Easter 4 – Good Shepherd Sunday
Acts Chapter 2 verses 42 – 47:
Gospel: John Chapter 10 verses 1 - 10
Maggie Cogan - Reader
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
How are our lives? How would we describe our lives today? What would we say? How would we describe it? Is it great, frightening, exciting, dull, is everything in order or a total mess? Or does it seem at the moment that we are going nowhere?
Some people would say their life is not all that bad, but if you pressed them, they would probably admit it’s not that great either, too many frustrations and failures and disappointments along the way. Others would describe their life as dull, boring, or routine. We all face frustration and failure and disappointment in life. And we all face periods of life that seem dreary and dull. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have trouble.” But he also said, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Sunday we call “Good Shepherd” Sunday. The Gospel focus for this particular Sunday is always the tenth chapter of John, but each year, the lectionary cycle gives us a different part of this chapter to consider. This year, we get to look at Jesus as the gate for the sheep, offering the only way in and out of the sheepfold. One of the most beautiful expressions Jesus used to describe himself was that of the Good Shepherd of the sheep. Jesus spoke about us rising above the disappointments and failures of life, rising above the dullness and dreariness that so many experience. Jesus spoke about finding a life of true satisfaction and fulfilment. He spoke about living life to the fullest, abundant and free. We’re only given one life to live here on planet earth. And it might seem a long time to us, but in the light of eternity life is really quite brief. It would be a shame not to live the short life we are given to the fullest.
So how do we do that, bearing in mind we are in lockdown and the world is suffering a pandemic? Where do we find true satisfaction in life, certainly not from material things or riches or wealth. We all know people who have plenty of material things but still lead miserable lives, so where is this full, abundant life found? At the end of chapter 9 we can read of the man who had been born blind, whom Jesus healed, was walking a few paces behind Jesus. He was still getting used to being able to see – and there was so much to see! He’d spent his whole life depending on smell and touch and hearing just to know what was within reach and it was almost too much for him. The whole world seemed new and strange as it does for us today. The man who could now see smiled as he listened to Jesus. He knew what the Pharisees did not. He knew this was the Lord, the Chosen One, the Messiah. Jesus continued to say, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus repeated it.
But to understand the images Jesus uses in this reading, we need to remember how they fit into the larger story. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t just start talking about sheep out of the blue one day. His words about sheep and shepherds were directed toward his close followers and his critics, the religious leaders of the day. Jesus told these riddles about sheep and shepherds and thieves and strangers to explain how giving sight to a man, who had never before seen anything in his entire life, showed the huge difference between true believers and false prophets. To make his point, Jesus drew on one of the most common images in scripture: sheep following their shepherd. Sheep are mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible, more than any other animal. Sheep were important as sources of wool, milk, and meat, and throughout the Bible, sheep served as symbols for God’s people. God is portrayed as the shepherd of his chosen flock in the prophetic words of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and most famously in the 23rd Psalm. Why sheep? Well, they do share certain characteristics with people, especially people who claim to be set apart, belonging to one Good Shepherd. Sheep are followers. They will follow another sheep, even to slaughter, or over a cliff. Lambs are conditioned from birth to follow older sheep. Following isn’t something sheep have to think about, it’s an instinct. They can be trained to follow a distinctive call, or a unique melody played on a pipe. A sheep can learn to recognize its own name and come when it is called. Sheep will follow a shepherd they know well, but they are more inclined to follow other sheep. Sheep remember faces. They recognize faces of other sheep, and even of humans who work with them regularly. Sheep remember who treats them well, and even more, they remember who handles them harshly. Sheep will allow a gentle shepherd to come close, but they will balk and run from a person who has handled them roughly in the past. Sheep find safety in numbers. Since predators attack the outliers, sheep stick closely together. When grazing, sheep will keep at least 4-5 other sheep in view. They are very social animals, and the instinct to flock is strong. Sheep are surprisingly dirty animals. Lambs may look cute and fluffy on greeting cards, but the reality of adult sheep is that all kinds of mud and muck get stuck in their wool, clumping together in nasty lumps. Good shepherds know the value of wool just before shearing time.
It’s not a very flattering picture, when you think about the people of God being compared to sheep. But there it is. We tend to follow each other more instinctively than we follow our Good Shepherd, even when we’ve been trained to recognize our own name and God’s distinctive call to us. We tend to remember old hurts and grudges, and we run away from potential encounters with those who have hurt us in the past. We tend to stick together with the same four or five people we know best, keeping them in our sights and huddling together when we sense an attack coming our way. We spend a lot of time looking behind us, making it hard to walk a straight line. And we can spot a distant threat more easily than an open gate in front of us. Finally, we attract dirt, and we let it clump up and cling to us. Isaiah was right when he wrote in chapter 53 verse 6, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And yet, God claims us as his own. He knows each of us by name, and calls us into abundant life, leading us to safe pasture and sweet water.
But if we look closely at what Jesus is saying, we see that his riddles aren’t really about sheep. Jesus is talking about recognizing the shepherd. Having just given sight to a man who had never seen, and yet that man recognized him as God’s Messiah while the Pharisees, who should have recognized the One they’d been waiting for, were blind to God’s power working among them. Now, Jesus explains his miracle by comparing these respected religious leaders to thieves and bandits who only want to steal and destroy. By refusing to accept Jesus as God’s own Son, the Messiah for whom they claim to hope, the Pharisees threaten God’s people, stealing their hope, destroying their trust in God alone, who is the Good Shepherd. And Jesus says he is the Gate, the way to safety and green pasture. The Pharisees who deny Jesus as the way are no better than thieves trying to climb over the wall of a sheepfold, instead of entering through the gate.
Isn’t it ironic that those who hear about sheep recognizing their shepherd’s voice are the same ones who don’t recognize what Jesus is saying to them? Keep in mind that Jesus is not only talking to Pharisees, but to his own disciples. He’s talking to us. We are having just as difficult a time as they did, when it comes to hearing Jesus clearly, and following where he leads us. But he keeps calling us. Shepherds start teaching lambs their own names as soon as they are born. God has called each of us by name. He has claimed us as his own. So how do we learn to hear Christ’s voice, to recognize that we are being called by name? It seems so hard to hear, just as it did for those Pharisees who didn’t recognize how God was working in their very midst. So Jesus gives us another “figure of speech” – another riddle. He calls himself the gate. And to be sure we hear him this time, he says it twice: “I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Then he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” How do we enter into abundant life? This is where being a sheep pays off. We enter through the true gate, following the true shepherd’s voice, not that of thieves or strangers. We learn to recognize our shepherd’s distinctive call by hearing it, repeatedly and frequently.
Like good sheep, we value our place in the flock, sticking together, supporting each other in our journey toward Christ-likeness. It’s possible to be a believer in isolation, but to be a true follower of Jesus requires participating in this thing we call “church,” being an active member of the body of Christ. We don’t stray from the flock, putting ourselves at risk. We stick together as we are doing through this crisis. But we cannot completely experience that abundant life until we share it. As sheep who know our shepherd’s voice, we also lead other sheep through the gate that stands open before us. By joining in Christ’s mission to bring abundant life to all of God’s children, we experience that life even more fully.