“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.”
I want to start today by telling you a couple of stories.
The first is about a young man who grew up not far from here. He was born in Neptune and graduated from Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin in 2005. He enlisted in the Army — the infantry — and went to Iraq. He did not come home alive. While checking an abandoned house for hidden explosives, he found some. The bomb blast killed him.
No less a distinguished personage than retired General Colin Powell talked about him, in an interview on Meet the Press. General Powell told of paging through a copy of the New Yorker magazine, when he came upon a photo of the young man’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. The photographer had captured a heart-rending scene: the soldier’s mother on her knees, her head resting on her son’s gravestone.
General Powell told of how, in the picture, he could read the inscription on the tombstone, how the soldier had been awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. But there was something else carved into the white marble: a crescent and a star. And there was his name: Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.
Yes, he was a Muslim. And yes, he died for America, land of his birth.
The second is the story of a young woman from Chicago: how, during a terrible winter a couple years ago, she noticed something strange. She’d taken to going around the city with a stocking cap pulled down over her head and a scarf wrapped around her neck. For some strange reason, she noticed that people started treating her differently. As she tells the story:
“I didn’t understand what was happening at first. People started talking to me more. Women would speak to me like I’d known them forever. Men would look at me like I was actually approachable. And I was made to feel like I was actually from this planet. Maybe I was finally fitting in? Maybe I was no longer self-conscious about my unique dress code and my face lacking makeup?”
You see, this young woman — this young American — is a Muslim. Her name is Leena Suleiman. She wears the hijab, the distinctive Muslim headscarf — all the time. In the cold weather, she pulled the stocking cap right over top of it, and wrapped her scarf around the bottom of it. As soon as she did, she noticed the difference: how random people she encountered on the street began treating her as a human being, rather than someone to be shunned and feared.
To be fair, Leena noticed a change the other way, too. The Muslim taxi drivers who used to greet her warmly and sometimes give her free rides, became cold and businesslike. Her fellow Muslim women, passing her on the sidewalk wearing their own hijabs, no longer made eye contact, no longer exchanged the salaam of greeting. The way Leena had bundled herself up against the winter cold, she looked like a Muslim no longer.
Even in a sophisticated modern nation like our own, folks can get pretty tribal sometimes. And nowhere is that tribalism more evident than in this matter of religious differences. There’s us and there’s them: and not a terribly large expanse of common ground between us.
There’s nothing new about that, especially. It was true in the time of Jesus as well. Remember his parable of the Good Samaritan: what a shocking thing it was that the Samaritan traveling salesman stopped to help the injured Jew, after the priest and the Levite had already passed him by. Then there’s that story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. She comes there to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she asks. She’s astonished that this rabbi even talks to her. He hails from a different tribe: but to him, that doesn’t seem to matter.
There’s one thing you can count on, about Jesus in the Gospels: it’s as though the tribes don’t exist for him. There are no divisions. To him, everyone is a child of God.
There are some Christians who take their natural tribalism and try to extend it beyond this human life. They pounce on certain sayings of Jesus — like “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me,” from John 14:6 — and use them to draw deep lines in the sand. It’s sad, they say, that someone who believes differently from us isn’t going to heaven. They haven’t accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They haven’t prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. (If you look closely, you just may see the beginnings of a smile at the corners of their mouth, as they condemn their fellow human beings to perdition.)
But, then again, there are those exclusive-sounding sayings of Jesus. It’s like “What part of ‘No one comes to the Father except through me” don’t you understand?”
There’s the line from Peter’s speech in Acts 4:11-12, in which he says:
“This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
The problem with that sort of thinking is, there’s another saying of Jesus that seems to give another impression. It’s from the passage we read this morning, John 10:11-18. Jesus has just shared that beautiful description of himself: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
How homey and beautiful that is, how warm and welcoming! Jesus the Good Shepherd loves his flock so much, he’ll even give up his life for them. He’ll herd the animals into the sheepfold — that circular stone enclosure where the animals hunker down for the night. There’s only one entrance to the sheepfold, a gap in the low wall. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus lays himself down right across the entrance. Even if this vigilant shepherd has fallen asleep, the footfalls of the predator will rouse him. He will awake and risk his life to drive the marauder off!
Not long after that comes the strange saying I mentioned earlier. Jesus has been talking about how “I know my own and my own know me.” He lives in a shepherding culture, so most of his people have been around sheep before. They know sheep don’t respond well to being driven from behind, as cowboys drive cattle. Sheep would much rather follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice. They expect their shepherd to be out in front of them, leading the way, rather than behind them, shouting and carrying on.
It’s in the midst of all this talk about “I know my own and my own know me” that Jesus drops this bombshell:
“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.”
So, who are these “other sheep that do not belong to this fold?” Remember, this is before the climactic events of crucifixion and resurrection. By no stretch of the imagination can we pretend there’s anything resembling a Christian church just yet. Jesus and his little band are just a rabbi and his students, wandering the countryside. Nobody, but nobody in that group of followers has ever heard the word “Christian,” let alone used it to describe themselves.
But still, Jesus sounds an awful lot like he’s talking about a limited salvation — except, that is, for those “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Who could they possibly be?
Well, the biblical scholars have puzzled over that. They’ve gone up one side of that saying and come back down the other. They’ve picked it up and looked at it every which way. And still they can’t figure it out – not for certain.
There are some experts who say the other sheep are the Jewish people who haven’t gotten with the program, who haven’t committed themselves as members of his disciples. In this school of thought, the promise of the other flock is a sort of retroactive offer of salvation, a grandfathering-in of the Jewish people. There are others who say Jesus is speaking to his own Jewish disciples, but looking ahead to the Gentile mission — something his followers couldn’t have the slightest idea about, because it hasn’t happened yet (and won’t, until after the resurrection and the miracle of Pentecost). There are still others who speculate that maybe the other flock refers to an eclectic group of people who are somehow in tune with the Holy Spirit and who will receive a free pass on Judgment Day, for no reason other than the benevolent grace of God.
Christian preacher and writer Rob Bell tells of the time his church put on an art exhibition. One of the paintings had a quote from Mahatma Gandhi as part it, which seemed to be fine with most of the people who walked through the exhibition. Except for one: the anonymous person who tacked up a handwritten note next to the painting that read: “Reality check: Gandhi’s in hell!”
There are some Christians out there who think that way all the time, who even seem to revel in it. Jesus is benevolent and loving, but at a certain point he’s gonna up and slam the door. Once he does, there’s no opening it, not ever again.
Somehow — you may be thinking to yourself, about now — there must be some sort of compromise between these two extreme views. On the one hand are the Universalists, who believe everyone’s going to be saved, no matter what. On the other hand are the extreme sectarians, who believe that only the members of their own particular tribe — those who think and pray and worship exactly like themselves — are going to make it.
The compromise, I believe, is in this mysterious little saying of Jesus, the one about the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Nowhere does Jesus elaborate. Nowhere else does he say more about who these people are, or what they’ve done in order to prove themselves faithful. They belong to his other flock, that’s all. And only Jesus knows who they are.
Are they a select group of spiritual adepts — the Gandhis and the Dalai Lamas of this world? Or, are they a more widely-dispersed group, composed of millions of earnest practitioners of other world religions — who worship the same God as we, perhaps by a different name, perhaps without knowing it? Maybe they’ve met Jesus, after all…
I think we need to get clear, in our understanding, about who the risen Christ is. Is he simply a first-century Galilean rabbi, a good man, who got on the wrong side of the Romans, was crucified, then miraculously came back from death? Or is he somehow far bigger, now, than merely an ex-convict with nail-holes in his hands and feet? Is he, perhaps, as those Byzantine mosaics portray him: the cosmic ruler of earth and heaven, the Christ Pantocrator, who lives beyond space and time, but gazes down benevolently upon this earth?
If that larger, cosmic view of Christ is true, then are you really willing to put limits on what he can do, to declare with certainty who he can relate to and who he cannot? I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all comfortable with tying down the risen Lord in this way.
There’s a Presbyterian mission story I like a great deal. It dates from the time just after the Berlin Wall fell, when the so-called Iron Curtain that separated Russia from the West just disappeared. Way up in Alaska, the Presbytery of Yukon realized they had a unique evangelistic opportunity.
Within their bounds there lived a number of native peoples. Among them was the variety of Eskimo people known as Yupiks. Their villages exist on either side of the Bering Strait: some in Russia, others in the U.S. During the days of the Cold War, they were prevented from getting in their kayaks and paddling across to visit their distant cousins, who spoke the same language and hunted the same species of seals and whales. Once the Berlin Wall came down, in far-off Germany travel was again permitted.
The Presbyterian Yupiks put together an expedition to visit their cousins in Siberia. There’d been no contact between them for more than a generation. Even in the pre-Communist days, the Russian Orthodox Church had never penetrated that far north, so there were whole villages of people who’d never been evangelized, who’d never heard the name of Jesus Christ.
After a conversation with the Yupik Christians from Alaska, after hearing from them about Jesus Christ — who died, was raised and is risen to rule the earth — a Russian Yupik woman remarked: “My grandmother always talked to someone, but until now, I have never known his name.”
Maybe that’s what Jesus means by “other sheep who are not of this fold.” You and I simply have no conception of how far his reach extends across this earth and down through the centuries. Now that our Lord no longer walks the earth with sandaled feet, do we dare to dictate to him whose heart he may or may not choose to warm?
Here’s the bottom line. New Testament teachings like “no one comes to the Father but through me” and “There is no other name under heaven… by which we must be saved” give us no reason to expect that God will be generous with the gift of salvation. There’s no way, reading sayings like these, that you or I can count on the Almighty extending grace to human beings who don’t name themselves as followers of Christ — or, who even practice other religions. But on the other hand, it would be awfully brash of us to presume that we can tell God what to do. Our own human tendency to be tribal — to divide the human race up into little specialized groupings and judge each one accordingly — is in no way what God does. God sees deep into the human heart in ways you or I could never do, not in our wildest dreams.
Many years ago, the great theologian Karl Barth paid a visit to Princeton Theological Seminary. It was way before my time there, but I heard tell. One student asked this most famous of Reformed theologians: “Sir, don’t you think God has revealed himself in other religions and not only in Christianity?
Barth’s answer surprised everyone. “No,” Barth replied, “God has not revealed himself in any religion, including Christianity. God has revealed himself in his Son.”
At the end of the day, my friends, we are not saved by our religion. We are never saved by any religion. We are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, who now — as Holy Spirit — is both here and everywhere, in earth and in heaven.
Someone has used the illustration of a group of mountain climbers, making their way up to the summit. They know where they’re going. There’s a trail they’re following, carefully marked by past generations. Without a doubt it leads to the destination. The thing those climbers don’t know is that there are other climbers making their way up the peak at the same time, coming from the far side of the mountain. Those climbers, too, have their own time-tested pathways and their own guides. Should the two parties meet at the summit, would either one dare to condemn the other for choosing the wrong path?
I refuse to place any boundaries on whom the risen Lord may choose to save. If the cosmic Christ should choose to redeem everyone, who am I to complain? Scripture gives me no reason to expect that he will, but likewise scripture gives me no cause to rule it out, either. There’s only one supreme judge of earth and heaven, and — thank God — it’s not me.
All you or I can do — from our side of the mountain — is gratefully receive the promises of scripture. They mark the trail upward. They lay out a trustworthy path to salvation through repentance from sin and reliance on the grace of Christ. We can — and should — share those promises, gladly and lovingly, with others. As for what happens next, we leave that to a loving God.
Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.