I Am (5/7/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This morning we’re going to begin an examination of the “I am” sayings from the Gospel of John. These sayings have actually caused a lot of controversy and argument among modern scholars. Consider some of the I am sayings attributed to Jesus:
I am the good shepherd.
I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
The question is, did Jesus really say these things about himself? Many scholars, of course, believe Jesus did indeed say all of the things attributed to him in the Bible. I attended a wonderful 3-day conference several years ago in which Marcus Borg, my favorite New Testament scholar, spent some time discussing the I am sayings of Jesus. Borg contends that Jesus almost certainly did not say these things about himself. A person with such a huge ego, he claims, would never have been able to garner the type of following that Jesus had.
Marcus Borg is a member of the Jesus Seminar, which I’ve discussed before. The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who gather every so often to discuss Jesus, and to try to find the real-life person beneath all the stories. They made big news several years ago when they put out a new version of the gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, a group of the sayings of Jesus that was discovered in the 20th Century.
We’ve all seen Bibles where the words of Jesus are printed in red ink. The Jesus Seminar took it a step farther. They looked at all the words attributed to Jesus in the four gospels, and in the Gospel of Thomas, and they placed his words in one of four categories, with each category represented by a color of type.
Red type means the scholars of the Jesus Seminary believe Jesus definitely said those words, or something very much like them. Pink type means Jesus probably said something resembling the words attributed to him. Gray type means Jesus probably did not say any such thing. And black type means Jesus definitely did not say the words the gospel writers placed in his mouth.
According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus did not say a single word that we find attributed to him in the Gospel of John. Unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and Thomas, where there is lots of red and pink ink scattered across the pages, the Gospel of John is all black and gray ink.
So what do we do with the Gospel of John? Do we toss it out and pretend it was never written? Many liberal scholars and preachers tend to ignore the Gospel of John, because it is the favorite gospel of the fundamentalists. They take great joy in the fact the Jesus Seminar claims the words attributed to Jesus in that gospel are not Jesus’ words at all, but are rather John’s words.
Most people are surprised to learn that while I love all four of the gospels, and think they are all four necessary to put together a sketch of Jesus, my favorite of the gospels is the Gospel of John. And yes, I tend to agree with the Jesus Seminar that Jesus of Nazareth probably did not say the words John places in his mouth.
John only works if we approach it in the right way. It is not a story about Jesus of Nazareth. It is a story about the Christ of our faith. If read as the literal and precise words of Jesus, it causes lots of problems for those of us who believe Christianity is an inclusive religion, and that the work of Jesus was done on behalf of all humanity, and not just a chosen few.
I think of it this way. John was a writer who was in spiritual communion with the risen Christ. The Christ of our faith was a real and almost tangible presence in his life. He looked back on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and re-interpreted Jesus’ life in the light of his own experience of the risen Christ of faith. It is a book grounded not in history, but rather in the mystical. Marcus Borg says we should draw a breath between the word Jesus and the word Christ. Jesus is the real life man who lived in Israel 2000 years ago. Christ is the spiritual reality Jesus embodied, the mystical presence who has held the church together over the past 2000 years.
So let’s turn back to the I am sayings and not worry about whether or not Jesus of Nazareth spoke these words, but rather whether these words bear great truths about the Christ of our faith. I won’t go into great detail with each of the I am sayings, but I will with the first: I am the good shepherd.
For this passage to make sense, we need a little history of sheep-herding in first century Palestine. We are accustomed to seeing American westerns where cattle are herded from behind. But in the Middle East, both two thousand years ago and still today, the shepherd leads the flock, going in front of it. After a day of grazing, the shepherd leads his flock into a valley, near some source of water, where the flock spends the night in a sheepfold.
The sheepfold is something we have all heard of, especially if we’ve read the Bible, and it is something that Jesus and the people to whom he told his story would have been quite familiar; but I was completely unfamiliar with sheepfolds until I read a 50 year old book by Leslie Weatherhead called The Autobiography of Jesus. In that book, the author gives a wonderful description of a sheepfold, and his description made the notion of Jesus as the good shepherd come alive for me like never before.
So allow me to describe a sheepfold. I will quote from Leslie Weatherhead’s book: The sheepfold consists of four high, rough walls surmounted by thorns fixed along the top so as to keep out the thief and the robber who might climb up some other way. In one of the walls, the one nearest the stream that threads its way through the valley, there is a space a little wider than a man’s body. The shepherd, preceding the sheep, stands in that gap and faces outward, and he calls his sheep to him by name as they come toward him over the hillside.
The author continues, One of the most impressive and lovely things you can still see in Palestine is the way in which, if two flocks of sheep intermingle while the shepherds are chatting or eating, a shepherd with the utmost ease can separate them without any use of dogs or of chasing the sheep about. He stands a little above them on the hillside and simply calls to them by name.
Weatherhead goes on to describe the process by which the shepherd allows the sheep into the sheepfold. As the shepherd stands in the gap—the gateway—the only opening in the sheepfold—he inspects each sheep. He makes sure there are no thorns or briars stuck in its fur. If the sheep has been bruised on its head by a rock or by butting another sheep, the shepherd massages oil into the bruised head. (Remember the 23rd Psalm, which reads, “Thou hast anointed my head with oil.”)
After a sheep is inspected and cared for, the shepherd turns his body sideways in the opening to the fold, and like a gate, allows the sheep into the fold. Leslie Weatherhead’s narrative explains what happens next.
Now all the sheep are folded. The shepherd does not rely on any temporary hurdle or gate to close the entrance. He builds in the gap a huge fire, with himself on the inside, near the sheep. Then, crouching over the fire, he eats his evening meal, watching over his flocks by night. Finally, having made up the fire, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with his feet to the fire he lies down near the sheep… The shepherd may rest, as the sheep do, in perfect safety. Wild animals may be in evidence. Indeed the cry of the hyena and the jackal and even the wolf may still be heard. But wild animals are terrified of fire. They cannot jump the high walls, crested with thorns, and in the gateway between the wolf and the sheep is not only the fire, but the body of the shepherd.
Tomorrow at dawn the shepherd will lead them out again, and in that rhythm they spend their days going in and going out. But in every experience the shepherd is with them.
And now, with that wonderful image of the shepherd and the sheepfold fresh in our minds, I want to once again read those words of Jesus from the Gospel of John:
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The 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… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… I lay down my life for the sheep.
Isn’t it amazing how much those words come alive when we manage to put ourselves in Jesus’ world? I had read that passage countless times, but until I understood how the shepherd stood in the opening of the sheepfold and used his body like a gate, I didn’t have a real mental image of what Jesus was saying.
We’ve spent a lot of time on this image of Jesus as the good shepherd, but there is one more line from that passage I want to consider. The line reads, Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
Like many of you, I tend to build up a wall of defense when I hear passages about “being saved,” simply because so many people have turned the Christian faith into a shallow and judgmental game—the Save Your Soul Game. The game is won, of course, by believing the right things about Jesus, and by insisting, against all logic and reason, that the Bible is literally true and in all cases the infallible word of God.
But we should reclaim this notion of being saved—of salvation. I refuse to surrender the notion of salvation to those who have turned it into self-centered assurance that their practice of religion is the only one pleasing to God. Salvation is not just a private matter. Salvation is a communal matter. We are saved—healed, transformed, reborn—when we lose our fear and live life for something greater than ourselves.
The Christian life involves both going in and going out. We must go in to our quiet places and meditate and rest and refresh ourselves, safely enfolded in the presence of Christ; and we must go out into the world to live good and fearless lives based on the strength we’ve found. We must go into the fold with other sheep and gain confidence from the strength we find together; and we must go out of the fold and be witnesses of what God’s love has done in our lives. It is all a part of living life under the guiding presence of the good shepherd.
I believe there is something inside of us that rebels against the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd. I mean, we like to be take charge people. I certainly do. I don’t like to sit back while life happens to me. I like to be in control. And I can’t stand a victim mentality. I’ve always believed in taking charge of one’s life. For most of us, there is not time for shaking our fist at the sky. If we don’t like the way things are, we try to change them.
We don’t necessarily like to think of ourselves as sheep. We like to blaze our own trail. But it all comes down to whom we view as the shepherd. We have to be careful who we follow. How many times have nations led their young people off to the slaughter of war, and the people are herded into the slaughter as if they had no say in the situation? It has happened since we started keeping historical records.
We often let our employers lead us into situations we are uncomfortable with, either ethically, or simply because they demand so much of our time at the expense of our family life. Oh yes, we must be careful about who we allow to shepherd us through life.
But there is great comfort in allowing Jesus to be our shepherd. Because Jesus is the good shepherd. And when we truly accept Jesus as the shepherd of our lives; when we truly surrender ourselves to the good shepherd; then we are empowered to stand up to all those false shepherds who would lead us in ways that our hearts tell us are wrong.
There is something about Jesus. He really can calm the storms in our lives. The old saying goes, “Let go and let God.” There is great peace in letting go, letting go of all the pulls on our lives that keep us from being a part of Jesus’ flock.
Well, that was a pretty in depth look at the words, “I am the good shepherd.” We won’t spend so much time on the rest of the I am sayings, and we’ll move on to those sayings next week. We will spend quite a bit of time with one of the most controversial of the I am sayings, namely, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Fundamentalists have used those words to claim that only those who adhere to a specific version of the Christian faith can enter the Kingdom of God, and on the surface, that is exactly what those words appear to say. But as with much of Christianity, the surface is not where we find the truth. The truth is waiting for us in the depths, not the shallows. We’ll take up there next week.