Easter 4 2014
John 10: 1-10
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reveal something to us of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I was training for ordination we had a session on preaching and the lecturer from London said that we should never refer to people as sheep – he said that that type of imagery was potentially insulting to modern metropolitan people who either don’t know much about sheep or, if they do, don’t want to be compared to stupid smelly creatures, so try to stay well clear of the whole sheep thing generally.
Now, on the one hand, that is fair enough and to simply call someone a sheep, or perhaps to say that they are sheepish, is not exactly to lavish praise on them. But on the other hand Jesus used the imagery of a shepherd caring for and guarding his flock not infrequently, including of course in today’s reading from John, so a blanket ban on sheep imagery is not easy to enforce. And finally, on the third hand so to speak, there is one very important way in which I am very happy to be called a sheep in Christ’s flock but we can come to that at the end.
Although today’s reading is only 10 verses long it is amazing how much John can pack into such a short space and the more you dwell on it is also amazing how many potential sermons there are in these words. Actually we shouldn’t be amazed by that because today there will be thousands of sermons preached around the world on these verses and each of them will be different and preachers have been doing this for 2000 years. Therefore whenever I approach scripture I don’t try to discover the definitive once and for all answer to the meaning of these words, although one is often tempted to try, but rather I look for the meaning that God wants us to take from it now, fully accepting that it will be different for others and different again for us at another time. The word of God is not a puzzle to be solved and then discarded like an old Sudoko book, but rather it is a mystery to be lived.
And I use the word mystery advisedly because in places the meaning of this reading is neither clear cut nor obvious and we shouldn’t be ashamed of admitting that because in verse 6 we are told that those present did not fully understand what Jesus was saying either and they were getting it direct from God’s lips to their ears.
So in terms of context today’s reading follows straight on from the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 and although we aren’t told exactly who is there with Jesus we can probably assume that the healed blind man was there, some Pharisees were there whom Jesus had just accused, essentially of spiritual blindness, and there were probably also some other disciples there.
Jesus starts to speak to those present in a series of sometimes shifting metaphors and in the first two verses he compares unfavourably someone who climbs over the fence of a sheep pen to someone who enters by the proper gate – the person, he says who enters the sheep pen by illicit means is a thief and a robber whereas the person who comes in by the gate is the true shepherd of the sheep. Bearing in mind that Jesus has just berated the Pharisees for their spiritual blindness this feels like a continuation of that criticism – if the sheep in the sheep pen are a metaphor for God’s people then perhaps Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of being no more than sheep rustlers, stealing away God’s people.
Jesus then continues by saying that the gatekeeper opens the gate to the sheep pen for the true shepherd and the sheep listen to the shepherd’s voice. We aren’t told explicitly whom the gate keeper is supposed to be in this metaphor but some church Fathers took the view that the gatekeeper must be God the Father or God the Holy Spirit who ushered Jesus into the world to be the shepherd. And then we are told that the sheep know the voice of their true shepherd and that they follow him because they know his voice but they will not follow the thieves and the robbers.
Anyone who has ever kept an animal – a dog or a cat or even a sheep will know that animals do respond to the voice of their owners in a way that they don’t with strangers. And in Jesus’time shepherds on the hills would certainly have controlled their flocks with the sound of their voices. Time and again in the scriptures I am struck by the times when people recognise Jesus for who he really is when he simply calls them by name – the shepherd calling his sheep who recognise his voice.
Now we are very used to thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd so, in many ways, that is not a difficult image for us to understand but at this point in the narrative Jesus switches his metaphors and says:
“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”
So Jesus seems to have moved from being the shepherd of the sheep to being the gate of the sheep fold and that he is the only legitimate entry into the fold. Again if we understand the sheep pen as being the community of God’s people then Jesus is saying here that one can only enter that community through him.
Interestingly this may not be such a huge shift in metaphor as it may seem. We may be used now to thinking of sheep pens as fairly solid structures make of brick or fence and with a metal gate and it may seem impossible to be both the shepherd and the gate at the same time. However, at the time of Jesus, when shepherds were looking after their sheep in the wilderness the sheep pen might be any natural formation of rocks and the gate to that sheep pen might well be the shepherd himself who would lay down and sleep across the entrance to protect the sheep. So gate and shepherd can be the same thing.
Now we live in a very pluralistic and multi-cultural society and all of us I suspect know people of other faiths and it becomes increasingly difficult to deny the fact that God seems to be at work in other ways. I remember once seeing Rowan Williams when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury being asked the question of whether he thought there was any truth present in other faiths. He struggled to answer the question in that context because, I think, he knew that if he said “yes, there is truth in other faiths”he would be criticised by the hard-line Christians for denying the uniqueness of Christianity but if he said that there was no truth in other faiths he would be criticised by everyone else and would undo decades of ecumenical work. It was not long after that that Rowan announced his retirement from the job.
Anyway, here Jesus is saying that he is the only legitimate entry into joining God’s people and his is the only true shepherd of that flock. That seems to be a fairly exclusivist statement. However, interestingly, if you read onto v. 16 (which we did not hear this morning) Jesus says:
“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.”
In context Jesus is probably referring to the gentiles and the mission of the church to reach beyond the people of Israel and to extend the flock but it is a useful reminder to me at least that whenever we are tempted to define the boundaries of who is in and who is out of God’s grace that, actually, God is doubtless working way beyond our boundaries and that he has sheep not of this sheep pen that we would probably find quite surprising. I once read a wonderful thought provoking novel, whose name unfortunately escapes me for the moment, which was about God at work not in different faiths but on different planets. There is even a branch of theology called Xenotheology which is about exactly that – God has sheep that are not part of this sheep pen.
But coming back to earth and to the here and now what does it mean for us to think of Jesus as the shepherd of this flock, for him to protect us and to call us and to guide us? Do we listen to his voice and run away from the rustlers or is his call to us lost in the hubbub of life? Try to take some time this week to be still and listen to the good shepherd calling you.
We come now to the climax of this week’s reading and the point which I had written a different sermon – what is the purpose of the good shepherd looking after his flock?
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Christianity can sometimes have a pretty poor image. If TSB used to the the bank that likes to say yes, then Christianity is often seen as the faith that likes to say no. And yet Jesus is saying that his purpose is to give us fullness of life. St Irenaeus once wrote that ‘the glory of God is a person fully alive.”
Do we have life to the full, are we fully alive? God doesn’t want us to be shriveled shells or shadows but his glory and his joy is us becoming fully and completely the people he made us to be. By listening to the good shepherd and becoming part of his flock we are not becoming stupid sheep but we are on the road to becoming fully alive and fully realised human beings made in his image. There is plenty there for us to dwell on and come back to.
I said earlier that whatever other people’s alleged sensitivities about being compared with sheep that I am happy to accept that imagery for myself and to be part of Christ’s flock. And although that is partly because I am happy to follow Jesus as my shepherd there is another reason too. Jesus did not just call himself the good shepherd or compare himself to the true way or gate into the sheep pen there is another important term that we use about Jesus every week in communion.
Can anyone think what it may be in this context?
Each week during communion we sing the agnus dei or lamb of God. Jesus was not just the shepherd of the sheep he was also, himself, the sacrificial lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world in order that we might have life to the full. If Jesus can empty himself sufficiently to become a sacrificial lamb for our sakes then we, as his disciples, should be able to get over ourselves a little and join ourselves to his flock and listen to his voice for his is both our shepherd and he is also one of us and amongst us as the lamb of God. Amen.