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“The freedom of God as it is expressed in His being, word, and deed is the content of the Gospel.” Karl Barth
10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. John 10:11-16
Our good shepherd is dependable. We know that Christ will not abandon us. As Jesus said in other places, there is no length that he is unwilling to go to save one of his sheep. Unlike thieves, rogues and hired hands, Christ will not flee at the first sign of danger. Nor will he do something other than what is in the best interest of his sheep. It is comforting to have such a steadfast protector.
From our perspective this pasture is limited, our flock is easily identifiable and the soothing words of the shepherd appear to be for our benefit alone. Yet, the shepherd is free of our pasture. We are creatures limited by our environment, culture, perspectives, genetics, intelligence and finitude. This is not the case for the shepherd. Just because the shepherd herds us toward a certain pen or pasture, this does not mean that we inhabit the only pen and pasture in the world.
I thought we were special! How can there be other pastures? Isn’t there chaos and destruction outside our field? Does this mean that our shepherd accepts everyone? What about the damnation and judgment we expect from divine regions?
Recently there has been a lot of clamor about universalism, heaven and hell in Fundamentalist/Evangelical and post-evangelical circles. In many ways the recent Emmanuel Swedenborg and Jonathan Edwards evangelical online arguments about universalism are as useful to us as using our 21st century toothbrushes with ancient Roman toothpaste containing urine. With reactors in Japan melting, genocides, our ablest technology unable to stop tomorrow’s pandemic and families torn apart by an addicts inability to stop we are clearly in less control than we believe. Everyone should know better than to say we have discerned God’s intent. These arguments about the end are shown in the scheme of the universe and in what we can know about God to be completely irrelevant.
It does reveal that these arguments focus on an anthropological view toward an eschaton which none of us have truly experienced. At worst they limit the divine to an accountant. God becomes the one whom adds and subtracts our sins on an abacus. These sins often fall into some cultural paradigm of salvation. They become the parameters for the divine to scurry those of us who are safe into pearly gates, mansions and gold streets. Those whom are calculated to be wanting are hurled into an eternal damnation that looks suspiciously more like Dante’s poetry than anything in a Biblical text.
In the counter argument it is all about love. This Jesus looks like some burnt out hippie whom just wants everyone to get along. In this view Jesus has is obsessive belief in unity that is too utopian for the Christ that is constantly and unrepentantly a lawbreaker. He is one who probably sarcastically asked to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good?”
This, of course, is not the God of the holy texts. Nor is this a vision of the Good Shepherd. The divine is a lover whose choice is bent toward humanity. We find in the texts a God that looks similar to the one Nicolai Berdyaev found when he states, “God is the Lover, and he cannot and does not wish to exist without the loved one.” Christ shows little difference in his hope for redemption of all. From Samaritans, tax collectors, bibbers, gluttons, lepers, rich women, thieves and powerful religious leaders Christ yearns for wholeness in all whom cross his path. It is almost a pathological hope in all creation that makes Christ declare, “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”
It is this desire for wholeness by God that gives a passing glimpse from the cleft in the rock toward a divinity that we have assumed to know whole. In these moments of right size we are returned to Job’s potshards and Elijah’s cave. We hear once again in our mind the divine’s unacceptable response, “Who are you mortal to question God?”
This is the point where a theological anthropology meant to control the divine’s salvation is turned upon its head. We come face to face with a Shepherd whose freedom is uttered in the revolutionary words, “I have other pastures.”
Jesus’ words give us insight into the divine’s dip into our historical arcs. It opens our eyes to the creator’s story in our epochs as revealed in the Hebrew text and the books of the New Testament. Whether we glimpse it in Jonah’s resistance toward Ninevah’s ability to repent, or Peter’s divine vision of unclean animals we have one inescapable conclusion: God is free. It is the freedom of the divinity contained in the holy declarations, “I am who am” and “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” It pulls our vision away from our pastures to ones unknown and possibly unknowable.
Freedom is an inherently frightening concept for us biologically. It conjures images of chaos, uncertainy and lawlessness. Yet, this is not the vision of freedom that God or Christ imagine. Their vision sees the divine’s freedom as a necessary component for the freedom of humanity. In their vision freedom does not bring utopia or unity, but movement toward wholeness. It is a hope contained in Christ’s prayer when he asks, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Our freedom is intertwined in the divine’s free form poetry and creativity. We cannot know wholeness apart from averting our focus outside of ourselves to something greater. Our own freedom thrives within the divine’s freedom.
While we are human enough to focus our attention upon our own pasture, our particular flock and our sole shepherd we are reminded our words of comfort are sandwiched between Christ’s declaration of freedom. In this we are assured, if Christ is truly free then we may also claim the Good Shepherd as our own when we find ourselves outside other’s pastures.
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