1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
I don’t know how many of you read the bulletin ahead of time, but our scriptures for this morning are from 1 John and the Gospel of John. And I’m sure some of you are wondering: What’s the difference?
Most of the books in the New Testament of the Bible fall into two categories: gospels and letters; in church, we also use the word epistle. The gospels all narrate the events in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The other major category of books in the New Testament is epistles, or letters. Think of the letters of the Apostle Paul, such as Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, etc. Some epistles were written to congregations, while others were addressed to individuals.
So, the difference is that John, the Gospel of John, is an account of Jesus’ life and ministry, while the epistles of John—1 John, 2 John, and 3 John—are letters attributed to someone named John. In fact, at no point in the letters does the author identify himself. That’s also true for the Gospel of John.
Many scholars believe that the letters and the Gospel were written by two different people, though it is very likely that both were part of the same Christian community, possibly in the city of Ephesus. I accept this assertion, and if you’d like more information on this, I’d be happy to sit down and discuss it.
Why is this relevant? The Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John were written in a community in crisis. They were probably written in the last decade of the first century, or so—let’s say between the years 90 and 100. This is about the time that the name Christian is first applied to these early congregations.
Most of the members of these early congregations were born Jewish. It’s likely that they thought of themselves as faithful Jews when the congregations were first established. They thought of themselves as faithful Jews, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. That brought them into conflict with the Jewish religious leaders who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Eventually, the early Christians were expelled from the synagogues.
That tension is apparent in 1 John. The members of that congregation were likely related to the members of the synagogue who drove them out. There might have been pressure to renounce Jesus and rejoin the synagogue. At the same time, they were a religious minority in a much larger city that worshiped many gods and goddesses. Their beliefs didn’t make sense to anyone around them. So, 1 John is almost a sermon to a community that stands in the midst of conflict. It tells the congregation who Jesus was and how they should live, in light of the witness of scripture. Now hear our first reading.
1 John 3:16-24
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Sermon Truth and Action
Good morning! There has been so much turmoil in our nation over the last few weeks that it’s tough to figure out where I can speak a word of hope, a word of peace. So, I thought I would start with a story that is a little bit scary, but has maybe dropped out of the headlines.
A few weeks ago, Gallup, Inc.—the folks that do all sorts of opinion polling—released the results of a yearlong study of American religious participation. Did any of you hear about this? Every year, Gallup asks people across the country a series of questions about their religious life, including the question: Do you happen to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque? In the year 2020, that number fell to 47%.
Gallup has been asking this question since 1937 and this is the first time that church membership in the US has fallen below 50%. In fact, until the year 2000, that number hovered around 70%, but there’s been a steady decline in membership over the last twenty years.
Part of me says, “gee, thanks, Gallup!” As if we needed a survey to tell us that. But on another level, the data are helpful reminder that it’s not just us here at FPC, it’s everywhere. It’s worth noting that Gallup is asking about formal church membership. They’re not asking if people go to church or believe in God.
This survey was on my mind as I was studying today’s lesson from the Gospel of John. I think most of us have heard that Jesus is the good shepherd. There’s a lot of imagery of shepherding in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Even if most of us have never worked on a farm, much less tended sheep on an open pasture, we’re familiar with the imagery.
What really stands out for me, in light of this news from the Gallup survey is verse 16, in which Jesus says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” As much as we wring our hands over the decline in attendance and membership in our congregation, the truth is a little bit different than our worst fears and anxieties.
In survey after survey, the vast majority of Americans report that they believe in God. Something on the order of 80% of Americans believe in God. They just don’t believe in church. Not all of them, anyhow.
Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”
Yes, there are fewer young people in church these days. But an awful lot of them still believe in God. There are also an awful lot of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who still believe in God, but have given up on church.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”
The immediate context of this passage is the healing of a man who was born blind, which takes place in Chapter 9. In that story, as Jesus and the disciples are wandering through Jerusalem, they encounter a blind man. The disciples ask Jesus why the man was born blind; they thought his blindness was punishment for some sin, either that the man had committed or that his parents had committed. Jesus says that the man has not sinned—that’s not why the man is blind. So, Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, rubs the mud on the man’s eyes, and then tells the man to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash off the mud. After that, the man is healed.
This healing miracle, or sign, as it’s called in the Gospel of John, puts Jesus in direct conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. First, Jesus heals people on the Sabbath. That’s against the rules. Also, in the eyes of the religious authorities, the man who was born blind was clearly a sinner. Jesus should not have engaged with the man, especially not on the Sabbath.
Only God—or the Messiah—could possibly have healed the man. But for the religious authorities, Jesus can’t possibly be the Messiah because—wait for it—he engages with sinners and heals people on the Sabbath. The true Messiah would never do that!
By healing the blind man, Jesus should have restored the man to full participation in the community. In theory, the healing wiped away the idea that the man was blind because of his own sin or the sins of his parents. In theory. But the religious authorities couldn’t accept the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, so they kicked the blind man, well, the formerly blind man, out of the synagogue.
Jesus is speaking about this blind man when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” The formerly blind man is one of those sheep. He knows Jesus’ voice when he hears it. He once was blind, but now he sees. Because he testifies to the truth, he has been cast out of the synagogue, cut off from friends and family.
This is why I offered that history lesson before we heard our scripture readings this morning. The larger context is important here. Each of the gospels offers a narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, yet each gospel is slightly different. Each gospel reflects the realities of the community in which it was written. Each gospel places emphasis on the stories from Jesus’ ministry that resonate within the community where that gospel was composed.
The Gospel of John was written in a community of believers—possibly in Ephesus—who had been raised as faithful Jews, raised in the synagogue. Yet they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and for their belief, the religious authorities turned them out of the synagogue, too. This is the larger context for the Gospel of John and the epistles of John.
Simply put, the Gospel of John tells the people of this early Christian community that they are written into the story of Jesus; the Gospel is a witness to the life of Jesus and to their reality. First John, that is, the first epistle of John, tells the congregation how they are supposed to live into that reality.
In the first line of our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In the first line of 1 John, the writer of the letter states: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). That is, we know love by the example Jesus set for us; Jesus offered his earthly life so that the rest of us may have eternal life.
The author of the epistle drives the point home in verse 18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth and action. Jesus is the truth and we are called to action. We are called to love as Jesus loves. We are called to be Good Shepherds, too. And we are called to find the sheep in other sheepfolds. They’re out there, and they believe.
Those sheep might not recognize our voices, but they will recognize the voice of Jesus when we allow them to hear it. We will do this through our acts of love—for them and for the larger community. The other sheep don’t need to hear us preach at them, scold them, or explain things to them. They need us to offer relationship to them, and then listen to them. Once they have learned to trust us, or trust us again, then we will have the opportunity to explain how they are written into the story, too. May we all work together to be the Good Shepherds that Jesus calls us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, go to the world! Go forth and be good shepherds. Be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup, Inc., March 29, 2021, retrieved from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx  Jones.