What's Tony Thinking

The Grammar of the Gospel


Here’s my sermon of April 21, the fourth Sunday of Easter, a.k.a “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Click here to view the video on the youtube channel of the Community Church of San Miguel de Allende. For those of you who prefer reading to watching the written text is below.

Next week will be my ninth and final sermon in this current stint as Minister-in-Residence. Regular readers or viewers may have noticed that I have taken the occasion of Lent, Easter and Eastertide, as well as the Gospel lessons for all these Sundays but one coming from the Gospel of John to work on what theologians term “Christology.” That is, what we believe and proclaim about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In some respects, this theme began even earlier in the year with the Epiphany webinar series we did with the “Crackers and Grape Juice” on Fleming Rutledge’s new book on Epiphany. Epiphany, she noted, is all about who Jesus is and who we believe him to be.

Moreover, she noted that this is an urgent issue today for the church, but especially for the mainline Protestant churches. Many of those churches and their clergy have reduced Jesus to at best a teacher, among others religious/ spiritual teachers, and possibly a moral example to be emulated. As for Jesus being the Christ and the unique revelation of God, that’s sort of gone out the window — to the impoverishment of the church and its witness.

So I took both the webinar and this series of sermons, as an opportunity to explore the question posed not quite 100 years ago by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Is he only another interesting religious teacher and a particularly kind and compassionate human being? Or is he something more, or other, than that? Here’s today’s sermon.

The Grammar of the Gospel
John 10: 11 – 18
Apri 21, 2024

In the great wisdom of the church, this the Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The gospel always comes from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John where it’s all about Jesus the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is the Psalm of the day.

In my experience, at least some church people don’t much care for Good Shepherd Sunday. What they don’t like is the other side of the coin. The idea, the implication, that they, that we, are sheep or sheep-like.

Last week we had some guests here visiting us from the Seattle area. They used to keep sheep on their small farm. Not myself being acquainted with any actual sheep, but knowing that Good Shepherd Sunday was imminent, I said to John, “Tell me about sheep.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Sheep are stupid.” In the briar patch one day, he would hack them out. The next day they were right back there. “They kept getting their heads stuck in 10 gallon buckets,” added Patty.

Oh yes, there are lot of sweet images of Jesus with lambs in his arms. Sweet, innocent and cute lambs. But lambs grow up to be sheep. Sheep aren’t that bright. And people, church people, take exception to being compared to stupid, docile sheep. “We are,” we protest, “creative, responsible and full of unlimited potential. We are agents of change, co-creators with God.” “Jesus,” we say, “has no hands or feet in the world, but ours.” If that’s true, God help us.

A friend, a seminary professor, asked a new student, “Why do you want to become a pastor?” Said the eager, young seminarian, “I just love the people.” To which my friend responded, “Have you met the people?”

Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord — only to take it up again.” Thus, Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection.

He speaks of himself, as he does particularly in the Gospel of John, in high and majestic terms. “If you have seen me, you have seen God.” He isn’t shy about it. Throughout John he is direct. It is here in the Fouth Gospel that he says, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life, all who believe in me, though they die, will shall never die but have life eternal.”

And so here, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay my life down. No one takes it from me.” Jesus is no victim. No one takes his life from him. He gives his life. He is in control. Not a passive victim of the unjust powers, but an active agent of God’s plan and purpose. He is the Lord, the Word made Flesh, full of grace and truth.

Grammarians note, Jesus is the subject of the verbs, the subject of the sentences. Which may be why some bridle at such language, such lofty and unequivocal claims and assertions of his divinity. Just as some in today’s church don’t much like the idea that we are sheep, many prefer a Jesus who is a teacher, one among many, from whom we may learn, and possibly a moral example to emulate.

We like to think of ourselves as to the subject of the verbs, the actors, the doers. We come to church to get our marching orders: end poverty, eradicate racism, take back America for God.

Several years ago I had been invited to speak at a church, an historic and prestigious church, in New York City. I arrived early for the events of the day. There I was met by the President of the congregation, an elderly African-American man. As we had time on our hands, he asked if I would like to have a tour of the church, a huge edifice. It covered an entire New York City block. “Sure,” I said.

The church — Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn — had, he explained to me, been known as “The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railway.” It’s pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was one of the great orators of the 19th century and a towering leader of the Abolitionist movement and cause. People packed the church to hear Dr. Beecher.

As we toured the building I noticed that there were quite a few memorials dedicated to Dr. Beecher. “Yes,” said my guide, “there are twenty-three plaques, paintings, statues to Dr. Beecher throughout the church.” Those memorials, that proud history, could I thought, be a mixed blessing. It all cast quite a shadow. It’s not always easy to live in the shadow of such past glory. God help Dr. Beechers successors, I thought.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised when my guide said that, as the 21st century had dawned, he wasn’t sure that this once great church was going to survive. “Yes,” he said, “were were down to about 50 members, all as old as me, here in this sanctuary, a sanctuary that seats 1,200.” Then he smiled and said, “But lately, we seem to be growing. Things are picking up. Now, we have a couple hundred here on Sundays, and more younger people.”

“Really,” I said, “that’s great. Tell me, how has this happened?”

“It isn’t all our new minister, but he’s a big part of it.” 
 “Yes, what’s he done?”

“Well, he has gotten us reconnected to the community, the neighborhood, which is changing. And he’s gotten us back into the Bible, into God’s word. He gives an excellent Bible study.” Pause. “In fact, he can summarize the Bible’s message in just seven words.”

I had, of course, to ask. “And what are the seven words that summarize the Bible’s message?
 He smiled and said, “I am God and you are not.” I was surprised. Honestly, I expected something, well, friendlier, more inspiring, maybe a call to action. “I am God and you are not.” Sounds a little abrupt, a little sharp. A little like you might be talking to sheep.

But then I thought of my friend in AA, John. John keeps a post-it note on his refrigerator. It reads, “There is a God, John, and it’s not you.”

For an age in which we are all about our great, unbounded, human potential, an age in which we are routinely told, “anything is possible, if you work hard enough, if you believe in yourself and your dreams, “I am God and you are not,” well . . .

It sounds deflating, diminishing. But that’s not how John, who had struggled with addiction, took it. He heard it as a great relief. As good news. It wasn’t all up to him. He wasn’t, and didn’t have to be, in control of everything. He could let go and let God, trust in a Higher Power. “There is a God, John, and its not you,” came as good news, a great relief.
So, too, for a congregation whose past greatness had become a crippling burden. Who felt they could never quite live up to the grand legacy of Dr. Beecher. Good news, it’s not all on you. “I am God, you are not. Listen to me. Trust in me.”

My observation is that many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We are to be the best we can be at all times, striving for perfection. When something we’ve worked on goes well, I’ve noticed it’s hard for us to pause to enjoy it, to thank God for it. No, we are quick to evaluate, critique and look for how things can be improved. We zero in on the imperfections, the problems. Celebrating blessings and success, thanking God joyfully — not us!

Strangely, it is at least sometimes, when our own strength seems exhausted, when we are at the end of our rope, that a breakthrough may come. A couple weeks ago I shared with you about an especially difficult and terrifying time in my life. My son was very ill, suffering psychosis, and we were far off in a foreign country. But there at the end of my rope, my own strength exhausted, I discovered at the end of our rope is precisely where God’s office is located.

At such times, the words, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and they know me, I lay down my life for my sheep,” may come as very good news. Maybe I don’t need to feel affronted to be told that I need a shepherd. We have, you have, a Good Shepherd. We need a Savior, and thanks be to God, we have one.

There are two great forces in life, law and grace. With the law we are the subject of the verbs. “If you do this and don’t do that, then your life will be blessed.” “If you are sufficently virtuous, then God will approve of you.” It’s not that the law’s requirements are bad. The problem is that they can never bring about what they demand. Only grace, God’s one-way love, can change the human heart. Only grace leads to faith. “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for you.” Unconditional. Not if/ then.

When the Gospel is spoken — the truth of God’s one-way love for sinners — Jesus is the subject of the sentences. We are the direct object. We are the beneficiary. “I have died for you. I have been raised for you. I will come again for you. I have forgiven you. I have prepared a place for you. I will never leave you.”

He is the subject of the sentences, the actor. And because it is Christ Jesus who says these things, you can trust him.

A couple years ago I was invited to speak at a church conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The night before the conference, the planning committee took me out to dinner. One of their number, Diane, was absent, having been called out of town at the last minute. But the others regaled me with stories about their friend.

Diane had been called to be the interim minister at an historic church in downtown Louisville. A massive edifice, it had once been populated from the large German community surrounding St. Peter’s. But as things happen, the German immigrants had prospered and then moved out of the city to the suburbs. Now, at St. Peter’s, there only about twenty old, stubborn Germans left.

They called Diane to be their interim minister. As they did so they made one thing clear to her. They didn’t want any of “those people,” meaning the African-Americans, who now lived in the projects across the street, in “their church.”

Diane did not, apparently, follow instructions all that well. So soon after arriving, she marched across the street, into the projects and started inviting people to church. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there wasn’t a big response. But one Sunday, a young mother with twin six-year-old girls showed up. The little girls were dressed in pink, had pink bows in their hair, and each carried a little pink purse. When it came time for the offering, they proudly opened their purses and pulled out a shiny quarter to drop in the offering plate.

Well, the old Germans fell head-over-heels in love with those little girls — apparently not noticing that they were among the very people they had said they didn’t want in their church. As time passed, more people came across the street from the projects, those little girls inviting their friends to what they now called “their church,” where they had grandmas and grandpas. The grumpy Germans were tickled pink to have children in the church for the first time in decades.

Diane even managed to talk the stubborn, old Germans into calling as their new pastor, a gifted preacher who happened to be an African American woman. Under her leadership the congregation grew to several hundred people, largely African-Americans, plus a dozen old Germans who didn’t know what had hit them.

The next day at the conference I met this pastor, the pastor of the newly revived St, Peter’s Church. I said to her, “I’ve heard about your church. I’d like to visit.”

She smiled and said, “We’d love to have you. Yes, come and see what God is doing.” Notice the subject of the verb.

“Come and see what God is doing.” God is the subject of the verbs. God is up to something. Jesus is alive, on the loose.

Now if I were inviting people to my church I would likely say something like, “You’ll like our church, we are a very friendly congregation.” Or maybe, “Our church is active, lots going on.” About us. We’re the subject of the verb.
Anyhow the next day I went and it was wonderful.

I particularly remember one song we sang. The chorus of which went; “Pray for me and I’ll pray for you, and together we’ll watch what God can do.” There it was again. God, the subject of the verb, the active agent.

When the gospel is spoken, it isn’t first of all about what you must do or who you should be. “Straighten up and fly right” is not the gospel. “Get your act together” is not revelation.

“I am the Good Shepherd. I have laid down my life for you.”

“I forgive you all your sins.

“With this water, I have washed away all your sin and sorrow.”

“I am the bread of life, broken for you.”

“I lead you to green pastures, I make you to lie you down beside still waters.”

Because of this, we may boldly declare, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And because “The Lord is my shepherd,” we can say, “I lack nothing.” “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. 
Thou anointest my head with oil . . . my cup overflows.”

Because of thee, O Lord, we may boldly declare, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou are with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me . . . for surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the says of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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