When we read Luke’s description of the early church, it’s easy to become either nostalgic—“Those were the good old days . . .” or depressed—“What are we doing wrong?” Before falling prey to either reaction, however, it’s worth considering that we now live in a culture that no longer assumes church attendance is either expected or obligatory. That is, people no longer go to church because they feel they should. Instead, they give their time, energy, and resources to those activities and institutions that make a real difference in their lives.
So perhaps we should ask people what they want, what they need, even what they crave from their faith communities. My guess is that the variety of answers we receive will have one thing in common: we want life, real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life characterized by fulfilment, generosity, and love. Which is exactly what Jesus promises and stated in the passage of scripture John 10. Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” There are still “thieves and bandits” promising life to our people but failing to deliver. They can set the context for the way humans teach other in the way they live.
In response to the false promise of acceptance— if you become thin or beautiful enough— that animates so many diet fads, Jesus instead promises unconditional acceptance. In response to the false promise of escape in the face of hardship that drives many to drugs and alcohol, the church is called to offer a community that shares all in common — including joys and suffering. In response to the false promise that contentment comes by having more stuff, we from the church are reminded that “the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The audience craving abundant life has never been larger. Let’s fulfil our call from God and offer it to all creation.
The quest for good leadership is a universal struggle. Good leaders bring life, peace, and joy. Poor leaders don’t. Some even seek power for no other reason than to control and fleece those under their (lack of) care. In his Gospel, John presents Jesus as the ultimate leader who loves and brings life to his followers, who, in turn, are called to lead and love those under their care.
As the image teaches and we hear in the scriptures, Jesus is our good shepherd who enters through the gate with the gatekeeper’s permission. Jesus is the gate through which the sheep enter to find safety and protection, and go out to find pasture. Jesus has the interests of God’s people at heart, unlike the thieves who “steal, kill, and destroy” the sheep. Bad leaders sacrifice the sheep on the altar of their own greed, power-hunger, or need for control. Jesus sacrifices himself for the sheep that they may find abundant life.
It’s a simple test of leadership: who gets sacrificed, the sheep or the shepherd? Every person is a leader in some sense, and we are all called to be “good shepherds” who lay down our lives for our “sheep.” I am often saddened by the leadership shown by those we elect in Australia and New Zealand. I am saddened by the extent that others are sacrificed or damaged by the need for control, power, or material gain. We elect people and allow them to be less “shepherd” and more “thief.” We too may be more thief in the lives we live and espouse in our communities. But, insofar as we lay aside our needs, insofar as we embrace sacrifice so that others don’t have to, we will be those whom God has called to be good shepherds.
The example Jesus gave calls us to be shepherds of his flock, shepherds of the whole of his creation. And only in this way can we, and those we lead, find life. Does the way we live bring life or are we to but thieves in the night. That is something we need to wrestle with constantly during this journey we call our own life.