God’s Private Arrangements

God’s Private Arrangements

Cynthia Jarvis
Pastor, Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church
Philadelphia

 Sermon to the
2002 Covenant Conference
Communion Worship, November 8, 2002

Isaiah 44:24-45:7
John 10:7-16

 “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.”

“The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him,” “Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way to salvation.” Thus reads the Confession of 1967, reads Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, reads the second affirmation of the so-called Confessing Church movement. It is what the church has always claimed, ever since Paul put pen to papyrus. It is what most of us have confessed as Presbyterians from the moment we first believed. Yet the spirit in which Christ alone is confessed as Lord of all has varied, throughout the ages, from graceful invitation to arrogant judgment.

These days in our part of Christ’s church, the spirit partakes more of the latter sentiment. The confession of Christ has come to be used as a judgment, first directed not against those outside the church, but turned against those within the church whose stance on social issues is presumed to coincide with a wrong-headed doctrine of Christ. The claim is this: that apart from a public profession of faith affirming Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, human beings are headed toward everlasting separation from God and, it is hoped, toward the door leading out of the Presbyterian Church.

The real villain in relation to confessing Christ today, of course, is the gospel of pluralism, which theological liberals are said to espouse. Many do. Such a stance can tend toward the empty-headed belief exemplified in the sixties by Charlie Brown’s statement, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.” From this standpoint (or lack thereof), following Jesus in a pluralistic world involves making no distinctions among truth claims because Jesus would not want us to offend anyone in his name.

Rather, this evening, our text from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel invites us into a much more complex conversation than can be had either in a congregation signed on to the Confessing Church movement or amid cocktail party talk about spirituality. “I have other sheep,” said Jesus, “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.”

To help us listen for the meaning of these words, we would do well to recall the community first addressed by the parable of the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel. As we all know, much in the fourth gospel has been read, on the surface, as anti-Semitic. When John refers with derision to “the Jews,” we cringe because we know how these words have been used in history and even up to this present day. But if we investigate the context of John’s gospel, we discover that in referring to “the Jews,” John is referring specifically to religious authorities of the day, those who condemned the community that believed Jesus to be God’s Word made flesh.

Furthermore, if we take the characters of John’s world and read them into the characters of this parable, the thieves and bandits are said to be those who pretend to be the saviors of Israel, while the hirelings are those who have been placed in authority over the people (the religious leaders of the day) but who have no real care for the people. Then there are the other sheep that do not belong to this fold, the Gentiles [us!], whom this good shepherd will bring into the flock.

Two thousand years later, by and large, Gentiles have become the identifiable flock of this shepherd, raising — for some — the burning question: what will eternally become of those who are visibly and confessionally outside the flock? Does the Good Shepherd, whom we know and confess to be Jesus Christ, have dealings with other sheep still, in ways we can neither see nor affirm, but with whom — given God’s greater purposes — we will be made one flock when the kingdom comes?

The honest answer would be, “Who knows?” or, as Calvin said in regard to our desire to know more about God than God has chosen to reveal, “When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious.”

More to the point, said a friend, rather than asking after the world’s salvation, the better question would be, “Is there any manifestation of God’s saving grace and activity within the visible believing community these days?” However, precisely because there are so many in the church eager to condemn every other sheep not of this flock to hell in a hand-basket, not to mention their fellow sheep whose confession of Christ is not properly exclusive, we must attempt to say more.

Implicit in these verses from John, in the first place, is the freedom of God, who brings into relationship with God whomever God wills. Chock it up to sibling rivalry, but human beings have always wanted to limit God’s freedom by way of our boundaries, placing God on our side of the ecclesial and theological and moral fence, while presuming God to be against all others. When John wrote his gospel, such was the case vis-à-vis Jews in the Temple and Jews who had become followers of Jesus and Gentiles. These verses in John’s gospel judge the boundary drawn by the Temple authorities against followers of Jesus because they could not believe God had acted in Jesus Christ, even as these same words assert the ultimate lack of boundary between the then current followers of Christ (who were Jews) and Gentiles who were being claimed by God’s activity beyond the visible believing fellowship. This God, who once had chosen a particular people, now was revealed to some of those same people anew in Jesus Christ and, in the end, would be known by others way outside the bounds of those first chosen . . . by us!

“God’s action and God’s freedom are never more plainly misunderstood,” wrote Paul Lehmann, “than by those who suppose that God has acted and does act in a certain way and cannot, therefore, always also act in other ways. Of course God is bound to what God does and has done. But [God] is not bound by what God has done.” Putting Lehmann’s words in laymen’s terms, he means God will be consistent in activity and revelation with who we know God to be in Jesus Christ (there is not going to be some wild, new revelation clean contrary to the God we know in Jesus Christ); but God’s freedom to be in relationship with other sheep is not bound by what God has done with us.

So as we look for God’s activity in the world, you and I look to and through Jesus Christ alone in order to glimpse God’s hand acting still. Here is where we differ with Charlie Brown. Not everything goes. If we look through Jesus Christ to see what God is doing, Osama bin Laden may be sincere, but we must make the judgment that he is sincerely misguided in his claims about God, as are many others in this age and every age.

Still, given God’s freedom, we also may, through Christ, recognize God’s activity in the life of one or in the fellowship of a community that does not know Christ and surely does not confess him as Lord. “After one has settled the credentials of believing,” again wrote Paul Lehmann, “one always sooner or later is bound to encounter another human being who had never been baptized and appears to be totally unaware of, or indifferent to, the koinonia, yet who behaves like the Lord’s anointed. This may be one of God’s happy private arrangements in order to keep baptism from becoming an advertising campaign.” This also means that what God is up to with every other sheep on this planet is potentially, or in actuality, a relationship destined for the one flock that will be gathered eternally.

So the next question often is, “Then why be Christian?” If God is finally going to gather us all up in one big happy family eternally, what difference does being Christian make here and now? Going back to John’s parable, the difference is that we dwell among those who know the voice of the shepherd and who live, in the midst of a broken world, as a flock consciously and confidently under his care and guidance. The point is surely not church membership, nor is it even an orthodox confession. It is a relationship which turns our energy, intelligence, imagination and love, by way of this Good Shepherd, toward what “God is doing in the world to make and to keep human life human.”

Though make no mistake: “The difference between those who are inside and outside the koinonia [the fellowship-creating reality of Christ’s love] is not the difference of being inside and outside of what God is doing in the world. It is not a difference distinguished from being outside of Christ and so under judgment as distinguished from being inside with Christ and so under grace.” We are all under both! The difference being Christian makes is the difference that comes from knowing the One who accompanies us and who has promised to lead us, along with the rest of the world he came to save, home.

So finally, how are we to live in relation to these other sheep, to people of different faiths or of no faith at all? Karl Barth, when he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in April of 1962, said that his reading of scripture led him to believe Christ died for all and so came to reconcile all the world to God. “I do not preach universal salvation,” he is quoted as saying; “What I say is that I cannot exclude the possibility that God would save all . . . at the judgment.” Or as Barbara Grizzuti Harrison put it, “I cannot believe in a God who is less merciful than I am.”

Though given the fact that we cannot even live mercifully in relation to the sheep in our own flock, I am presently taken with the image of monks in the Dominican Cloister of San Marco where each was assigned a cell on whose wall was painted a fresco of Christ’s life by Fra Angelico. “How might it change one’s life to live, day after day,” Harrison asks, “in close white quarters with a fresco of a crucified Christ, blood spurting out of His side . . . or with a placid infant in the manger, the animals alert and knowing, the angels rejoicing . . . or with the risen Christ extending a benediction, His radiant blessing casting out all fear?” Yet no one depiction of Christ told the truth, it always has seemed to me, until the doors of the cells were opened and each monk came out into the common courtyard with the Christ he was given to see for the sake of the whole. Only on common ground, in the common life, did Christ’s body take shape and form and reality.

So too it is for us, in the cells we know as our part of Christ’s church. Only as we find one another in a common courtyard, and bear witness to the Christ formed in our minds and hearts and lives by the proclamation of the gospel we have heard all of our lives, will the voice of the Good Shepherd be heard above the fray and followed.

Only as we face one another on the vast common plane of what God is doing to make and keep human life human in the world, as the question of our own humanity toward the other is up, then we are those who must live believing that the other is one with whom God may just have private arrangements! No doubt, what we do or say, the way we bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ may be part of God’s hidden agenda with the other; but so also may the other be part of God’s hidden agenda with us. And if what Jesus said in John’s gospel is true, if in the end there will be one flock and one shepherd, then we ought behave toward one another as though we were stuck with each other, around one table, eternally — because the nub of the confession that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all is that, in Him, we already are! Thanks be to God.

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