Contributed by John Hougen, Pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Melrose Park, PA
If your house of worship had a bouncer, and the bouncer was Jesus, would he let you in? Why or why not?
Who’s In and Who’s Out
One of the common issues faced by groups of friends and organizations is deciding who’s in and who’s out. Most groups of friends form without consciously deciding why some are in and some are outside the group: it seems to “just happen.” On the other hand, fraternities and sororities vote to include or exclude each prospective member. Honor societies and professional organizations develop criteria that must be met for membership.
What about Christian congregations and ministries? A few have strict criteria for membership, but most eagerly welcome all comers. When newcomers show up, the delicate process of integrating them begins. It’s an art. It doesn’t “just happen.” Each newcomer changes the dynamics of an existing group. A newcomer with a great sense of humor and keen insights can lift the morale of an existing group. A newcomer who can’t keep a secret can change a group from one in which personal problems are shared and resolved to one in which personal problems are kept private. To bring someone from the outside into a Christian group involves negotiating differences in personalities, perspectives, preferences, beliefs, interests, and “style.”
- Discuss Bible stories in which Jesus welcomed a newcomer into his group of followers. How did Jesus practice the art of welcoming?
- Think about the congregation or ministry group to which you belong. Are there formal requirements for membership or participation? What are the unwritten “requirements” a newcomer must follow to fit in?
- Can you remember a time when your congregation or ministry group made adjustments in its usual way of doing things to make newcomers feel welcome?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 15, 2011 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Read John 10: 1 – 10 slowly. This is one of those Bible passages that can be very confusing. Commentaries reveal that knowing Greek (the original language of the text) and examining early manuscripts will not make the text more understandable. In verse one, we might think Jesus is the gate. That is confirmed in both verses seven and nine where Jesus is quoted as saying “I am the gate.” But, in verse two, we might conclude Jesus is the shepherd. And, sure enough, in verse eleven of John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” However, if Jesus is the gate and / or the shepherd, then who is the gatekeeper? And, what about those thieves and bandits? Who are they? Also, it is not clear whether the point of this passage is that Christians should follow Jesus out into the world or if those who enter the Kingdom must rely on Jesus to get in. In verses three through five, the sheep are being led out of the sheepfold. Verse 9 refers to sheep which “come in and go out.”
Is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper, the shepherd, or all three? Are the sheep going out or in or both? Whew! A lot of questions come up in this short passage. It is reassuring to read that we are not the only ones to wonder what this means. Verse 6 says, “Jesus used this figure of speech…, but (his hearers) did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Let’s find our place in the text and go from there. You and I are among the sheep. That’s clear. It also is clear that the sheep will be safe with their shepherd but not with thieves and bandits. The Good Shepherd is Jesus (or perhaps a faithful follower of Jesus in a leadership position). Thieves and bandits are those who lead the sheep away from Jesus. This text and other Bible passages point to these conclusions: e.g. John 10: 11ff, Jeremiah 23: 1-4, 1 Peter 2:19–25, and the Psalm 23.
Among the “thieves and bandits” who might lead us astray are those who try to convince us that we’re not good enough to be part of Jesus’ flock. Sometimes such “thieves and bandits” are self-righteous people of faith who look down on us because we don’t meet their standards for “true believers.” Sometimes authority figures, such as parents and teachers, crush our sense of self-worth. And, some of us have done really bad things. No matter how often we hear that God forgives us, we can’t forgive ourselves and, in effect, decide that God’s love for sinners does not apply in our specific case.
But, in this passage, Jesus says it is not the quality of the sheep but rather the inclusiveness of the Shepherd / gatekeeper that decides who is in the flock. Verse 9: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Later in the chapter, Jesus’ inclusiveness is underscored when he says, (verse 16) “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.” Even if we feel we don’t belong to Jesus, Jesus reaches out to us and promises inclusion.
- If Jesus includes you and me, who is excluded?
- Do you know anyone who feels they are not good enough to be one of Jesus’ followers? How could you demonstrate or explain to such a person that Jesus wants to include them?
- Do you think people from faith traditions that are not Christian are among those who will become “one flock” (John 10: 16)? If so, should we try to convince them to become Christians? Should we trust that Jesus loves and accepts them as they are? Should we believe that, eventually, Jesus will, in His own way, bring them to Himself?
- With others in your congregation or ministry group, recall times when you were newcomers. Ask: what obstacles were experienced as you tried to become part of a group? And, what made you feel most welcome? Develop a strategy for welcoming newcomers that incorporates insights from your discussion.
- Bring together representatives from several religious traditions and compare how new members are integrated into your respective communities.
Good Shepherd, help us to trust that you include us in your flock. Call us in to safety and out for nourishment and service. Give us generous hearts, open minds, and holy wisdom so that we might integrate into our communities all whom you send our way. Amen.