In 1998 F. Dean Lueking was teaching at the Lutheran seminary in Bratislava, Slovakia.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 9, 1997, p. 361, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The mission is everywhere, and we must drop the language of home church and mission field.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.. . I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
This word of Jesus never grows old, never loses its holding power, even for us of the late 20th century whose closest contact with sheep is the petting zoo for kids. Yes, I know, I know.
I also know that when it comes to speaking one sentence to someone hanging onto life by a thread in a hospital emergency room at 3 AM., "I am the good shepherd . . . who lays down his life for the sheep" is unsurpassed. The Good Shepherd himself makes that word work. He did indeed lay down his life for the world, of his own accord, and has received power from his Father to take it again.
A comment on this text from H. H. Farmer has stayed with voice.me over the years, to the effect that in his suffering and death Jesus was by no means a victim of circumstance, like a windblown leaf whipped about by evil forces. No one took his life from him. He offered it freely. Before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate, he is in control. He declares that they would have no power over him save from on high. He can already see his place at the Father’s right hand of power. These others cannot. They are the excited ones, and thereby the weak ones. With a regal air he speaks of his power to lay down his life and take it again.
Herein lies the power and mystery of the Easter faith, that this risen Lord and faithful Shepherd has done the decisive deed in beating down sin and robbing death of its paralyzing thrall.
He puts his own on the resurrection side of every cross.
I have other sheep that are not of this fold, he said, speaking of the mission in the world. When he spoke these words no one knew of Saul become Paul, or Priscilla and Aquila, or Barnabas and Lydia and Timothy and Stephen and the many more since. But he knew. "They will listen to my voice" is the declarative promise that his good shepherding will open the ears of those who shall hear in faith.
How is that going in our time?
Running through some churches today is the view that the other sheep need entertainment to open their ears. Entertainment evangelism, as currently described, is at best a striving to be all things to all people, at worst an extension of the me-first culture that has little or no room for the question of why the Good Shepherd had to lay down his life for the sheep. He had to lay down his life for us sheep because we wander, fall for phony shepherds and bleat piteously, lost in the far pasture.
Another approach to the other sheep is to straitjacket them. Sheep are, after all, stupid, stubborn and dependent. Pack the whole kingdom and power and glory of the good shepherd into a tight doctrinaire box and stuff the sheep inside, lopping off whatever doesn’t fit. No questions asked and none allowed.
The intention here is not to set up an easy caricature and poke fun at it. It is to warn against the reality of a worldwide fundamentalist impulse bedeviling all major religions. Pat answers to the great questions are attractive in the short term. But they cheapen grace by not asking us to love God and others with the whole mind as well as heart and soul.
Yet one more view of the other sheep is to stereotype them, thinking that church folk all dress, think, talk, act alike. I fall into that trap too. Recently I was called by a funeral director to conduct a funeral where, as he said, three or four at most would be present. I arrived to find the chapel jammed with theater people gathered in remembrance of their fellow actor. Ponytails and lots of leather were in evidence; their stories about the deceased, their songs, verse and readings were done with great style.
After nearly an hour, a woman stepped up to explain why I was asked to come and do what I do. Last summer the deceased man’s mother had died and I had the graveside service. As I was going to another event not far from the cemetery immediately after the committal, I wore a sport coat that is the greenest green I’ve ever seen, let alone worn. The son said to his friend after I left the graveside, "Any preacher who can wear a sport coat like that can’t be all bad; when I die get him for my funeral." So she did.
We’re all given to stereotyping people for purposes of exclusion. But when eyes are fixed on this Good Shepherd who knows that the other sheep are not lost sheep but his sheep, the blinders fall away and the church gets really interesting.
In the past five or six decades a sea-change has occurred in the Christian mission. For the first time since St. Paul answered the Macedonian call and the Christian gospel began its westward spread, the center of balance in the mission is not the West. Black Africa, South Korea, mainland China and Central America have become the new centers of gathering the other sheep.
The mission is everywhere, and we must drop the language of home church and mission field. We do well to listen to the voices of Christians at work in law firms, medical labs, computer research, retail sales, union shops, construction sites, police and fire departments, and cab drivers on nighttime duty to get a feel for what it means in our time that the shepherding Christ has his other sheep in these places and the watering holes where they gather for TGIF. These seriously faithful people know that finding the other sheep is no snap.
But it’s happening, mirabile dictu! And it shall continue to happen, till all the sheep are within the fold of the one Shepherd, the Good Shepherd.