going to tell you what you have to believe about it. Listen, folks: I am really, truly NOT INTERESTED in you “believing in the Bible.” I’m really not. I’d much rather you grab your Bible and read it. Read it whole, and when those authorities start to sell you some soap about what this verse says, you be ready to throw a whole bunch of other scripture at them.
Boldness, not sheeplike docility. Following the prodding of the Spirit, not the orders of the authorities. Being faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus, no matter how much others might distort his witness. When it’s time to call out whoever – be it the world at large or our fellow Christians, when it’s time to be led by the Spirit, let us never be anything less than bold. But let us know that we are being led by the Spirit.
For the ability to be a goat instead of a sheep when the Spirit calls, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH 90): “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (457); “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (192); “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (276)
[i] Walter Wink, “Those obstreperous idiots: Acts 4:5-12,” Christian Century (April 13, 1994), 381