The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Sheep? Sheeps? Sheepses?

Is there any such thing as individual salvation?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: John 10:11-18

For Sunday, April 29, 2012—Easter 4

Jesus really talks a lot in John. And he repeats himself a lot. And um, he can be kind of confusing sometimes.

One would assume that the Word would have a miraculous command of, you know, words—like putting them together to form clear and concise sentences, communicating powerful and transcendent meaning. Instead they often seem clumsy and obtuse.

Mixed Metaphors

For this week’s reading Jesus has already been confusing me about the sheep and the shepherd for ten verses. Is he the gatekeeper or the gate or the shepherd or what?

With verse eleven through eighteen it seems like he is trying again, taking another stab at the Shepherd/sheep metaphor. This time Jesus is for sure the Shepherd, the good shepherd—he repeats it several times. And he lays down his life for his sheep. Which he also repeats. He protects his sheep from the wolves.

OK. But, what I am trying to make sense of this week is this: is it the lost sheep or the sheep that Jesus lays down his life for?


Yes, the plural for a sheep is sheep. John’s gospel is infamously been pressed into the service of converting or saving individuals—for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son….

Well, you know how it goes. It is the verse that induces the sinner’s prayer, which results in personal salvation—the salvation of one of the lost sheep. The story of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to find the one, however, is not in the book of John.

Focusing on the Flock

John’s Jesus seems concerned with the flock, even stating that there are others that are not of this fold, they are in another fold, but he will bring all the folds together to form one flock.

Jesus in John is all about saving the flock, protecting the flock—not the lone sheep. Jesus is about bringing every sheep into the one true flock.

The Hardest Question

Is there any such thing as individual salvation? So that’s my THQ, but hear me out: Can you say you like Jesus but you don’t like the church? Can you be into spirituality but not religion? I don’t go to church but I am a Christian—really? I don’t think so.

In my evangelical days a popular retort when someone responded to being hounded by an individual salvation sales pitch with, “Of course I am a Christian, I go to church,” was, “Just because you are in a garage that doesn’t make you a car!” Zing! Got ya! While zippy, I think the analogy is lacking.

Going to church, being part of the Church, being in the community of Christ followers is exactly what makes you a Christian. Being in the Beloved Community is what salvation looks like. Right?

 Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Drew Downs says:

    Great response! I too find the sheep talk so confusing, as the metaphor is applied so inconsistently. I find this version particularly strange, as the metaphor when read without Jesus is ridiculous. How does one lay down his life to protect and gather the sheep? Wouldn’t the wolf kill the one and, leaderless, the sheep would scatter? How does the sacrifice match up with the message of unifying? Not His best work–sounds like a stretch. But the message of unifying, of salvation in unity (and not individualism) is powerful and really relevant.

  2. Rev. Russell says:

    Thanks Drew, I never thought of the incongruity of the shepherds sacrifice making the sheep more vulnerable–I’m stealing that for Sunday.

  3. KM says:

    My sense is that “lay down his life” correlates to “doesn’t make his own life the leading survival priority so he can put full energy into protecting and intevening on behalf of others” in the same way that his other rabbinical phrases take the seed of a principle and represent it in an extreme way (e.g. “I don’t have family — unless you mean my disciples” and “cut that eye out!”).

    So I don’t find it necessary to read the sheep stories in terms of the shepherd’s death (and sheep’s leaderlessness) rather than his willingness to step into danger and intervene on behalf of the weak when needed. Assuming that the wolf trumps the man isn’t something I’d do as easily as it sounds you both can. Which is fine.

    Larger issue: I seee a misjudgment in superimposing on contemporary fragmented institutional local congregations the organic cohesion of a flock of anything. Even a metaphorical flock. Congregational rules about who’s in, who’s out, and conditions for their participation do not match the union, synthesis, or adaptability of flocks. They’re not equivalent to each other either. Institutions aren’t designed as flocks, and don’t function that way.

    Further, superimposing the flock on the local church necessarily implies that anyone ostracized from local churches is also ostracized from the God of the churches. I don’t believe that for a second. Even if believing it eliminated an “individual salvation” John doesn’t emphasize, it introduces an individual damnation/ex-communication that implies its inverse and resolves nothing. I don’t agree that we are saved together but damned individually. And congregations disfellowship/ex-communicate individually, not collectively.

    Stronger theology of the Whole is very important for our era. So I’d suggest that community and communion (the state of common being, not the rite) are essential features of the flock Jesus describes in these passages. I’d also note that local churches often resist community and communion in favor of states more easily controlled, less chaotic/higher-ordered, and less ego-demanding. I’m influenced by M. Scott Peck’s descriptions of community; they match the organic models Jesus used so much.

    Our local fellowships may well point us to the flock, but they aren’t it. That’s my take.

  4. Drew Downs says:

    Good thoughts, KM. I was just noticing the same theme. I was transfixed on the direct analogy that John has Jesus demonstrate: “I am the good shepherd.” The deep Christological connection between dying to one’s self and Jesus’s physical death is fraught with tension. Particularly since this felt more like Jesus forcing an analogy to both the crucifixion and unifying the people to fit when it didn’t match the logistics.

    Now that I’m thinking about it again, the differentiation between the good shepherd and the hired hand is that the good shepherd lays down his life and the hired hand runs away. That, I get, but the repercussion of the hired hand running is that the wolf scatters the flock. However, Jesus doesn’t say what happens to the flock when the good shepherd is there. Perhaps the binding of the flock is implied in the personal sacrifice of the shepherd, but I’m not sure the analogy adheres to that. Even if what is essential is that the good shepherd is willing to die for the flock, isn’t his death likely to do the same as if he ran? The gospel’s ending in the locked room seems to suggest something like that did happen.

    I’m also motivated by Jesus’s intention to use metaphors that his people would understand to reveal the nature of GOD. This one feels less revealing and more ambiguous than others. Then again, I could be expecting too much out of this one.

    And Russell, I’d be honored!

  5. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Great question and great conversation! Here’s my take:

    I can’t help but think of that line near the end of Pulp Fiction:

    “Or maybe it [Ezekiel 25:17] means that you’re the righteous man, and I’m the shepherd, and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now I’d like that, but you see that…ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”

    In a story packed with terribly twisted characters prone to senseless acts of violence, here’s this guy (Jules) who suddenly has an epiphany and decides to “walk the earth,” trying “real hard to be the good shepherd.”

    I think maybe Jules won’t find much walking the earth but will find something in a community where everyone else is “trying real hard.” The Pulp Fiction characters remind me that I (and all of us) are closer to them than we’d like to admit. Sure, most of us aren’t delusional gangsters running around waving guns. But we’re tainted, just as they are.

    So to answer your question (in part), yep, absolutely I need that community of people taking refuge together under the protective cover of the Good Shepherd. I’m trying real hard to be LIKE the Good Shepherd. I can’t possibly do that simply wandering around walking the earth, though it strikes a romantic chord and appeals to the Post-Modern pilgrim in me. But for better or for worse, I’m staying in the community, and I’m encouraging others to do likewise. And if I ever leave, it will be temporary, looking for people like Jules, reminding them that they aren’t alone in their struggle of “trying real hard.” Does that signify salvation? Yea, I think it does, but in the sense of rounding up all of us Jules-types and giving us a place to come to terms with what it means to “try real hard.” Crappy things may still happen in that community, but I’d rather be there than on some abandoned road mumbling to myself about pancakes, robberies, briefcases, and boxing matches. Or put another way, I think that a responsibility of receiving the Good Shepherd’s salvation is being in that broken community and sharing with others my gifts and my struggles…and my mistakes.

    I won’t be referencing Pulp Fiction in tomorrow’s sermon. But I sure would like to…we need a messy reminder that we are on the same playing field as Jules. We need the Good Shepherd’s community, but we also need that community to remember where it came from, who delivered it, and the privilege of being in it in the first place.

    Thanks again for the great question and the great conversation…and the opportunity to ramble a bit.

  6. Rev Keith says:

    I was with you all the way, until nearly the end. It is not ‘either-or’ it is ‘both-and’. The one Church comprises many churches of many disciples – people seeking to learn and follow Jesus. however being among the people who go to church is not necessarily part of the body of Christ. I could go and hangout in a Mall wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers but it wouldnt make me a teenage mall-rat.

    I understand the atheist Richard Dawkins speaks of the beauty of the language in the Authorised Version, and of how he enjoys hearing carols sung at Christmas, perhaps other hymns too, but that does not make him a Christian and does not promise him salvation.

    John does seem to have Jesus, at this time with pharisees, talking about flock rather than the one sheep astray. Being a Christian without being a member of the Church is impossible, the Church is God’s people – it is Holy, catholic (with a small c), and apostolic. However it is also possible to be in a church regularly without being in the one Church, having never committed ones life to Christ. the disciples were told there job was to make more disciples (Gt Commission) and surely that is what the church’s purpose still is – gather broken people…heal them…nurture them…scatter them to gather more broken people.

  7. Alton O 'Bryan says:

    The segue is that a car that is cared for in a garage runs better, lasts longer and is not as apt to get stolen. Perhaps using that imagery Jesus would be the good mechanic and overhead doors. Besides individual salvation seems to be a contradiction in terms, since it is only by the church, the community of God that the Word has been preserved, by the power of the Holy Spirit. One might conceivably start out individually, but there are so many references in the NT to being the Church, over 150, that to insist otherwise is bad sheepmanship.

How do you read?