Phillip Keller wrote more than thirty-five devotional books before he died in 1997. Keller was a Canadian citizen, but he grew up in East Africa where his parents were missionaries. Throughout his childhood, Keller was surrounded by native animal herders whose customs were very much like their ancient counterparts’ in Israel. He went to college at the University of Toronto, where he studied soil science and crop production. His work took him all over the world, but it was his eight years of actually being a sheep owner and shepherd that led him to write his most well-known book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm. Later on, he wrote A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd, about our passage for today.
I learned about Keller from a former parishioner of mine who had actually been a shepherdess herself. She felt that Keller was accurate in his descriptions of both sheep and shepherds. She also was a deeply spiritual woman, and she felt that Keller’s observations could help us better understand Jesus as the Good Shepherd. So, I returned to Keller’s books as I thought about our passage this week. As I did, I began to think in different ways about who Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the “other sheep” that he intends to bring into his fold.
At the time of our story, Jesus had been in Jerusalem at the temple. He had had some pretty tense confrontations with the Pharisees over the woman who had been caught in adultery, about Jesus’ identifying himself with the Father, and his challenges to the Pharisees about their disbelief. Eventually the Pharisees became so enraged that they began picking up stones to throw at Jesus, but Jesus eluded them and left the temple.
As he walked along, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. You know what happened there: Jesus healed him. When the Pharisees learned of the miracle, they went on the offensive. They grilled the formerly blind man and even his parents. They tried to get the man to disavow Jesus. But the man was having none of it. Eventually, the Pharisees, again enraged by what they could not or would not see, drove the man out.
Jesus heard about what happened and went looking for the man. When he found him, Jesus told him, in no uncertain terms and within earshot of some of the Pharisees, that he—Jesus—was the Son of Man, the one sent to bring the world to judgment, and to make the blind see, whether that blindness was physical or spiritual.
Our passage is the continuation of begins as Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees. He’s not talking to his disciples. He’s not talking to the crowds who followed him. Jesus is speaking to Jewish scholars of scripture in their own theological language in order to reveal who he is. He’s speaking to people who think they are experts when it comes to knowing how God will save God’s people.
The shepherd language that we find so comforting and beautiful is not meant to be comforting and beautiful at all. It is intended to take the Pharisees straight back to the words of the prophets about the one God would send as a Savior. It is intended to open the eyes of these spiritually blind men to Jesus’ identity. It’s intended to show that God’s promise to be the good shepherd to God’s people has been fulfilled, and that Jesus is that shepherd.
Listening to Jesus’ words, the Pharisees might have remembered all the times the psalmists spoke of God as the good shepherd. They might have remembered Ezekiel, crying out against the bad shepherds of Israel—the priests and religious authorities who had richly fed and clothed themselves while ignoring the needs of the people. He decried those in leadership who did not care for the weak, the sick, the injured, and the lost.
Through Ezekiel, God promised to rescue those sheep: to feed them in rich pastures, to give them a safe place to lie down, to bring back the lost, to heal the sick, and to strengthen the weak, while those who had been charged with their care but were derelict in their duty would face God’s justice. Through Ezekiel, God promised to be the shepherd the people needed. Jesus’ words make it clear that he is the promised shepherd. As he tells the Pharisees a few verses after our passage, he and the Father are one.
Imagine being a Pharisee in this scene. It would have been impossible to mistake who Jesus was talking about when he described the bandits, the thieves, and the mere hired hands who did not put the well-being of the sheep first. And it would have been impossible for those religious experts to misunderstand Jesus’ claims: First, that he is the shepherd that shows the sheep the way to life, and secondly, that he is the gate to that life.
They could not ignore Jesus’ most audacious claim: that he knows the Father and the Father knows him, and that Jesus’ intimate connection to his Father is reflected in his relationship with his sheep. These words of Jesus’ were meant to reveal to the Pharisees what was right before their eyes—that Jesus was fulfilling God’s promise to be the good shepherd to God’s sheep.
Now skip ahead sixty or seventy years to the time when John’s Gospel was written. The audience hearing his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ were an embattled group—Jewish believers in Jesus whose faith had gotten them booted out of the synagogue. They must have identified with the story of the once-blind man who had gotten thrown out of his synagogue because his eyes had been opened by Jesus, and about Jesus. John’s community had suffered the same fate—accepting Jesus as the Messiah had resulted in them being separated from their faith community.
Hearing Jesus’ words to the Pharisees must have comforted them. As he stood up to his—and their—detractors, they heard him speaking about them. They heard his commitment to them. They heard him speak of his twin roles: as both the gate (the one through whom they could pass into eternal life with God), and as the shepherd who would care for them and show them how to live that life. They may have been rejected by those who were supposed to care for them, but they had their promised shepherd in Jesus. They were the precious and beloved sheep of Jesus’ own flock, and they were safe in his fold.
But then’ John tells us, Jesus speaks of “other sheep.” Jesus said, “I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” Who are those other sheep that Jesus will bring together, and will be part of the flock of the one true Shepherd?
As the Pharisees listened to Jesus’ words, they likely thought of all those Jews who had been dispersed throughout the world by deportation and exile. They would have remembered the prophets’ words about how God’s chosen but scattered people—the Jews—would one day return to Jerusalem. Jesus’ words would also have recalled God’s promise to bring together all peoples—all nations—into God’s kingdom. The Pharisees might have remembered that God’s sheep included not just the nation of Israel but Gentiles as well.
Those Gentile sheep would have included our ancestors. We are so used to thinking of ourselves as part of Jesus’ flock, it’s easy to forget that at one time, the inclusion of non-Jews in Jesus’ mission was a matter of controversy. Paul had to make some convincing arguments for continuing his ministry to the Gentiles. Even Peter had to defend his visit to the home of a Gentile family and the coming of the Holy Spirit into their hearts. Our ancestors’ inclusion in Jesus’ flock was not a slam dunk as far as Jesus’ first followers were concerned. So, we have special reason for gratitude that Jesus came to save the whole world, including “other sheep” like us.
John’s community may have recognized the connection of Jesus’ words to the prophecy, but they may also have had their own views of those “other sheep.” First, they may have recognized themselves as being among the “other sheep.” They had never met Jesus during his earthly life. They were the next generation of Christians—the Christians Jesus spoke of in his prayer on the night when he was betrayed, those who would come to believe through his apostles’ word.
But, they also had friends and family members who had not yet accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Those early Christians of John’s community had been separated from their loved ones and their synagogue because of their faith in Jesus. Perhaps they hoped that those “other sheep” were the people they yearned for, and they ached to have them among the family of believers. How comforting it would have been to hear Jesus’ words about drawing other sheep into his fold.
We have a lot in common with those early Christians. We, too, are among those who believe through the word of followers who came before us. We are among those other sheep that Jesus spoke of gathering to himself, along with all those who will come to believe in the future, maybe even through the word we speak to them.
And, many of us—I’d guess nearly everyone in this room—who has someone they care about who is not a believer. You probably pray for your loved ones, as I pray for mine, that the Holy Spirit will work in them and bring them to Jesus’ side. You probably pray, as I do, that God’s prevenient grace—the grace that surrounds every person, paving the way for them a relationship with God through Christ—will one day kindle in them a strangely-warmed heart. So, it is good to hear that Jesus is seeking those other sheep—the ones who are his but don’t yet know or listen to his voice. It is good to know that he has a place for them in his fold.
But Phillip Keller offers a third way to think of those “other sheep.” The key lays in the words “fold” and “flock.” We often use them interchangeably, but Jesus didn’t. We know this from the Greek words of John’s gospel. (If you’re using the King James Version, this won’t be obvious, because it doesn’t make the distinction between the two words. For all its beauty, the King James Version has some weaknesses in terms of accuracy of translation. So, I’d suggest that you take a pencil and, above the phrase “there shall be one fold,” write in “there shall be one flock.”)
Keller points out that for shepherds, there is a difference between folds and flocks. A flock is all the sheep a shepherd has. No matter how many sheep a shepherd owns, or where they are, either in one place or dispersed in many places, there is only one flock, and that flock is made up of all the sheep that belong to the shepherd.
Folds are where the sheep are sheltered. In Jesus’ time, they were areas open to the sky. They were frequently surrounded by or adjacent to buildings, with a separate entrance gate. Almost always, a shepherd’s flock was distributed in many folds across the countryside. But no matter what the folds are like or where they are located—whether next to a rocky wall in the countryside, or right next to the shepherd’s own home, the sheep in all of them are part of the one flock.
When Jesus speaks of his other sheep, Keller says, it may be that he is speaking of others who already believe—of those who already belong to him, who know him and listen to his voice. He may be speaking of his desire to gather them together spiritually so that they might fulfill the prayer he makes later on: that all his disciples would be completely one.
Jesus knows that, today, the sheep of his flock are scattered in folds all across the globe. Those folds may be single households, or the hearts of individual believers. They may be different denominations and congregations. And, within those folds are believers who worship differently, sing different songs, and interpret scripture in different ways. When we meet or hear of people we don’t agree with on matters of faith, we sometimes have a difficult time remembering that the sheep in the other folds are the sheep of Jesus’ one flock, just like we are.
Christians in John Wesley’s time faced the same challenge we face: how to love other Christians who are part of Jesus’ flock but whose ways of thinking and worshipping are different from ours. Wesley had some good advice about how to live as the sheep of one flock, under one shepherd. Wesley said that while a person may be “steadily fixed in their religious principles in what they believe to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while they firmly adhere to that worship of God which they judge to be most acceptable in God’s sight; and while they are united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, their heart is enlarged toward all humankind, those they know and those they don’t. They embrace with strong and cordial affection neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies.” This is what Wesley call “catholic or universal love,” and it’s the kind of love that helps those of us in different folds remember that we are all members of Jesus’ flock.
We especially need to keep this in mind as United Methodists at this particular time in our lives together. Today (July 8) is the deadline for petitions to be submitted for consideration at the specially-called General Conference to be held in February of next year. At that conference, decisions will be made about how the church will act on issues around human sexuality—particularly those around ordination and marriage. It is likely that the rhetoric will become heated, and emotions will run high. It is likely that no one will get all they hope for in the process. As we learn more about the various proposals and decisions, we should keep in mind another saying that Wesley often quoted: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” We should keep in mind that we are still part of one flock under one shepherd, though we may be part of different folds.
Right now, as we read Jesus’ words here in our own fold, other sheep of Jesus’ flock are worshipping him in their own ways in their own folds. And, as they read Jesus’ words, we are the “other sheep” to them. John Wesley encouraged Methodists to follow a time-honored guide when it comes to living together as Jesus’ one flock: Jesus’ great mission and prayer was bring all his sheep to himself, so that all his followers would be one, as he and the Father are one. He is the good shepherd, with one flock of many sheep, divided among many folds. He is the one gate that we share, through which we all pass into eternal life, and in him we all are one. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young