For those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and its predecessors, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This Sunday in the calendar takes on the status of an unofficial mini-festival, at least for lectionary preachers. The appointed Psalm is always Psalm 23. The gospel text is always a section of John 10 – verses 1-10 in year A, verses 11-18 in year B, and verses 22-30 in year C. The common image in all three of these readings is Jesus as the “Good” (or “Noble, at least if one is working with an honor/shame hermeneutic) Shepherd.
Since Good Shepherd Sunday functions as this unofficial mini-festival at the midpoint of the Easter season, we need to ask the homiletical question we pose at every festival. Shall we “preach the day,” or shall we “preach the text”? If you follow my blog, you know that I always prefer preaching the text. That will lend itself to some allusions to the day. But we can “observe the day” in other ways during our worship as well –through other liturgical texts, decorations, commemorations, rituals, etc.
The preaching problem is compounded somewhat by the fact that our text for Year C is not really in a direct narrative chain with the texts in the other two years. As Karoline Lewis and others remind us, the narrative from John 9:1-10:21 is a set piece. The healing of the blind man in John 9 is the sign that receives its explication and explanation in John 10.
Our text for year C happens two months later on the calendar of Jewish feasts. If it is related to anything, it really looks ahead to the Raising of Lazarus in John 11. John 10:22-30 serves as the bridge and transition from the healing of the blind man to the raising at Bethany. The text takes themes from the previous section and uses them as preparation and scaffolding for the next section. In fact, it is the raising of Lazarus that makes good on the promise that no one shall ever snatch one of the sheep out of Jesus’ (and the Father’s) hand.
Not even death can steal one of the sheep for which the Good Shepherd gives his life. “The focus here,” Lewis writes, “that no one will snatch them out of Jesus’ hand, that they will never perish, can also be viewed through the lens of the last sign that follows, the raising of Lazarus. Not even death will be able to separate the shepherd from his sheep,” Lewis continues, “That they will never perish is made abundantly clear in chapter 11.”
The allusions to the Raising of Lazarus continue. As we know from earlier in John 10, the sheep hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond by following that voice. Here we note that it is only by hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd that the sheep are able to put their faith in him and to have life.
Remember some of the details of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus calls out to him with “a great voice” (see John 11:43, my translation), ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Lazarus hears the voice of the Good Shepherd. The result is that Lazarus has “life” and is so closely identified with Jesus that his life is soon also in danger.
Our text, therefore, is an Easter text, par excellence. Yes, we have moved “backward” in the Johannine narrative. But “forward” and “backward” are somewhat arbitrary distinctions when we interact with the Johannine account. The themes and images of the Johannine work interweave, turn back on themselves, build up layers of meaning by repetition. The text is much more like a rising spiral than it is a straight line. When we take that seriously, we can have a better sense of what the Johannine author seeks to accomplish.
John 10:28 is an example of this intentional interweaving. “And I am giving them eternal life,” Jesus declares, “and they shall certainly under no circumstances perish, and there is not anyone who can snatch them out of my hands” (my translation).
The NRSV and other translations use the word “never” to render this verse – “and they will never perish.” The construction in the Greek is an emphatic negation. This is, according to Wallace, the strongest possible negation available in Greek syntax (page 468).
While the English word “never” can be used to communicate a similar sense, it also has a more temporal flavor to it. Most often, I think we would tend to hear “never” as “at no time” or as “such a time will never come.” The emphatic negative here has more of the sense, I think, that such a thing – someone snatching the sheep from Jesus’ hand – is no longer possible.
The grammar of negation is found as well in the assurance that no one can snatch the sheep out of the Father’s (or Jesus’) hand. The language of “snatching” here takes us back to the earlier sections of John 10. It is thieves who snatch, who kill and destroy. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, comes that we have may life and have it in abundance. God is never a taker. God is always The Giver. Eternal life, again, is that quality of life where it is no longer possible for us to be snatched and stolen away from Life.
This is a reminder of the way in which the Johannine author wants us to think about “eternal life.” This is not merely biological existence that has no expiration date. Instead, this “life of the ages” (as it is translated literally) is a qualitatively different kind of life. It’s not that death has merely been put off indefinitely. Instead, this is the life where death is no longer in charge. This is the life where a time will come when death is not delayed. Instead, it will be impossible.
As a result, that life is already available and impactful in the here and now. “The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses,” Elizabeth Johnson writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It does not say, ‘Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.’ It says, ‘You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.’ Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).”
More important than the details of grammar is the reference being made here. Perhaps you hear an echo of John 3:16 in John 10:28. In the earlier verse, God saves the world in this manner – by sending the only-begotten Son into the world. God does this in order that no one may “perish.” It is the same verb as we have in 10:28. The result of this saving is God’s gift of “eternal life” – that which Jesus gives to the sheep in 10:28.
Therefore, what was attributed to the Father in John 3 is now equally attributed to (and claimed by) Jesus in John 10. His statement in John 10:30 – “I and the Father: we are one” (my translation) – is not a new addition to the discussion. It is, rather, a summary of what Jesus has declared in the previous verses.
Jesus is not entering into the theological debates of later centuries regarding the ontological relationships between the Father and the Son – issued addressed at the Council of Nicea and Constantinople. Instead, the oneness Jesus notes here is the oneness of the “work.”
O’Day and Hylen point out that the Greek for “one” is not constructed to indicate that Jesus and the Father are “one person.” That assertion would require a masculine form. Instead, the word for one is grammatically neuter. Therefore, O’Day and Hylen continue, “Jesus’ work and God’s work cannot be distinguished, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work” (Kindle Location 2349).
Our friends on the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast note this week that at least some of our Good Shepherd Sunday texts are favorite texts for the Service of the Burial of the Dead. That is especially true for Psalm 23. But I have used John 10:22-30 as a funeral text on several occasions as well. It is especially poignant and appropriate in response to deaths that were sudden and/or unexpected, times when the loved one was literally “snatched away” from the bereaved.
It may be helpful to keep that context in mind as we are preaching on Sunday – that some folks may connect this text to a funeral service for a loved one or friend. Even if that connection isn’t made, perhaps we ought to make it for our listeners.
A simple rationale for this is that often even the most active of Christians have very little notion of what might make for a “good” funeral text. I have found over the years that when I make suggestions of “good” funeral (or wedding or baptism or confirmation) texts during my regular weekly messages, people take notice and sometimes even remember the suggestion when the time comes.
More than that, we might use this sermon at the midpoint of Easter to give our listeners some additional framework for experience and interpreting the losses in their lives. Even when it seems that a life is stolen from us, the Good Shepherd assures us that this is not the case. “Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice,” Johnson writes, “the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise—a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.”
References and Resources
Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.
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