One Flock, One Shepherd

One Flock, One Shepherd

Homily for Easter 4

May 8, 2022

One Flock, One Shepherd

Homily for May 8, 2022
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:22–30

Dr. Christopher Watkins, a Cambridge University graduate now on faculty at a university in Australia, in a 2019 podcast interview said this about the age-old philosophical conundrum of “the one and the many,” and also the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

For Heraclitus [an ancient Greek philosopher], the most fundamental reality of the universe is the “many”: the universe is chaotic, it’s fractured, it’s disordered.  For Parmenides [a colleague of Heraclitus], it’s completely the opposite: if you dig down deep enough what you get is unity and oneness.  It might sound abstract… but it has implications for how we think about the world and our life.  Should we ultimately expect to find coherence?  Or is the world, and therefore ourselves, fundamentally chaotic?...  What the Christian doctrine of the Trinity does is “diagonalize” that opposition.  If you start with a choice between the one and the many, you’re never going to get to the Bible, because the reality the Bible presents is richer and more complex than either position will allow… God is neither simply one nor is God simply many…  So God as Trinity is not saying that God is fundamentally one and a little bit many, or God is fundamentally many and a little bit one.  Or even that God is half one and half many.  “Diagonalization” shows both the one and the many to be reductionist, almost heresies, of the Trinity, taking a part of a complex trinitarian reality and presenting it as the whole.

I realize some might be thinking: “Trinity Sunday is next month.  Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is what we call ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’  Why are you telling us about the Trinity and not about Jesus the Good Shepherd?”  If you’re thinking that, allow me to say: “The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd comes to us from John’s Gospel.  And we can’t do justice to John’s Gospel without first considering the context, in the first-century Hellenic world, of ‘the one and the many.’”  Let me explain.

Tree of Life, Tapestry by William Morris (Photo Credit: Lawrence OP)

Those familiar with St. John’s Gospel, upon hearing of “the one and the many,” may recall (for example) John’s image of the vine and the branches: “I am the vine,” says Jesus (the one), “you are the branches,” he tells his disciples (the many).  Or you may recall the words of John’s opening Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (there is the one), “all things came into being through him” (the many).  Or from John chapter 17, “Father… that they may all be one… as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may be completely one” (17:23–21).

The “the one and the many” plays out likewise in the images of the Good Shepherd in John chapter 10, from which today’s Gospel comes:

  • The flock may have many sheep, yet there is “one shepherd” (10:16)
  • The sheepfold holds many, yet Jesus is the one “gate” (10:9)
  • Though there may be many sheep, yet the Shepherd calls each by name (10:3)
  • Though the wolf may “scatter” (10:12), yet the Good Shepherd gathers
  • Though there may be other sheep, yet he will bring them also so that “there will be one flock” (10:16)
  • And in this morning’s Gospel Jesus drives home the “diagonal” nature of God when he says, “The Father and I”—ostensibly two individuals—“are one.” (10:30)

I wonder if John’s imagery of the Good Shepherd and his language of “the one and the many,” which was influential in the Church’s discovery of the doctrine of the Trinity, might be of help to us today as we consider our cultural fault lines.  Are we (for example) individuals who can refuse a vaccine, or are we members of whole who bear responsibility for the well-being of that whole?  Is our nation to have open borders to let all in, or are we to have a border wall to keep others out?  To what extent is race something that makes us different, or are we to look past race to see the ways in which we might be the same?  As we live in a society polarized by these issues, I wonder if John—who refuses to be pigeon-holed—offers an alternative way to be.  John’s image of the one vine with many branches, by his one God “through whom all things came into being,” and by “The Father and I are one,” John “diagonalizes” into another reality “that is richer and more complex,” a reality that—if we could but follow this Shepherd more closely and manifest him more fully in our lives– might bear witness to those around us of a different, more life-giving way.

With our Good Shepherd there is one flock and one shepherd.  There may be “other sheep who do not belong to this fold” (10:16), but he will “bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (10:16).  In this flock, though we are many sheep, yet “he calls his own sheep by name” (10:3).  I pray that as we go forth today, we may remember that with our Shepherd there is another way, a “diagonal” that cuts through the fault lines of our current landscape; the Good Shepherd offers a richer and more complex reality than simple dichotomies allow.  I wonder if, with his help, by our very lives we might be bear witness to this Shepherd and his “way,” so that we might with him help to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

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