Sunday, April 26, 2015

How Big Is Your Flock?

John 10:11-18
Easter 4
April 26, 2015
William G. Carter

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep...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." 

How big is your flock? It’s the question that seems to come up whenever I go to a conference with other ministers. A few of us will go out for a bite to eat. After ordering off the menu, somebody will say, “Where is Clarks Summit, anyway?” And then, “How big is your flock?”

They are talking about you, of course. And I like to brag about all of you. My friends may not know where Clarks Summit is, but they would love to be part of a church like this. This is a rare congregation. There is a lot of positive energy here. Something is always perking. Believe me, there’s more going on than any one person can capture or describe. That’s why I tell my friends – and then they ask, “How big is your flock?”

That’s a good question. How would I answer it? Forty years ago, we numbered a congregation by counting all the names on the list. Back then, it was fashionable to belong to a church. Somebody would move into the neighborhood, and you might lean over the fence and ask, “Would you like to go to church with us?” More likely than not, they might say yes, because everybody went to church. At least, that’s what they said to the Gallup Poll.

But it didn’t always work that way. We had a pastor here years ago. Everybody liked him. He would walk up and down State Street shaking hands. I don’t think he ever let go of those hands, just tugged those folks up the hill and made them Presbyterians. They were glad to be here – apparently when Bob was here, there were almost 900 people on the list. That’s what they tell me. And when he left for another church, we took about 300 hundred people off the list. Didn’t know who they were or where they were hiding.

Twenty years ago, they told us to count another way. Don’t worry about how many people are on the list. Rather, count those who show up. It made a lot more sense. And by that time, there was a lot more to do on a Sunday morning.  PeeWee football, travel soccer, dance recitals, cheerleading, ski slopes, yard work --- on a nice day, you were lucky if anybody came. On a cold, blustery day, nobody went out. So we found ourselves praying for 45 degrees and overcast, somewhere between the sports seasons. Those were the big attendance days. We know, because the ushers keep track.

Ten years ago, we discovered that people don’t even have to be here in order to tune in. They could check us out on our website before they ever walked in the door. How many of you did that? The gurus of church life say, “Count the number of hits on your website. Keep track of how many people look at your blog.” Every week, we have about 250 people who read my sermons online. About seven percent of them read it on an iPhone. Three percent of them are in Russia. Who would have thought?

How big is your flock? The best answer now is probably, “Bigger than we thought.” There are people outside our comfortable circle who are touched by the Gospel we proclaim. There are folks tuning in that we do not yet know. There is the kid who takes piano lessons in this building during the week while her dad slips upstairs to take a couple of the helpful brochures that our Deacons put on the information rack. This building itself is the meeting ground for recovering alcoholics, the gathering place for community committees, and the launch pad to send folks like you back into the world to make a difference for God in the places where you live and work.

Can anybody number all of this? No. And that’s OK, because today we hear the Risen Christ say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

This is a very curious thing that he says. Who’s he talking about? Methodists? We really can’t be sure. The context doesn’t help. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has just given sight to a man born blind. It was an unexpected healing, and it caused a whole lot of trouble. The man didn’t ask to be healed, Jesus simply did it. This is the Gospel of John, where nobody tells Jesus what to do – he takes the initiative. He heals the blind man and then goes on his way.

Meanwhile the man doesn’t know where he went, didn’t ask for this, and after a series of religious interrogations, he is cast out of the synagogue.  I think that means the religious officials decide that he is no longer a Jew. He was born a Jew, circumcised a Jew, his parents were Jews, so he’s a Jew. But he was healed on the Sabbath, on the wrong day of the week, so the synagogue rulers throw him out. Essentially he is no longer a Jew. And in the end of the story, Jesus goes back for him. He speaks to the man who was blind, and the man recognizes his voice . . . and worships him.

So let’s ask Jesus the same question: how big is your flock? It’s big enough to include those who are thrown out of the synagogue, big enough to welcome those who don’t fit in anywhere else. For he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

I have to wonder if this was a reality for John the Gospel writer, whoever he was. A lot of scholars think these pages were written down in Ephesus, the grand city in what would now be called western Turkey. And many believe this is a late document, written some sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In western Turkey, sixty years later, the Christian church was no longer a tight little circle of Galilean Jews.

There were all kinds of sheep in that flock – Jews and Gentiles, it didn’t matter. Women and men were there, on equal ground. One tradition says this was the congregation where Mary, the mother of Jesus, had landed; we don’t know if that’s true, but if it was, she was no more a celebrity than anybody else in that church. For it was one flock around one shepherd, one expansive flock with Jesus at the center of it all.

It’s the word “expansive” that is so difficult. To think that he has sheep who are not here, who are not like us – that’s a hard piece of gristle for a lot of church people to chew.

I get around the countryside a bit. Most of you know that. One of my volunteer tasks is to visit some of the churches here and there, mostly the churches somewhere out there. Some of them are in the hills. I went looking for one place, called one of the elders and said, “Where are you?” He said, “You go up the hill from Milk Can Corners.” I said, “Where?” Milk Can Corners… can’t miss it. That’s a real place. It’s around the bend from Funston’s Barn, not far from the old oak tree that they cut down forty years ago.

There’s not a lot of traffic through Milk Can Corners. You can probably imagine that. Not a lot of people passing through, not much exchange of new ideas, same people gather at the same place at the same time every week. I like going to visit places like that. The people are usually nice. It’s stable, even predictable.

I went to visit one church one time. Well, I was from somewhere else. That made me suspicious. I was an outsider. And a few of the church people were already pretty upset. They wanted to talk about what “those people had done.” What people? “You know, those people.” Which people? One of them said, “The General Assembly.” Oh, those people.

The lady who went to visit them with me nodded and listened. Then she said, “You know who goes to a General Assembly?” They looked at her, silent. “Christians,” she said. “Presbyterian Christians. They are volunteers, elected by the people in churches like yours.” One man muttered, “Those people aren’t like us.”

“Well,” she said, “how can you be so sure? In fact, any one of you could be elected and you could go as our representative. And do you know what you would discover if you went?” Again, silence. She waited, then she said, “You would discover that there is no ‘we’ and ‘they’ – not in the church of Jesus Christ. There is only ‘us’ and it’s a really big ‘us’.”

At this, the muttering man spoke up. He sputtered, in fact, and said, “Well, I have to say that I disagree, I fundamentally disagree, and I have to say . . .” With that, the woman next to him interrupted and said, “Oh George, put a sock in it. These nice people have given up an evening at home to drive up here and remind us that Jesus loves a lot more people than you do.”

It got kind of quiet. And then a young man who hadn’t made eye contact all evening said, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. First letter of John, chapter 3.”

You what I like about Christian people? Sooner or later, they start talking like Jesus. Sometimes they even act like him.

I was telling a few of you this week about Lesslie Newbigin. He was a Presbyterian from Scotland, and did a lot of missionary work. When you are out on the frontier, far from the safe confines of home, something you find yourself doing things you never thought you would do. Newbigin went to India, to the South of India, and he gathered a lot of Christians there. They got organized and decided to start  an official church, which they called the church of South India.

To his shock, the South Indian leaders of the church elected him as the first bishop. He was a Presbyterian, from Scotland, where they want nothing to do with bishops or popes or anything else. But he accepted the assignment and served as bishop. They asked him back home, “Why in the world did you let them make you a bishop?” And he smiled and said, “In Christ, there is no ‘them’.” Sometimes you have to go with the flow of the Holy Spirit.

When he went back to Britain to teach, he explained: every organization can be defined either by its boundaries or its center. The church, he notes, is sent to every nation, which means it can never be bounded by local limits or national interests. But the church is defined by its center. As he puts it,

It is impossible to define exactly the boundaries of the church, and the attempt to do so always ends in an unevangelical legalism. But it is always possible and necessary to define the centre. The church is its proper self, and is a sign of the kingdom, only insofar as it continually points men and women beyond itself to Jesus and invites them to conversion and commitment to him.[1]

There is never a “we” and a “they” – not in the flock of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There is only one flock with one Shepherd. And it’s a lot bigger than we thought it was. Like it or not, there isn’t a single one of us who gets to decide who else gets in – that’s the sole decision of the Shepherd. He knows who belongs to him, he knows who listens to him (especially when talks about loving one another), and he has the same affection for the flock as the Heavenly Father has for the Earthly Son.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd; know what that means? It means he lays down his life for them all - even the ones that he has to chase after and heal - and then he takes up his life again, and he speaks to anybody who will listen.

He is still speaking now. Can you hear him? He says, “I am going to bring other sheep into my fold.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Sign of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980) 68.

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