Yesterday I was at the first communion of my nephew, Michael, who is also my godson. I am not an outstanding godfather, especially when it comes to gifts— from his godfather, Michael got a nice card and $20, which I told him could only be used to buy Bibles—but I did OK with the first gift I bought for him: an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd— one of those brightly colored Salvadoran folk pieces, with a very inviting Jesus, surrounded by all his sheep.
It’s the Jesus I want Michael to know and love. It’s the Jesus I have known and loved, the Jesus who cares for the sheep, who defends them from the wolves, who gives up everything—“lays down his life”—for them. And I want Michael to know that he is one of Jesus’ irreplaceable sheep.
One of the biblical roots of that warm and inviting image is today’s passage from John. Yet the Good Shepherd speaking today in John’s gospel is anything warm and inviting: Just before this passage Jesus has accused his opponents the Pharisees of lacking spiritual sight, of willfully refusing to see God’s work in Jesus in the healing of the man blind from birth. Just after this passage, Jesus’ confrontation with his Jewish counterparts will become more intense, with Jesus saying finally that they are not his sheep.
We can hear the edge in the parable, in Jesus’ talk of “hired hands” and “wolves”: “We’re talking about you,” the Christians of John’s community are saying to their opponents. “There is one flock and one shepherd, one Way, Truth, and Life.” And that shepherd is Jesus. It’s a fairly exclusivist message, one that echoes Peter’s words in Acts: “There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
That’s not a very politically correct or even sensitive thing to say nowadays in our religiously diverse world and society: I admit that several times I’ve read that “way, truth, and life” passage at funerals, with its line that “no one comes the Father except through me,” and cringed a bit, wondering what those present who do not share Christian faith were receiving it.
That exclusive claim of salvation through Jesus alone has a troubled history of “enforcement” of all kinds, and Christians have even used it on each other, and there is no shortage of religious exclusivism driving conflict all over the world. Nowadays thoughtful Christians prefer dialogue over debate. Maybe there is even broad agreement in polite society that religions are more or less equal, or, as scholar of religion Karen Armstrong has said, “all religions teach the same”— compassion, or the Golden Rule, or something like it.
It made me wonder for a second yesterday why we bothered with that First Communion, or why we are encouraging our five young women as they seek confirmation. Might we be better off just teaching them compassion, the basics of living together as human beings, and let go of the specificity and exclusivity of the Christian story, along with the checkered history that has come with it?
And yet: There is something about Jesus that still matters. There is something about this particular story of God in the world, something about specific and unique about a God who dives into God’s own creation, takes flesh and becomes human, something revelatory about the pattern of dying and rising, of “laying down one’s life” for another, however we understand that, that would be lost if we boiled it down even to the finest of virtues.
I guess I don’t agree that all religions teach the same thing, even if some of our conclusions about the basic requirements of living together echo one another. I certainly have a different way of leaning in to the reality of religious pluralism than those ancient Christians, or some Christians today. I am confident that God desires the salvation of all people, and has made generous provision to fulfill that desire in ways and means I do not know.
But even if all humankind finally arrived at the perfection of compassion or the universal observance of the Golden Rule, and even if I may wish for a better, more generous Christian history, or a better, more generous Christian church today, still I would want my godson to know Jesus the Good Shepherd, to love Jesus, to choose to be his disciple, and for Michael to discover his own role in God’s work in Jesus Christ.
I know for me that means giving him every opportunity to encounter again and again what God has done for us in Jesus, every chance to choose Christ as his Way, Truth, and Life, so that the story of Jesus continues to be told and so that the mystery of Christ can come to greater fullness, in Michael, and his sisters, Addie and Kirsten, and in Signe and Alice and Kelly and Sydney and Julia-Clare and those they will be confirmed with, in all the young people of this parish, not to mention in all of us.