One of the strangest things about being a minister is that I get to hear everyone’s opinions about Christianity, and I don’t even have to ask. All I have to do is walk out of the door in a clerical collar, or answer the phone at church, or hand someone a business card with “Rev.” in front of my name, or have someone say, “this is Emily, she’s a pastor,” and the floodgates open - people have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about our faith tradition, and I get to hear them all. I hear opinions about Christianity on airplanes, at cocktail parties, in waiting rooms, and around the Thanksgiving dinner table. I hear opinions that are very well-informed, and opinions that seem to be based almost entirely on Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code. I hear opinions from Protestants and Catholics, atheists and agnostics, Muslims and neo-pagans. I hear opinions from people who are fervently devout, people who’ve never set foot in a house of worship, and everyone in between. It can be maddening sometimes, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating and moving thing to hear all the ways the Christian tradition has been transformative in people’s lives and all the ways it’s been toxic, the ways it’s healed people and the ways it’s hurt people, the ways it’s been communicated and miscommunicated to society at large.
One of the things I hear most frequently from Christians and non-Christians alike is how troubled people are by their perception of Christianity as an exclusive faith tradition. People say to me things like, “I like the things that Jesus did and taught, but I just can’t understand how Christianity could say that people are going to Hell unless they believe exactly what you believe. If you think that God is love, then how could God condemn so many people to Hell for choosing the wrong religion, or the wrong denomination, or no religion at all?”
I sometimes wish I could say, “Oh, Christians don’t believe that, you must have misunderstood. Whoever told you that must have been wrong.” But the truth is, much of Christianity has taught, and does teach, that only Christians – and only a particular kind of Christians, at that – are included in God’s love. Much of Christianity has taught, and does teach, that God’s redemption is contingent upon our orthodoxy – our believing the right theology. So when people express hurt, anger, and frustration at Christianity’s exclusivity, their impressions are based not on misinformation, but on the real teachings that are prevalent in much of the Christian faith. Fortunately, though, I get to tell them that the Christian tradition is deep and rich and multivocal. I get to tell them that there are many possible ways of thinking about those issues, and today’s Gospel reading speaks to another way of thinking about who is in and who is out.
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we ponder scriptural images of God and Jesus as shepherd. We hear the familiar and reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm that speak to God’s provision for us - guiding us to nourishment in green pastures, offering us rest and peace by still waters, accompanying us through the dark and frightening places of life. We hear Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd - the one who knows each of us, who lays down his life for us, just as shepherds would risk their own lives to protect the flock from predators and thieves We hear of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who shields us from danger and guides us toward abundant life. Tucked away in the midst of these familiar words are some words that are a bit surprising: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
“Other sheep that are not of this fold.” Those words are full of both promise and mystery - who are these other sheep? Could it be that Jesus is suggesting that God’s flock is bigger than Christianity has often taught? As I pondered these questions, I started to wonder whether it would be typical for shepherds in this time to have “other sheep.” While I was able to learn a fair amount about shepherding practices in biblical times, I haven’t been able to find a direct answer. But everything I’ve encountered has suggested that sheep require constant care, as they were prone to wandering off, and susceptible to predators and thieves. They bonded with their shepherd, responding to his voice alone. Shepherds would typically have stayed with the flock all day long, tending to them while they grazed in pastures during the day, then herding them into an enclosure - a sheepfold - at night, and sleeping with their bodies blocking the entrance of the fold so that the sheep couldn’t wander out, or predators come in, without stepping directly over the shepherd. If all of this is true, it’s hard to imagine that it would have been a common practice for a shepherd to have multiple flocks. Watching one flock was an all-day, all-night commitment; a shepherd likely wouldn’t have had time to tend more than one flock. I think Jesus’ words about other sheep would have been a surprising and thought-provoking thing for the disciples to hear, and it should be surprising and thought-provoking for us as well.
Who are these other sheep? Christians have offered a wide variety of interpretations. Progressive Christians tend to read this verse with an eye toward non-Christians, suggesting that the “other sheep” are faithful people of other traditions: Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, who encounter God’s truth and God’s voice in another form. (Incidentally, while this interpretation is beautiful and helpful, it is not always especially welcome in interfaith dialogue. People of other religions are often rather offended at the suggestion that they are worshiping Jesus without realizing it, just like I would be offended if someone told me I was actually worshiping Thor.) Another interpretation suggests that Jesus’ words were meant to prepare his Jewish disciples to welcome Gentiles into the early church. Yet another common interpretation of this verse encourages Christian unity, as interpreters suggest that each denomination or congregation is just one of Jesus’s flocks. This interpretation urges us to set aside our theological bickering and denominationalism and acknowledge that whether we are UCC or Catholic, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, all of us are drawn to Jesus’ flock, united across our difference by our Shepherd’s love for us, and our love for him.
I think, though, that we miss the point if we try to get too specific about the identity of these “other sheep.” Perhaps the point is not to help us discern more accurately how far God’s grace extends; perhaps Jesus is not helping us improve and refine our judgments about who is in and who is out. I think that in telling the disciples that he has “other sheep that are not of this fold,” Jesus challenges them, and us, to let go of the desire to make those determinations on God’s behalf. Jesus challenges us to encounter every neighbor, no matter how different from us, as if they might be a sheep in his flock.
For us UCCers, you would think it would be easy, wouldn’t you? From our congregation’s efforts to include those who might not normally feel welcome in church, to our denomination’s collaborative relationships across denominational lines, to our commitment to interfaith learning and dialogue, we think of ourselves as a pretty inclusive and accepting bunch. And I think we often are. Where we tend to struggle is in our attitudes toward Christians who are less inclusive than we are.
Every week I hear stories that break my heart and make me fume with rage about what others are doing in Jesus’ name. I hear stories of people who think their Christian faith means they are called to refuse service to gay customers. I hear stories of churches that object to women’s ordination; churches that not only declare that women can never be called to serve as pastors, but can never stand in a pulpit, and can never speak out loud in a church meeting that includes men. I hear stories of people who believe that the United Church of Christ is not a part of Christ’s church at all, but is part of a Satanic plot to lead believers astray. (It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.) Sometimes I want to say those people aren’t Christians – that they are not part of Jesus’ flock at all. I mean, they can’t be, can they?!
But Jesus tells us that there are other sheep in other pens, and that they are his too, and he does not tell me how to figure out who they are. There is a world of difference between saying someone isn’t a Christian and saying that your own Christian faith leads you to believe something different from them. There is a world of difference between attacking someone else’s faith and sharing your own.
Jesus tells us that there are other sheep, and he does not tell us how to recognize them. And so our challenge is to let go of our quest to determine who is counted in the flock, and who is not. Our challenge is to embrace the mystery of a God whose love and grace are far beyond what we could ever imagine – a God who loves us when we are narrow-minded and petty, when we are stubborn and selfish, when we are judgmental and exclusive, and when we are just plain wrong. The good news is that we are loved and cared for and guided by a Good Shepherd who loves us, not because of our regular church attendance, or our well-formed theology, or our acts of Christian mercy and justice. We are loved not because of what we have done or failed to do, but because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and Jesus is God, and God is love.
Thanks be to God.