Preaching the Good Shepherd to Biblically Illiterate Sheep

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I need your help.

The gospel reading for this week, from John 10, epitomizes what I love and, well, what I definitely don’t love about the lectionary.

Let’s start with what I love. The lectionary stretches me beyond the confines of the passages I might choose to preach on and so imposes a helpful discipline. So whether or not I would choose to preach on John 10 — filled with rich imagery but intensely complex as a literary unit — here it is.

Similarly, the lectionary provides an incredibly helpful catechetical pattern by which to teach the faith. The first half of the church year, as you know, focuses on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” The second half focuses on his ministry and teaching and answers the follow up question, “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” So here we are in Easter and we have before us a portion of Jesus’ discourse on the good shepherd. Except it’s not, exactly. (I warned you John 10 is complicated!) It’s actually three months later, during Hanukah (the festival of Dedication), and Jesus is still talking about sheep and shepherds. No wonder, then, that his conversation partners ask, with a translation that probably reflects the common idiom more closely, “How long will you keep on irritating us with this? If you think you are the Messiah, then say it plainly.” In response, Jesus says two very interesting things: 1) he has no need to testify on his own behalf as his works have already done that; 2) his interrogators do not (cannot, will not?) believe because they are not his sheep – he knows his sheep and will not lose them.

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we might hear these statements in at least two ways. First, we might hear them as a promise that Jesus knows us — who we are and what we need. Admittedly, that’s a slightly unnerving promise if we take it seriously. Most of us want deeply to be known by another because we recognize that unless someone knows us truly they cannot accept us as we are. For that very reason, of course, we are hesitant to be fully known, as we fear rejection: “Will you still love me if you know __________ (fill in the blank) about me?” Yet Jesus does know us — the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the hopes and fears, the accomplishments and failures, the acts of fidelity and those of betrayal — and still promises us a relationship with him (and thereby with his Father) that transcends this world.

Second, we might also hear that there is no testimony to our resurrection faith more powerful than doing the works that Jesus did: healing, comforting, freeing, feeding. After all, if Jesus says that his works testify to his identity, will not ours do the same? This is not a new theme, of course (listen closely and you’ll hear “and they will know we are Christians by our love” playing in the background), but it’s too often drowned out by a vision of testimony as cognitive Q&A: “have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” (Actually, I suppose that if we take Jesus seriously, the answer to that question might be, “ask my neighbors; they’ll know better than I.”)

There is something a little unnerving here, too. If we look to our works as testimony to our Christian identity we might run the risk of concluding that we’re not all that Christian after all. But it’s important to hear these two statements not in isolation but rather as intimately connected. As we discussed last week,
there is an important difference between commanding (“do these things in order to be my sheep”) and commissioning (“because you are my sheep, you will do these things; trust me, I know you”). And Jesus’ promise prompts, rather than merely requires, fidelity.

Okay, so that’s what I love. As to what I, well, definitely do not love: we have again in this lection just a small portion of a larger literary unit, stripped from an already complex context, and offered as part of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Given that we’re in the season is Easter, and that the last two weeks have offered us post-resurrection scenes (the confession of Thomas and the restoration of Peter), can anyone blame our hearers if they wonder why we are now back in the middle of John’s Gospel talking about sheep and shepherds? (And just wait until the next few weeks, with selections from the “farewell discourses” Jesus offers on the eve of his Passion!).

Which is exactly the problem: we preach to a people whose knowledge of the biblical narrative is weak at best and whose primary exposure to the Bible is on Sunday morning. And what do we do? We offer them snippets of the story sliced and diced from their narrative context and rearranged so that one can hardly imagine what plotline they might fit into. Imagine showing a Quentin Tarantino film to an audience who’s only watched Disney movies, and you’ll have some idea of what we’re doing to our hearers.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am a devoted lectionary preacher and have poured myself into supporting a lectionary resource (a.k.a.!). But on days like this I’m just not sure what to do. Which is where you, Working Preacher, come into the picture. I’d like you to share your wisdom, insights, and questions about using the lectionary in this day and age. What has been helpful? What has been difficult? Do we need a new lectionary geared toward teaching the biblical story? Do we need to abandon the lectionary altogether in order to better teach the story? Do we need to do a better job of using the lectionary we already have? Send your responses, please, to I won’t be able to respond to them individually, but in a few weeks I’ll share what I’ve learned in this same space.

Thanks so much, Working Preacher, for your help in this matter and, even more, for your fidelity to the Word. What you do matters, and I’m grateful for our labor together. Blessings on your sermons this week!

Yours in Christ,