Who are Jesus’ “other sheep not of this fold”?

picture of a flock of sheep
Jesus’ has other sheep too

We have now finished with resurrection appearances in the lectionary till next year and we move on to something else. For the remainder of the Easter season (Easter to Pentecost), the lectionary looks at the person and the work of Jesus, using readings from John’s Gospel.  The idea is to assist us as we, like Mary and the disciples, seek to understand what happened and is happening to us, the flock of the good shepherd. After the hymns and reading so far, you won’t be surprised to learn that this is called Good Shepherd Sunday. The 4th Sunday of Easter always is, so you have probably heard many sermons on this topic – if you come regularly, that will likely be at least one a year! Now you get to hear another one! This time about Jesus’ other sheep not of this fold.

Who was Jesus?

In the centuries since Jesus lived, died and rose, Christians have looked for ways to express, in words and images, who was and who is this person Jesus Christ. John, for example, starts his gospel by calling Jesus the Word, who was with God before all time and through whom all things came into being. And who became flesh. Often they used the images Jesus had taught them about himself. He told them that he was the vine and they were the branches. He told them that he was the bread of life and living water that would quench their thirst forever. And he taught them that he was their shepherd; they were his flock.

Early Christian Images of Jesus

Some of the earliest images of Jesus found in churches and tombs were not portrayals of Jesus on the cross, or the infant in the manger. Rather, they picture Jesus as the gentle shepherd. And what may be one of the earliest paintings of all depicts a very young Jesus, dressed in a short white tunic, who has draped a lamb over his shoulders. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:14)   In my research, I came across this quote from the book by J.W. Hanson,

an earAn early fresco showing Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carrying a goat over his shouldres
An image from a  Fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome dated about 200CE

“It is well known that from the end of the First to the end of the Fourth Century, the early Christians buried their dead…in subterranean galleries excavated in the soft rock that underlies Rome. …, some estimates say eight million bodies are known to have been buried between AD 72 and AD 410…the emblems and inscriptions are most suggestive. The principal device [image], scratched on slabs, carved on utensils and rings, and seen almost everywhere is the Good Shepherd…but most striking of all, he is sometimes found with a goat on his shoulder; which teaches us that even the wicked were at that early date regarded as objects of the Savior’s solicitude …”  Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s gospel?

Other sheep, other folds

When I knew I’d be preaching this Sunday, I read over the Gospel passage.  One section resonated with me. “ 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”. And every time I have read the passage since, the same sentences jumped out at me. Who are Jesus’ other sheep not of this fold?  What fold do they belong to?

Early Christian divisions

Given that Jesus was talking to a Jewish audience in 1st century Palestine. So it is reasonable to think that “this fold” was the Israelites  and the “other sheep” were the Gentiles, or maybe the Samaritans, but most likely both. Everyone who wasn’t an Israelite.  During the early days of the Christian era, the apostles hotly debated whether Gentiles could become Followers of the Way (as the early Christians were called) without first becoming Jews and following al the Jewish rules.

Defining Approved Teaching

Today, the Church is almost entirely Gentile, but we continue to struggle with the question of who is in and who is out.  Down through the ages attempts have been made to determine who is “orthodox” and who is not. The creeds were developed to express “orthodox” teachings and to dis-avow heresy. All church leaders got together to decide. This is why the two universal creeds, Apostles and Nicene say nothing about Jesus ministry, healing, miracles and teaching. These were not the questions under dispute. Sometimes this aspect of the faith is called the Great Comma. It’s the comma between “born of the virgin Mary” and “Suffered under Pontius Pilate” in the Apostles Creed. The discussions which occupied the early church about the nature of Christ and the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity seem rather arcane to us.Jesu, calling himself the Good Shepherd,

Today’s Divided Church

Our modern day divisions in the Church centre on issues like abortion, acceptance of the LGBTQ2 community and same sex marriage, women priests and such like. When we meet fellow Christians who believe differently from us, I hope we can remember that they, too, are members of Christ’s flock. In fact, as part of the Christian fold. I think if them as being in the same sheepfold as we are.  But I know not all of them would agree that I’m in that fold! And some of those who claim to be Christians (maybe only nominally) who have strayed from the fold. The Good shepherd seeks them out and brings them back.

In the fold or not?

What about those who are not in the Church? The Spiritual but not religious? Atheists and agnostics? Adherents to other religions? Is Jesus calling them in ways we cannot imagine? Can they be brought into the fold without having to be Christians first, just as we Gentiles have become Christian without being Jews? We do not know; but we should always remember that, as God says in one of the most lovely chapters (55) in Isaiah “My ways [are] higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts”.  In the Gospels we see that Jesus welcomed into his fold those whom his culture deemed unclean and / or outcast. Think of the  Samaritan woman at the well, healing the children of a Roman officer and a Syro-Phoenician woman, lepers, tax-collectors, and so on.  Who are we, his followers, to be exclusive?

Truly, the members who will one day constitute Jesus’ flock are beyond our imagining. There is a tremendous expansiveness to Jesus’ statement here. We do not know – for neither Jesus nor John tells us – just what are the limits of the fold Jesus describes. All we know is that God, whose name and nature is love “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”.

Will everyone be in the flock?

Will God bring everyone into the one flock? We do not and cannot know, any more than we know what happens to any of us when we die.  I just want to mention that the idea of Universal Salvation is not heretical, as many protestant, conservative Christians teach today.  Many of the earlier Fathers of the Church taught that God would bring everyone into the fold eventually.   Origen of Alexandria was one of these.  He wrote in about 225CE:  “that the goodness of God through Christ will restore his entire creation to one end, even his enemies being conquered and subdued.

Another belief which people in many church circles contest is that you can only be saved through the church and the sacraments, or through a declaration that “Jesus died for my sins”.  I’m not telling you what to believe, but to be honest I will tell you that I don’t believe this. There is a saying which has been attributed (erroneously, I believe) to St Augustine or (more likely) to the 20th century theologian Karl Rahner: “Many whom God has, the church does not have; and many whom the church has, God does not have”.  While I believe this, I cannot know who they are – who are we to judge anyone’s relationship with God?  There are a few non-Christians that I would be very surprised not to find in Christ’s one flock. Think about Gandhi, for example.

Who decides?

The good shepherd decides who is in the sheepfold, we do not. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16) The Pharisees and the disciples alike thought that they knew who the chosen ones of God were. But this shepherd is telling them, and telling us, that there will be “one flock, one shepherd”. It is God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, not we, who bring together that flock. After all. the other sheep respond to the voice of the Shepherd, not to the bleating of the flock.