7th May 2017 - Hugh Perry
Barclay writes that ‘In this passage we have a kind of lightning summary of the characteristics of the early church.’ This reading features the companionship of the church and we are reminded that community is an important part of church life as is the prayer of the community.
John 10: 1-10
This is the first of Jesus’ sheep, shepherd and sheepfold metaphors which are a continuation of Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees from the preceding chapter. In confirmation of that we can read that, after he has spoken about the sheep gate and the shepherd, his audience recalls the example of the blind man while others suggest he is demon possessed.
The opening verse makes it clear that there is a proper way to approach the sheep, namely through the gate and any other way has suspect motives.
The way into the sheepfold that represents the Christian community is through Christ who is shepherd, sheepfold and gate.
The vision of the early church that our Acts reading presents is a vision that St Albans Uniting, and indeed all churches, should aspire to. It was a learning environment, a place where people came together to talk about their faith and reflect on how scripture informed their lives. A church that discerned what the stories of the past meant for the present. But it was also a happening church where people believed that they could attempt great things because God would support them. The church was about transforming their world which seemed possible because God called them to that task.
They were a community focussed on transformation and in maintaining that community they shared what they had. Furthermore they were a community that expected to grow. ‘And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’. (Acts 2:47b)
This was a church focused on following Christ, a happy church that saw benefits in living the way Jesus had taught them to live. In living that way and telling others about what Jesus had taught them encouraged others to joined them. People joined because they wanted to be part of a movement that was achieving a better life than the exploitive Jewish theocracy or the Roman trickledown economics that seemed to have a severe blockage near the top.
The early church was a community that focused on following Jesus rather than organising itself as an institution.
We are also told that the people sold all they had and shared things in common which is in line with Jesus’ open hospitality and concern for the poor. However we should also remember that this was the beginning of the church and these people were not only looking to a new way of caring and sharing but also the best way to devote their time to spreading the gospel.
Part of Jesus’ ministry that got him crucified was, that in a feudal system, he suggested feeding a starving neighbour instead of giving their surplus to the ruling class. That was tax evasion in a system that taxed the poor to help the rich and the penalty for opposing that system was death. Feudalism is a trickle up economic system and was never threatened until the great plague swept through Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century. That plague killed an estimated 50 million people. Because of the effect of those deaths in the countryside the aristocracy discovered that, without the peasants, there were food shortage in the cities. More importantly the peasants became aware of their power. So when Luther translated the Bible into the common German language a peasant revolt was inevitable. That revolt was unsuccessful but it was only a matter of time before Europe faced the choice of reform or revolution. The realisation that food production was important along with the gospel texts provided a powerful combination that transformed our world.
Self-contained Christian communities have been an important part of the development of the church. Monasteries and convents have played a significant part in the church’s history both as storehouses of tradition and support of great acts of healing and charity. However they have also succumbed to the temptation of the accumulation great wealth and questionable autocratic rule and abuse. Of the less formalised Christian communities that emerge from time to time abuse of power by leadership and abuse of individual members is an ongoing issue.
But concern for the marginalised was very much part of Jesus’ ministry and the gospel undoubtedly played a part in the development of socialism simply because those involved were Christians.
I enjoyed reading that in 1879 the Westport Coal Company recruited fifty South Yorkshire miners but when they arrived the managing director refused to hire them. The problem was those 50 miners were imbued with ideas of solidarity and steeped in Methodism. However with the opening of the Denniston mine the company was forced to take on all the miners it could get and the Denniston miners formed a union in 1884. In this cooperating parish it is only fair to note that in 1888 a Dunedin Presbyterian minister the Rev Rutherford Waddell preached a sermon with the title ‘The Sin of Cheapness.’ His concern was the very low wages paid to women for take home work in the clothing industry.
One of the authors of the book I gleaned that information from, Professor Jim McAloon, was a speaker at the progressive Christianity conference Raewyn and I attended last year. His topic was the impact of Christian people on the development of New Zealand and the list of such people was formidable.
Without doubt the religion that grew from the teaching of Jesus was transformational. But that religion also transformed from simply following Jesus to building an impressive organisational structure that blocked out the original simplicity we see in our reading from Acts.
In our gospel reading, written somewhere around 100 years after Jesus’ death and probably in Ephesus we have the introduction of a gate and concern that the wrong sort of people might get into the church.
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit’. (John 10:1) In the pagan Roman world of multiple Gods there certainly would have been times when the followers of Jesus would want to know if those they met with were followers of Jesus. There was always the possibility that someone who might report them as atheists who failed to make sacrifices to the gods the believed protected the empire. Even worse they could be denounced for refusing to worship the emperor which was treason. Even in New Zealand treason was a capital crime until quite recently.
Nevertheless, we can see in this reading the development of an in-group out-group mentality that, once the church gained political power, not only lead to brutal persecution of non-Christians but also brutality between Christian denominations.
However the key point in this metaphorical reading is that it is Jesus that is both gate and shepherd and there is no plea for help from Jesus in keeping out the robbers and bandits. We come into Jesus’ flock through the call of Christ and that is a meeting place between the two readings. We are told in our Acts reading that Jesus was continually adding to their number. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47b)
The gospel reading tells us we come to Christ at his call, he is the good shepherd. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice, he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3) Jesus goes on to say that he is also the gate as well as the shepherd So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’ (John 10:7)
The only spot left for the church, the followers of Jesus, is the gate keeper but in this passage the only function for gatekeepers is to open the way to allow the sheep to follow the shepherd, Jesus, and not, as so often happens, to shut people out.
Thieves and bandits climb over the fence so shutting the gate is irrelevant. In this day and age when poverty once again encourages stock thieves any farmer will tell you thieves don’t come in the front gate, so shutting the gate is not relevant.
Our task as followers of Jesus is to be Christ in our world. But along our mission journey this reading encourages us to open the way for others to meet Jesus and hear his call. According to Albert Schweitzer, who I quote regularly, it is as Jesus comes to us, that we find out who he is.
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfil in our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labours, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery they will learn who he is.
This reading encourages us to open the gate that people build for themselves to shut out the gospel and the shepherds voice. Our mission task, our opening of the gate, is to give the church credibility in a cynical world. We do that by being Christ in the community with no strings attached.
Effective evangelism is not about brow beating people with proof texts, it is about demonstrating that we are walking our talk and allowing Christ to call people to whatever task he must fulfil in our time.
There are thieves and bandits however and if we look at the drawing of our South American liberation theologian he suggest who they might be. The scribes and the Pharisees are on one side and the prosperity gospel evangelists on the other. Liberation theology evolved in South America from the dormant Catholic faith and I know from meeting theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid that there was also a Methodist stream. Liberation Theology evolved out of the context of South American poverty. Marcella told a story of her experience of the exploiting of the vulnerable at a healing service. That story made it clear that she, and the Liberation Theology movement she was part of, defined the North American prosperity gospel as robbers and bandits. Thieves from another tradition climbing over the fence to plunder the flock. However, the prosperity gospel is by no means the only aberration of the Christian faith to exploit the flock rather than open the gate and allow people to hear the call of Christ. At one time or another most denominations have been robbers and bandits. The scribe and the Pharisee in the drawing dressed contemporary professional attire may well represent approved theology or the rule of church law and creeds. Rules that have been used to exclude people from the call of Christ
The theme found in both these readings presents an image of a church that offers open hospitality, cares for each other and their neighbourhood. A church that welcomes those whom Christ has saved. Our call to community facing mission is not about pestering people to participate in Christ’s mission. We are certainly not called to persuade people to adopt some exploitive distortion of Christianity.
We are simply called, by these two reading, to open the gate in people’s minds and allow them to hear the call Christ.
 William Barclay The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press:1976 ),pp.,30,31.
 Peter Franks & Jim McAloon Labour: The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016 (Wellington: Victoria University Press 2016) p.39.
 Franks & McAloon, op.cit., p.40.
 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Bowden, John (ed.) (London: SCM Press 2000), p.487.