I spent the last two years serving Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. Somehow, someone thought it would be a good idea for me to preach on my first Reformation Sunday back in the Lutheran world, so here we are!
One of my first surprises at Westminster came during my first week when I stopped to look at their Reformation window in the balcony. It depicts four reformers — John Knox, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther — standing next to each other. While it’s a more peaceful and beautiful image in stained glass than it would be if we could ever have placed all four of them in the same room together, it made me feel welcome as a new pastor finding my way in a fairly unfamiliar denomination. It also set me wondering how welcoming our Lutheran tradition might feel to folks coming from other denominations.
When Reformation Sunday arrived, I was feeling a bit out of place; here I was, the lone Lutheran clergy person in a Presbyterian congregation, in the much-anticipated 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the reformation. Was I about to be schooled in their Reformed tradition? I was bracing for a healthy dose of Calvin and Knox, perhaps some predestination. What I got instead was a series of sermons that Sunday, and over the next several weeks, that spent more time talking explicitly (and positively, I might add) about Luther’s theology than I had ever heard in a series of Lutheran sermons. We covered the “solas” — how we are saved by grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, and all by Christ alone…
Those sermons also came with infusions of other reformers’ thinking and theology, setting up a dialogue amongst those who have gone before, working faithfully to refine and reform the thinking and actions of the universal Christian church. At the core was a notion that is important to the various Reformed traditions — Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda (the church reformed and always reforming). It was made abundantly clear that it is God doing the work, and we get to join in. This simple phrase, and all that it carries with it, fits with my Lutheran lens; it carries the work of the historic reformation into the present and calls us into the future that God has always had in mind for all of creation.
It’s the same reformative work that Jesus is up to in our gospel reading. While we’ve come to know it as “The Good Shepherd” text, there’s more to it than the portion that we heard today. Immediately preceding is the story of Jesus giving sight to a man who was born blind. This is a loaded scenario, to be sure; there’s plenty for a whole sermon series in that healing story. Jesus’ audience assumed the blindness was a result of sin; either the blind man or his parents must have done something to deserve his blindness. Jesus joins the reforming tradition of the prophets. He points out that while the man who was born blind couldn’t see physically, he had the clear spiritual vision to recognize Jesus as the good shepherd. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me,” he says.
In giving physical sight to a man born blind, Jesus heals a whole community and shares God’s expansive vision. It’s not instant; it will take time for the man to be fully accepted, but Jesus removes the stigma that has been projected onto this man by the religious leaders of his community. He will no longer be cast aside as a throw-away sinner. He has a new identity as a disciple of Jesus, one who knows and is known by the good shepherd, one who is saved by grace.
In addition to calling people to rethink the way they judge one another and to strive to become more inclusive, Jesus makes a radical claim that shakes people to their core. He reveals his true identity; he comes out as God in their very midst. “I am the gate for the sheep,” he says. “I am the good shepherd,” he claims. Here he is, the great I AM, in the flesh — God incarnate. Two dangerous words land him in hot water — I AM… For the religious bigwigs, this was blasphemy. Only God goes by the name “I AM,” and there’s no way God would become human and stoop to the point of giving sight to a blind man on the sabbath.
By claiming his identity as the good shepherd, he calls out the religious and political leaders of his time for falling short of their calling. The words of the prophet Ezekiel are echoing in their ears; the prophet decried the kings of old for looking after their own interests, essentially abandoning their people — the sheep of their fold — to line their pockets with gold and to feast off of the produce of the land and the labor of the people. Now, Jesus calls out the same short fallings in the leaders of his time and claims his place as the one who will lead God’s people to lush, green pastures, beside quiet waters. This is radical stuff!
Jesus is calling for reform. He’s picking up the mantle of the prophets, using the same imagery, making clear to those who have been too stubborn to see the vision that God has been laying out for them since the very beginning, that it’s time to reform. It’s time to turn away from the ruts they’ve gotten stuck in and to re-orient themselves toward God and God’s vision of shalom. What an amazing vision that is!
When we imagine Jesus as the gate of the sheep pen, he opens to invite the sheep in. Here, come this way! The door is wide open! Come, be a part of this beautiful, loving community, where we go out of our way to do everything we can to include everyone. He closes, forming a loving embrace that makes his sheep feel safe, secure, and loved. The only ones he would exclude are those who intend to do harm. When we imagine him as the good shepherd, he leads his sheep out into the wide world and encourages them to find life-giving pasture.
Friends, this is so much more than just a lovely pastoral painting with cute, fluffy sheep dotting the grassy hillside. Jesus is calling for major reform in the religion of his people, and he’s claiming his role as the one who will lead it. He’s claiming his identity as the Son of God. He’s making clear that he’s ready to give up his life for the ones he holds dear, for the ones who have been failed and cast aside by their faith community. At the center of this image are the words that summarize the spirit of John’s gospel: “I have come so that they may have life and have it abundantly.” No longer will Jesus let the laws of God or religion be used to restrict life; instead, they will be opened up to yield abundant life, as God always intended.
As if that’s not radical enough, Jesus takes it further: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” God’s love and grace will not be limited by the religious or secular constructs of humans. Not on Jesus’ watch! Whether Jesus is referring to gentiles, people of other faith traditions, or something else entirely, we don’t know; suffice it to say, he’s flinging those gates right off their hinges, inviting others in rather than trying to exclude anyone from the abundant love of God.
Dear Ones, the Good Shepherd is calling you to join in this life-giving reformation work! You’re invited to follow his voice as he calls you out to find and share the pasture of abundant life. It’s time to come out and claim our identity as beloved children of God, as lovers of ourselves, our neighbors, and God. It’s time to own our roles in the perpetuation of white privilege and the many broken systems that restrict life rather than sharing it abundantly. It’s time to use our privilege and power to dismantle the broken systems that yield that privilege and power.
It’s time to pray give us today our daily bread, remembering Martin Luther’s list of all this includes — food and clothing, home and property, work and income, a devoted family, an orderly community, good government, favorable weather, peace and health, a good name, and true friends and neighbors. It’s time to add to that list — things like healthcare, the end of patriarchy and misogyny, the will to give up systems that benefit some while oppressing others, eyes that see every L, G, B, T, Q, I, and A person, every person of every gender, every person of every skin color, every person of every faith tradition, as created in the beautiful image of God. As beloved children of God. As our dear family members.
Jesus lays down his life willingly for you, pouring out God’s abundant, extravagant love and grace from the wellspring that births all of creation. Jesus calls you by name, inviting you into God’s life-giving work of reformation that’s already going on all around us. Jesus flings the gates wide open and calls you to share this grace upon grace.
Thanks be to God! Amen.