Who is in?

Sunday 21st April 2024

 Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

Richard Fay

Yesterday was my grandson’s second birthday. Heis mostly still non-verbal and fully immersed in wonder, discovery and inclusion. He is loved. A day will come all too soon when some kids will sayto him “you don’t belong to our club. If you want to belong, you have to agree with our rules.”  

As abrupt and clumsy as this early social constructionism is, it doesn’t change its essential tone as we journey through life, regardless of the levels of sophistication we place over it. It seems bizarre to Australians that 46 of the 50 states of the USA require school children to regularly pledge their allegiance to the American flag. When I was a boy, we paraded to Souza marches tinnily played from the school PA system and then sang God Save The Queen. Colonialism held the complexities of society together with a thin veneer of civility, whileat the margins, indigenous children were being taken from their parents, women had few rights, gays were imprisoned, the disabled were abandoned in inhumane facilities, anyone who wasn’t white could not migrate here (including the darling grandson I mentioned above!), and young men were dying in a war they didn’t understand. Ah, they were the good old days. This all happened in a “churched” nation.

In the 19th century, Archbishop William Temple famously said “The Church exists primarily for the sake of those who are still outside it.” This sounds wonderfully missional and service-oriented, but itcan hide a colonialism that so often has undermined its whole mission. We have the truth. We own the way. Out of our obedience to Christ, we will force you to comply with our tenets if you want to be part of our club. It works both ways; once you are part of the club because you follow its rules, you don’t want others getting a free pass. You had to believe and then you had to behave, so everyone else has to suffer like you have before they can belong.

Today’s Gospel reading from John 10 introduces a perspective on mission that challenges this colonialism. In verse 16, Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16, NRSV).  

Who are these other sheep, I found myself asking as a young evangelical Christian. Roman Catholics? There were tracts circling that suggested that the Pope was the anti-Christ, so I doubted they belonged. There was much debate about who was in and who was out. These other sheep must be the Gentile followers – conveniently, us! However, the reading of John’s Gospel does not make this clear. Even if it does refer to Gentile followers, why do we stop there? Is it possible that, by using metaphors like sheep and flocks, that Jesus is using intentionally ambiguous language so that we might not conclude who is in and who is out? 

17th Century Lutheran theologian RupertusMeldenius famously wrote “in essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” 19thcentury historian Philip Schaff called this “the watchword of Christian peacemakers.”

This begs the question, what are the essentials? This is the crux of all questions of belonging to one another, to the whole created realm and to God. 

It strikes me Jesus answers this question in the very next verse. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” God’s love for Jesus is founded on Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life for others, so that there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:17, NRSV). Unity is not based on agreement on doctrine but on ethos, a heart-centered inclusion that demolishes othering. 

The perennial tradition is a philosophical perspective that sees a multitude of religious traditions as expressing a single, metaphysical truth that does not belong to humanity but has been revealed to all humanity, regardless of culture, time or place. To put it simply, all truth belongs to God and is generously shared with us all. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.”

The beauty of the perennial tradition is that it replaces othering with us. Note the richness of the metaphors Jesus uses here. Other “sheep” are now with us as one “flock”. The focus is not on us versus them, but sheep (diversity, liberty) and flock (unity). It is profoundly insightful communication because it reveals the truth of God’s love at both tribal and universal expressions in terms Jesus’ listeners (and us) can immediately grasp, regardless of the traditions from which we come. Richard Rohr wrote that “metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.”

The context for this passage is found in the previous chapter, John 9, where Jesus gives sight toa man born blind. He liberates this young man on the Sabbath. How frequently Jesus seems to wait until the Sabbath to heal. This miracle starts a squabble between the Pharisees who get angry with all and sundry for something good happening outside the black and white rules. The verse immediately after today’s reading is illuminating: “Again the Jews were divided because of these words”(John 10:19, NRSV). 

This leaves me with a question: Why do we keep re-erecting barriers to belonging? Why do I want to argue across a divide between myself and anyone who disagrees with me because of their political, religious, class, culture or other perspective? 

I can only conclude that it happens the moment I am not willing to die to my egoic need to be right, powerful, above. This fourth Sunday of Easter invites us to recognize there is no fun at the top of any ladder. The cross and resurrection helps us see the power in our powerlessness, that only in our willingness to surrender our need to be right and in control do we ever know resurrection in our own lives and in this hurting world. That cosmic truth embraces every human from every tradition in the way of Christ. Amen.