11 May 2014

Sheep and Shepherds

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

What is it about sheep? There are few images in the Bible as pervasive as those inspired by sheep and their shepherds. David, the shepherd boy who becomes a king; God as the shepherd of God's people; religious or secular leaders deputed by God to act as shepherds; Jesus as the shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold. All these images and more are familiar to us. And yet for most of us sheep and shepherding are very far removed from our experience. Much of what we know about them actually comes from stories and nursery rhymes, and is probably very sentimentalised. Some of our images of sheep are negative, in ways that are not backed up by the biblical images we are trying to understand. So we have to look at those images very carefully to see what their point is.

In our Gospel reading Jesus tries to make some points about leadership and the community by using images of sheep, sheepfolds, and shepherds. In doing this, he's not just drawing on a rich tradition from the Hebrew Bible, in which Yahweh speaks of being the true Shepherd of Israel while appointing human leaders who should act as under-shepherds but fail. He's also drawing on familiar sights and sounds in the lives of his hearers. Unlike us, many of Jesus' first hearers would have kept sheep, or lived in a community in which many were sheep-keepers. And every village and small community would have had such a pen for its sheep, with several flocks milling about together inside, kept safe from predators, theft, or scattering by the gated enclosure with its keeper. The shepherds would come, and each one, using his own call, would separate out his own sheep and lead them out to pasture.

Primed by the First Testament prototypes, Jesus' audience would no doubt have seen the sheep as representing themselves, the people of Israel, and Yahweh as the shepherd. We, knowing that this is after all Good Shepherd Sunday, see the sheep as ourselves, the church, God's people of the New Covenant, and Jesus as the shepherd. But Jesus suddenly focuses both their attention and ours in a new direction when he interjects himself into the picture as the gate. 'Very truly, I tell you,' Jesus says, ' I am the gate for the sheep.

What does this mean? What can we learn about Jesus and our response to him from it? Well, Jesus tells us what he means: 'Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.' The gate is key both for sheep and shepherd because it is literally the way in (and out) -- the gate allows the sheep to reach the pasture safely. We cannot flourish as God's sheep as long as we stay in the sheepfold. That corral is essential as a place of safety and rest for sheep. But it's not enough. To flourish the sheep need the nourishment of the pasture, the freedom of the fields as well. In the same way, we need the nourishment of Word and Sacrament in order to be God's people in and for the world. Passing in and out by the gate allows us sheep to have all that we need to do the work that God gives us.

And despite identifying himself most directly with the gate, Jesus also identifies with the shepherd. Unlike the robbers who avoid the gate, Jesus is the one to whom the sheep listen. He is the one who comes not to steal or kill, but so that the sheep may have life and have it abundantly. Whether as gate or as shepherd, Jesus opens up fulness of life to the flock he leads. This abundance comes through the Spirit whom Jesus sends and so provides the sheep with abundant life. In claiming the role of shepherd, Jesus puts himself into the role of Yahweh as the true shepherd of Yahweh's people, and takes over from David and his successors the role as God's representatives in that office, a role in in which they failed. Jesus will not fail his sheep, either on Friday, or on Sunday.

And not only does this story of sheep and sheepfolds tell us a great deal about Jesus, it also tells us about ourselves. First of all, it teaches us a bit about what it means to be sheep -- and it's not at all what we think! Our notions of sheep are dominated either by the sentimentalized pictures I mentioned before, or else by a negative image of mindless creatures trotting briskly to the slaughter. But the sheep in the sheepfold of Jesus' parable are neither soppy-sweet or mindless. They are discerning, listening for the voice of the shepherd they know and following no-one else. These are no 'sheeple', but people with an active role to play in their relationship with the divine Shepherd. We cannot be content with less if we are to be part of that flock. We must learn to recognise our shepherd, whether Jesus or one of his representatives, and listen only to that shepherd. We must practise the discernment that will keep us safe from robbers that try to come over the fence rather than through the gate.

And second there is our call to be like Christ. One thing that we learn from the New Testament, and from preachers and teachers from St Paul to the present, is that we are to imitate Jesus. What does that mean in the context of this parable? At this Easter season it is particularly important, I think, to consider the implications of that question very carefully. This is a time for baptisms, reaffirmations, and receptions, as we well know, having welcomed our catechumens on the Sunday after Easter, and welcoming another new member into the sheepfold by baptism today. What would the church look like, what would our church look like, if we strove to the best of our ability to imitate Jesus as the gate and the shepherd?

Two different aspects of that answer can be seen in our two other readings this morning. In our reading from Acts this morning Luke describes, very idealistically, the very first Christian communities in Jerusalem, in the days and years that followed Jesus' resurrection and ascension. They are distinguished by abundant life in the Spirit, manifesting itself in love and care for one another, in devotion to Word and Sacrament, and in lives that bring others into those communities by word and action. Such is the life of worshipping communities whose members strive to imitate Jesus. When we care for one another as Luke describes the Jerusalem church as doing, when we devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer, when we receive God's gracious gifts with glad and generous hearts, then we are not just sheep of God's sheepfold. We are also gates and shepherds for one another. We become gates through which our brothers and sisters can come in and go out and find pasture; we become conduits for the abundant life in the Spirit that is the divine Shepherd's gift to the sheep. So I suggest that part of the answer is that the more we strive to imitate Jesus as the gate and the shepherd, the more our church will ressemble a modern-day version of the Jerusalem church.

The reading from 1 Peter reminds us, though, that imitating Jesus will not be easy or painless. Being a shepherd has dangerous and hard moments, and Peter reminds us that being like Jesus also involves being like him in his suffering. In addition to helping our brothers and sisters find pasture, or join in the abundant life of the Spirit, we must, like Jesus, be willing to suffer for them, even when we have done nothing wrong. That's not easy at all, but of course it is what shepherds do when their sheep are in need or danger. If we are going to strive to be shepherds to one another, we must be prepared for suffering. And if we follow in Jesus' steps in this, taking him for an example, then perhaps we too can be an example to others in following Jesus' way.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday we can rejoice to be surrounded by many shepherds. As the psalmist reminds us, the Lord God is our shepherd, and we shall lack nothing. Jesus is our shepherd, and offers us abundant life in God's pastures. And we are one another's shepherds, striving to be like Jesus in this way and in every way we can, providing one another with a gate in and out of the sheepfold, and a way to the pasture of abundant life.