I am the good shepherd. . . . 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.
Sunday after Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed together. “We believe,” it begins. And so we say our statement of faith, what we believe about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Towards the end, in that section about the Holy Spirit, one of the beliefs we say week in and week out is this: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
One flock. One shepherd.
Just look around! In our not-so-large city of 93,064 residents (according to the 2010 census—not including winter visitors), according to ChurchFinder.com, there are 96 churches—and ChurchFinder doesn’t include Mormon churches. That’s more than one Catholic or Protestant church per thousand residents!
Jesus says, “One flock, one shepherd.” We say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Yet ChurchFinder says that in Yuma alone there are 96 flocks.
Do these conflicting claims make anyone nervous? Is anyone sort of shifting in their seats right now?
Some of you know already that this seat-shifting nervousness is part of my own journey to the Episcopal Church.
I started out on my Christian journey in high school. My parents were divorcing and I was wrestling through my own set of issues founded upon adolescent angst; and I found myself drawn to a Bible study.
I had a lot of questions, of course. My friends didn’t know any answers. My parents were too busy navigating their way through their own set of issues. If nothing else, this Bible study seemed to point me in the right direction when no one else did—or, maybe better, when no one else could. It didn’t provide all the answers I sought; but it wrestled with many of the same serious questions I was wrestling with—questions about God, sin, salvation, truth, being, and belief.
So, through this Bible study I began to ask questions about things like baptism, Communion, and joining a church.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” the Bible study leaders told me. “Churches are too wrapped up in their own issues. They’ve established traditions. These traditions lead to rituals. And rituals produce religiosity. You don’t need religiosity; you only need Christ—Christianity. Churches just get in the way.”
So they said. Still, as I read through the Bible—with the Bible study but increasingly more so on my own—I couldn’t reason around all that’s in the Bible about community—including organized community worship. It’s all over the place! In both the Old and New Testaments! We are nowhere called to be followers of Christ by ourselves; but everywhere we hear words like, koinonia—fellowship; oikos—household of faith; and ekklesia—congregation, or assembly.
So, I concluded, like it or not, regardless of what my Bible study leaders were saying, I needed to become part of a church!
Well, I don’t need to go into too many more details now. Suffice that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after some twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.
Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here too, let me tell you; and I’m sure many of you have similar stories; but, for now, just the clincher: the final domino to fall:
There we were, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence. Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones felt we had a handle on it better than almost anyone else.
One of these truths we were quite sure of was the Nicene Creed. And so, like Episcopalians do most every Sunday, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess the faith weekly in its words.
And every Sunday we’d come to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” and I’d look around. And I’d see twenty-five or so people saying the same thing. And I’d think to myself,
“No we don’t! We believe that we’ve got a better handle on the truth than most other Christians in the world; and so we don’t even want to identify with them. ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”
Which led me into a long, arduous personal study of Church history, with a specific question in mind: What churches today maintain a tangible connection to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church—in other words, to the early Church? And my conclusion was (and is) that the main Christian bodies in America today connected to the early Church are Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Episcopal Church.
And, as you can see, I chose the Episcopal Church.
Now, have you ever tried to seek unity in the (wider) Church? It’s not easy.
On the surface it sounds like a good idea, sure. But what happens when we get into the details?
What about celebrating a community Eucharist? We Episcopalians do something along these lines from time to time, actually—every time we celebrate the Eucharist at a wedding, funeral, or (in my own recent experience) school chapel. In each of these settings, any number of different faith perspectives—or no faith at all—is represented.
And, I can tell you, confusion is the name of the game.
You’ve got good Catholics, for instance, who come forward to the rail because they don’t want to look like they’re making some kind of protest. But then they put their arms across their chests. There’s nothing wrong with this gesture, really; but when they do this they’re not actually communing with Christ and his people.
Then there are the Methodists who feel that wine with alcohol is sinful, and that grape juice—preferably Welch’s grape juice (for the Welch family is a great benefactor of the Methodist Church)—is the only acceptable blood of Christ; and so they abstain from partaking of the chalice.
Baptists are weirded out simply by the idea of coming forward to a rail; and, anyway, for them there’s nothing sacramental about Communion. So they just stay in their seats.
And so on. Seeking unity in the Church—the universal Church (which is what the word catholic means)—is not easy. In fact, the tendency seems to be just the opposite: not unity but division. A part of a congregation finds a problem, a faction forms, and before you know it a group ends up breaking away and forming another, independent congregation, completely dissociating themselves from the first congregation.
Yet Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” It is going to happen.
Leaving us with a question: how?
Well, the short of it is, I don’t know how. I look around and I see all the controversies and arguments, all the differences and divisions within the Church, and (confession) it’s difficult for me to believe Jesus’s promise.
But it’s like anything else that’s presently a mess. (Oh, did I just say the Church is a mess? Yeah, I did.) It begins with you, as an individual; and with us, a corporate body.
As individuals and as a corporate body of disciples, then:
We need to view Jesus as our good shepherd.
What comes to mind when you hear the word good? If this word brings quality to mind, you’re not alone. We describe things as being good or bad, one or the other. Someone might report, “I found some really good bananas at the grocery store today”; and we have a pretty good idea what that person means.
But the Greek word here for good—kalos—has very little to do with quality. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s not so simple as to say, “I’m not a bad shepherd.” Rather, it has a much fuller meaning, like model, or ideal—something like Plato’s forms.
When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he means us to hear that he is ordered, sound, noble, true, competent, faithful, and praiseworthy.
He is everything the hired hand—the substitute—is not.
He knows you by name; and he has your best interest at heart.
But not just your name; not just your interests! Look around you. Jesus is the good shepherd to every face you see here today. He knows each person here by name. He has each person’s best interests at heart.
And it doesn’t stop there! Think of all the people you don’t see here today, the billions of unknown names and unfamiliar faces carrying on their lives around the world today. Jesus knows each of them intimately, just as he knows us. He is their good shepherd too.
Also, we need to view Jesus as our one and only shepherd.
When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he says the, meaning one and only. It’s a deliberate definite article. Jesus is our one and only model shepherd. Not Buddha; not Mohammed; not Joseph Smith; not Gandhi; not Jim Mathes; not Tim True, but only Jesus.
Yeah, I just went there. People like me—pastors; spiritual leaders—need to get their egos out of the way and let Jesus truly be in charge! There’s one shepherd! Now, there might be some sheep who are better leaders than other sheep; but they’re still sheep!
And therefore, we need to see ourselves as part of one flock—whose main focus is the good shepherd.
We are all sheep together, following one leader, one leader’s vision. We’re not called to do it independently! We are called to walk the valley of the shadow of death with others; and to cry out to Christ—bleat to the good shepherd—when one of our fellow sheep wanders away into trouble or uncertainty.
There will be one flock, one shepherd.
Do you truly believe this? Do you truly believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?