The Preaching of the Word

 First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudon Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor

Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 17, 2016

“The Good Shepherd”

First Reading:  Acts 17:1-9

Gospel Reading:  John 10: 22-30


Late one afternoon, I can well recall, my then eight-year-old daughter Katie passed quietly into a deeper level of knowing. She was reading one of an endless pile of books she had borrowed from the city library. She looked up and asked me a question and with it stepped over the threshold. Not knowing the depth of this water, she asked: “Dad, what are metaphors and similes?”

The tenth chapter of John’s Gospel finds Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem where he is being harassed by the fundamentalists of his day. They seem to be devout detail men, literalists to the core. The occasion of Jesus’ visit is the Feast of Dedication, often called Hanukkah. This exchange in the middle of the chapter looks at first like a simple question and answer. First comes the question with an impatient demand for an answer. It comes from these religious people hard on Jesus’ heels: “How long will you keep us in suspense?”[1] they asked. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”[2] That’s the loaded word: plainly, Jesus, none of your parables, none of your metaphors, no similes, please. Give it to us straight and simple, “yes or no.” Tell us in the kind of language that Pharisees can understand.

The rest of the passage is Jesus’ answer. First he reminds them that he had already told them and it didn’t do much good. Of course, he had not spoken in the plain and literal way they wanted. He spoke to them with metaphor and simile, yet again with images, word pictures. I can hear them grumbling: “The question is simple, ‘Are you the Messiah or not?’” This is a straightforward question seeking a black and white answer. And what does Jesus do? He talks about a shepherd and sheep. He is not being cagey or deliberately obscure. Truth is, Jesus is doing what all of us do when we talk about anything very deep or subtle.

In that late afternoon, many years ago, my daughter Katie (now a University of California graduate with a major in English literature), took a first step into this adult truth. In her question about metaphor and simile, she caught an early glimpse of the old truth that mortal language is not sharp enough a sword to pierce the great mystery all the way through. Our words cannot precisely analyze God and divide divinity into tidy concepts. Our words can only draw pictures of that which is finally beyond pictures. We can only begin to comprehend the things that are so deep and so high in terms of those things at our eye level. So, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,”[3] for we understand the things of God in terms of things in human life. In speaking of God, Jesus speaks of a shepherd.

This understanding of one thing in terms of another penetrates even into the supposedly plain, no nonsense world of science. I recall how surprised I was when I first learned that scientists really have no clear idea of what an atom really looks like. Since the eighth grade I had studied the little diagrams in my science textbooks that showed atoms that looked like little solar systems with electrons buzzing around the nucleus like so many planets around the sun. And then to learn that this was no more than a hypothetical picture! An atom might well look like this textbook picture – if an atom could ever be “seen.” But the startling truth was that the drawings in my science textbook were no more than a possible picture that illustrated what scientists did know, an image that helps them to understand what they cannot see. An engineer friend offered a similar example. “All my life,” he said, “I have imagined electricity in the way I was taught. It is like a flowing river. The wider the river, the slower the flow of the stream; the narrower the river, the faster the flow.” He stopped for a moment and then went on: “But electricity isn’t a river. In fact, we don’t know exactly how it works.  But the river image helps us to understand and imagine it.” No one has ever “seen” electricity. Shocking, isn’t it? But we dare to describe it with a visual image that pictures it in a comprehensible way. No one has ever seen the inside of an atom; we use a metaphor to visualize what cannot be seen. And of course, no one has ever seen God. So Jesus uses metaphor, the image of a shepherd among many sheep, to help us see what cannot be seen.

The surface layer of truth covering this passage is the obvious realization that when Jesus spoke about high and deep things, he spoke in parable and metaphor. Pharisees and fundamentalists to the contrary, there is no other language to speak about that which we have not seen, indeed, cannot see. Jesus says time and again, “God is like…” That is, the God you cannot see can be “seen” in the image of that which you can and do see. But some religious people have forever been confusing the image with the truth beyond the image. In the Middle Ages, the pious took to worshipping relics, statues, and paintings of the holy instead of seeing past them to the holiness they imagined. And today, there are religious fundamentalists that make the Bible into a holy relic, an idol. The Bible is not God. The Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament are, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.[4]

Again, this reminder of the mystery of metaphorical words about God is only the surface of this matter. Dig below that layer of truth that Jesus spoke in images, and you come to a deeper and even richer layer of truth. You see, not only did Jesus speak about God in images; the deeper truth of Christian faith is the affirmation that Jesus who spoke in images is himself the image of God.[5] In his very person, in his way of being, in his life of love and sacrifice, Jesus Christ is human metaphor, the living image of the Divine. He is, as the Greeks might have it, an icon of the Father. Or, as an English professor might phrase it, Jesus is metaphor for God. In and through him, we “see” into the God who cannot be seen. Remember how, at the end of today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”[6]

To use yet another metaphor, we might understand Christ as the window through whom we see into God. What we see through Christ is God who is, like a good shepherd, boundless and self-sacrificing love. The Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gassett, once wrote an essay[7] reflecting on how to view modern art. He noted that such art is like a window through which we see a garden. If we focus our vision only or mostly on the window, on its frames and the glass, the garden beyond is blurred. But if we look through the window (whose function after all is to be transparent) to the garden in the distance, the garden comes into clear view and the window itself comes to serve its proper function, which is to be seen through. So we look through and beyond Christ himself to “imagine” God who is not after all a literal shepherd, but can be imagined through the picture window of a shepherd.

But the words are so old and familiar that we don’t always see through them. “The Lord is My Shepherd.”[8] “He will feed his flock like a shepherd.”[9] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[10] “My sheep hear my voice. I know them.”[11]

I confess that I have never seen God and the only place I have seen active shepherds is in the west bank of the Jordan Valley. Good shepherds lead their sheep tenderly one moment and discipline them with a staff the next. You and I know the world is full of places for sheep to get lost. And we know the world is full of wolves. Good shepherds watch over their sheep and care for them. I can see this whole metaphor-picture in my mind. And through it, like a window overlooking a garden, I can see something of the unseeable One who lies beyond. Frederick Buechner put it this way: “In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross – the way he carries me.’”[12]


[1] John 10:24b
[2] John 10:24c
[3] John 10:11
[4] The Book of Order. (W-4.4003b.) Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly. 2015/2017
[5] Colossians 1:15a
[6] John 10:30
[7] Ortega y Gassett, Jose. “The Dehumanization of Art” in The Dehumanization of Art and Culture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1956.
[8] Psalm 23:1a
[9] Isaiah 40:11a
[10] John 10:11
[11] John 10:30
[12] Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper and Row. 1973. p. 91