A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Can 144,000 Sheep Be Wrong?
May 11, 2003
Easter 3 John 10:11-16
Today's gospel passage has been one of the most abused of sacred texts. I remember once attending a meeting of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was a communion service, so called, but for me lacked any sense of belonging. The sermon was on the text from John 10. We were told that the sheep Jesus referred to were the sons of Jehovah, those who would inherit Heaven. The other sheep were those who would inherit the earth, that is a new earth. Not as good as heaven, but not bad. There would be only 144,000 inheriting heaven, obviously due to space restrictions. Something like predestined ticketed seats.
After this scintillating and encouraging sermon, the communion began. It was explained maybe for my benefit that only if you were one of the 144,000 should you take the bread and wine. The congregation remained in their seats and first the plate of bread and then the cup were passed around from person to person. Each person held the plate and the cup for a moment, didn't take from them, and then passed them on to the next person. Having always been a bit of a stirrer, when the cup came to me I lifted it to my mouth to smell, and you should have seen the whole place turn around. Some of them must have had eyes in the back of their heads. The most gullible amongst them would have thought, what's the chance of that. Only 144,000 in all of history and we have one here in our little meeting in a small hall in a small suburb of Sydney, Australia. It was an extraordinary experience. Even the insiders were outsiders.
When the communion is used to mark one person as different or more holy than another it has lost the radically inclusive meaning it had from its inception. Its meant to be communion. Communion means participation. It means sharing in common. It speaks of belonging. Its certainly not an opportunity to exclude, whether because of age, stage or situation.
I came across a wonderful church web site during the week. It was the site for an Episcopal church in Morristown Newark. It has a street bill board which states, "We are one family; male, female, children, seniors, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, christian, non christian, dreamer, questioner, in recovery, partnered, single, skeptic." Now that's a definition of communion! They have a banner hanging in the church which declares, "This is a come as you are party."
At Church of the Redeemer, there is no age or instruction requirement to receive communion. Both grape juice and wine are consecrated to fully include children and people in recovery. Now there's an idea for inclusive communion. (http://redeemermorristown.org) The governance of Redeemer Church attempts to model the same inclusiveness. It is attempting to get away from the usual church structure which works a little like the sheep and wolves analogy.
A Democracy: Three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner.
A Republic: The flock gets to vote for which wolves vote on dinner.
A Constitutional Republic: Voting on dinner is expressly forbidden, and the sheep are armed.
Federal Government: The means by which the sheep will be fooled into voting for a Democracy
The parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd challenges exclusive notions of belonging and narrow church structures. It comes in the context of the healing of a blind man. The account makes clear that his disability made him an outsider, less holy than the religious people. His healing led only to religious quibbles. Jesus as shepherd was about radically including those who had no place. It was far more than physical healing. It was about truly belonging.
The Acts healing is no less astonishing, and just as political. The miracle was not just that the lame man was standing. The miracle was that he was standing there alongside Peter and John in the courtroom. He hadn't been arrested. He was standing alongside them in solidarity, as exhibit a for resurrection freedom. This was their message. Resurrection brings the freedom to be, to worship, to be a citizen despite the best efforts of political and religious elitists. This healing, this wholeness, this belonging, this freedom is available to all people.
The sheep analogy is unfortunate in some ways. It fails to capture the need for common sense and intellectually rigorous opinions and worldviews. It fails to capture the freedom of being and worshipping as an individual. It fails to capture any of the ideal of democratic church structures and governance.
There is a great cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a group of sheep grazing in a field. In the middle of the herd, one sheep is standing up on his back legs. With his front legs raised in the air, he proclaims: "Wait! Wait! Listen to me! We do not have to be just sheep!"
So I stand in this pulpit today. With arms in the air, I say to you we don't have to be sheep! The Christianity I inherited makes little sense to me anymore. I choose to leave it behind. I do not have to be a sheep. The narrowness of the teaching, the hierarchies of its structures, the prejudice of its God - all these I choose to leave behind. I hope you do too.
I hope you find yourself free in the church and free out of the church, to be true to your self and to your calling. This is the radically inclusive, wonderfully affirming, life giving Easter message. This is the life modelled by the Good Shepherd.