Our readings today, from John’s gospel and his first letter, reveal some of the most profound truths that we find in John’s writings.
John’s gospel is often referred to as the Theological gospel, the purpose of his theology being to reveal that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and to encourage belief in him as John says at the end of his Gospel: “ … these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20: 31
In the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the framework is provided by the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of God is like…. – in John’s Gospel it is the person of Jesus himself that provides the entire framework and we see a profound example of this in the I AM statements that we see right through the gospel of John: I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE; I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD; I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE; I AM THE VINE; I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE; I AM THE GATE; I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD. We actually used these in our simple Bible studies with Iranian and Iraqi Muslim families in the Detention Centre who had asked to know more of Jesus. Each week we would take one of these statements: JESUS; THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD; JESUS; THE BREAD OF LIFE; etc. because in these statements Jesus is telling us who he is and how we relate to him – I am the Good Shepherd, you are my beloved sheep/I am the Vine, you are the branches.
The disciples believed that Jesus was The Messiah but the issue was that they really didn’t know what that meant. The Jewish religious leaders, for all their reading of the Torah and the OT scriptures, had no idea what the Messiah was really coming to do either.. largely because he came, not only to redeem them but also the world, to redeem that ‘other flock’, the universal flock, all of his sheep… and really that kind of omnipotent vision was not on their radar.. no one had any idea what believing in Jesus as Messiah, which means the Anointed One, meant until after his death and resurrection. John in his Gospel is attempting to explain, to help us to understand who the Messiah is and the I AM statements are a big part of that.
Jesus' lengthy exploration of what it means to be, and who is, the good shepherd is a response to a group of Pharisees (verse1 of this chapter: “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber”…) The prophet Ezekiel had told them in the OT that God was angry with shepherds who took advantage of and abandoned their sheep. God declared, "I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God." (Ezekiel 34:11, 15). Jesus’ identification as the Good Shepherd probably comes from this passage in Ezekiel. We see this picture of a loving, caring God/shepherd also in Psalm 23.
Note the contrast: the hired servant doesn’t care about the sheep and leaves them to the wolves, the good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep…For a literal shepherd with a literal flock of course, the shepherd's death would have spelled disaster for the sheep, the loss of the one who cares for them and protects them. In the parable of the lost sheep and the 99 it seems like this also; when the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes after the lost one, I’ve thought well then that leaves the 99 vulnerable to the wolf, but of course the point Jesus is making is that he cares about each individual person … there is no ‘ah well, I’ve still got a bunch of people there so it doesn’t matter if a few drop off the edges, we are just faceless, nameless sheep and he doesn’t notice if a few of us disappear!… Jesus is saying he knows you intimately and will come looking for you if you wander off, he will notice that you are missing..
The emphasis of the Good Shepherd is the laying down of his life for his sheep. He says this over and over … the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. And I lay down my life… because I lay down my life, and it runs passionately into the statement, almost frenetically, “and I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, I must save them.. I must… and they will hear me..” For Jesus, his ‘other sheep’ was everyone outside the Jewish fold - the Gentiles; and also everyone outside the religious, respectable fold – the ‘sinners’ as the gospels call them… for us, it is everyone outside the church fold; we are his flock but he has other sheep also and he must bring them …"There shall be one flock, one shepherd."
Laying down our lives of course is not just about death, its about giving up ‘ourselves’ for Him, for those we love, for the ‘other flock’.
This ANZAC weekend, we are remembering a horrific tragedy that occurred 100 years ago on the shores of Gallipoli and surrounds. Thousands upon thousands of men were just butchered every day, a greater hell-hole one cannot imagine… sheep indeed led to the slaughter. Who saw or noticed individual boys, individual lives, individual deaths.. Who could imagine the Good Shepherd in such a hellish place, but there were shepherds of that horrific war who became the face and the heart of the Good Shepherd among those soldiers, even in that place, who assured them that they were known intimately in life and death, part of the Good Shepherd’s flock.
The Anzac chaplains, or padres as we call them in the army, accompanied their given battalions to Gallipoli, to the killing fields of France and to the Middle East. Their task? – to maintain the morale of the men, to care for their spiritual needs, to bury the dead, to gather the name tags and paybooks from the dead soldiers and to send them with a letter to their families. They were not allowed to carry weapons, because they were not soldiers even though they held an officer’s rank, and they supposedly were not allowed on the battle front but were to remain at the rear of the lines. Well very few obeyed that… Many of them were killed, usually because they were moving among the battlefield after each battle trying to rescue injured soldiers and gather their name tags and belongings… many of them received the Military Cross and other decorations.
Arguably the most popular and famous of the WWI padres was Chaplain William McKenzie of the Salvation Army; six feet two he was an imposing man with a booming voice and a booming laugh! He was one of the first to land on the shores of Gallipoli with his battalion. The Good Shepherd, as Jesus told us, does not run away when his sheep are in danger from the wolves. Chaplain McKenzie would refuse to stay behind the lines, saying “where my boys go, I go!” and was known for going with his boys when they were ordered to attack the Turkish trenches. The Chaplains were not allowed to carry weapons, so there are many reports from ‘his boys’ who recorded that they would be running with machine gun fire coming from everywhere and they would look across and see the burly figure of Fighting Mac, as they called him, running beside them, nothing in his hands just running with them… After some of the biggest battles of the Gallipoli campaign, the Battle of the Nek and the Battle of Lone Pine, McKenzie with many of the other chaplains spent days and nights crawling around the Battle fields, dragging wounded out from underneath piles of dead and gathering name tags and belongings from their boys, and burying as many of them as they could fine.
Before the infamous Battle of Lone Pine, the men pleaded with Mac to stay behind in the safety of the trenches. After all as a non-combatant he was not even supposed to be in the front lines and on numerous occasions he had been ordered to the rear by the commanding officers. He replied with a now famous quote:
“Boys, I have lived with you, I’ve preached to you and I’ve prayed with you. Do you think I’m now afraid to die with you?” As the Australians rose out of the trenches and began running towards the Turkish machine guns, Chaplain McKenzie grabbed a shovel and ran beside them. He performed deeds that made him appear to the men as almost superhuman.. he was never seriously injured but had bullet holes constantly in his hat and clothes and knicking his ears and survived each time… He was buried alive at least twice by exploding shells, only to be dug out as cheerful and smiling as ever. Once he was dug free by frantic soldiers and calmly brushed the dirt aside and roared ‘Hallelujah!’ Then led the men around him in a rousing hymn of thanksgiving to God!
A large number of these young men of course were not particularly Christian and at first on the ships over did not want to have anything to do with the Chaplains and religion, but in that dreadful place, surrounded by constant death, the chaplains became the reassurance for them that they were not forgotten by God, that He was indeed always with his Sheep, that He cared for them , that there was hope..
Colonel Unsworth wrote this about Chaplain McKenzie: “The men tell such strange stories of his heroism. I scarcely dare relate the half of them. But these brave fellows love him with a strange, wonderful love. I have never seen anything like it before, and proud must be the man who has made such a conquest. They speak much of his nerve but more of his real religion – of his prayer meetings with them when death was near. Their fear for his safety was so great that again and again they placed their own bodies between him and the threatening shrapnel.”
After the war, McKenzie went on to be a missionary in China for ten years but suffered greatly from constant nightmares and screaming at night that would go on for hours. He would later write that he looked back upon these days as the best and the worst of his life – the best because of the numbers of young men he saw come to faith in the Good Shepherd. The worst because of the senseless carnage and slaughter that so incensed and disgusted him (Stringer 2002).
One of the most profound truths in our gospel reading today is that Jesus compares the relationship and mutual knowledge he shares with us to the relationship and intimate knowledge he shares with his heavenly Father…we know him – his divinity, his beauty, his faithfulness, his love for us… he lays down his life, but he takes it up again. There is resurrection and therefore hope, he is always with us, never abandoning us…we know him, and in that knowledge we can trust him.. wherever we are – in our own personal battle fields or in places like Syria and Iraq or the killing fields of Gallipoli – he will always be there – he has promised, he will notice if any of us are missing – he is the Good Shepherd.