|1 John 3:16-24
By Bruce G. Epperly
In many congregations, today is celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday. God’s all-embracing care is celebrated, whether we are enjoying a bountiful feast or walking through the darkest valley. The passages also invite us to consider the extent of God’s love: is salvation, wholeness, and healing, contingent on a specific, conscious relationship with Jesus Christ on our part or does it depend on God’s love for us, and no prerequisites in terms of belief or even behavior?
Acts 4 continues the conversation regarding the healing of a man crippled from birth. In addressing the religious authorities and Jewish community, Peter proclaims the power of Jesus’ name. Invoking Jesus, in the language of quantum physics and cosmology, creates a field of resonance or power which can transform lives. Whether our concern is personal anxiety, fear, timidity, or the demonic, the name of Jesus provides a protective circle and the energy of new life. Jesus is the good shepherd whose voice stills our fears and provides us with overflowing love, even in times of challenge and conflict. (Psalm 23)
Acts 4 raises a key issue involving the scope of salvation. What does Peter mean when he states unequivocally: “Salvation can be found in no one else but Jesus. Throughout the world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” Well, preacher, if you read it, you have to preach it! Do you believe this passage literally? If not, are you willing to declare yourself publicly from the pulpit? Surveys indicate that the majority of Christians – progressive, moderate, evangelical – believe non-Christians can be saved, but publicly many Christians – including mainline pastors – are still in the closet. Many pastors are afraid to affirm that “love wins” for fear that their orthodoxy will be questioned. Moreover, to stand against scriptural texts may seem to some congregants as the height of pastoral arrogance. Of course, love has always been controversial – just look at the ministry of Jesus, the hospitality of the earthy church, and the reconciling love of Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa. To some, you can love too much – they believe it’s a good thing that “love loses” when it comes to non-believers, heretics, and doubters.
The gospel reading suggests an alternative understanding of salvation. After proclaiming his love for his sheep – and his willingness to lay down his life for them – Jesus states that “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” While this passage can be interpreted in a number of ways, it clearly notes that there are many flocks – and that the flock of Jesus’ explicit followers or followers of a particular religious fashion, are not the only subjects of God’s love. Diversity of paths is not a fall from grace, but an opportunity for growth and adventure.
Mark’s Gospel tells of the disciples’ satisfaction when they silenced a healer who was not a part of their community. They expected accolades from Jesus; instead, he told them not to silence this “strange” healer; after all, if he is not opposing us and he is healing others, then he is on our side! (Mark 10:38-41) Could he have been one of the “other sheep?” Peter’s words draw lines, Jesus’ words and actions welcome otherness and build bridges which in Jesus’ ministry embraced tax collectors, women, persons suffering from diseases that rendered them unclean, “unimportant children,” and even those who crucified him.
The Letter of John describes an all-embracing love, which has no enemies and reaches out to everyone in need. This love leads to abundant living: connected with God, we have everything we need and everything we ask for. Our prayers are answered because they are grounded in love and congruent with God’s vision for us and the world. Our prayers have stature – or size – to quote my teacher Bernard Loomer; they embrace otherness, they go beyond us-them and me and mine, they bless others, and identify our well-being with the well-being of others. As another of my teachers, David Ray Griffin, proclaimed in class some 35 years ago, “God wants us to enjoy; God wants us all to enjoy.”
I believe we need to take the path of Jesus and John – the path of the good shepherd – rather than Peter in today’s passage. We can preach God’s good news and invite people to commit their lives to Jesus without parochialism or exclusivism. Commitment to the way of Jesus brings salvation – it connects, heals, and embraces – and welcomes others into God’s realm of Shalom. This is a gospel worth proclaiming and a salvation that welcomes all of us.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats.