“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 said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Isn’t the countryside lovely? Not to live in, obviously, just for passing through – and even then only when the sun shines. The Yorkshire Dales on a sunny day in July? Bring it on. On a wet day in February without a tea-room for miles? No thanks!
Those of us who live in towns and cities live lives pretty divorced from rural life and in many cases quite ignorant of it given how much we depend on what goes on there for our food. I was once involved in a school trip taking thirteen year olds to Flamingo Land, which is well of the urban beaten track. We were passing a field of cows when one kid asked, “What are they for?”
“But what’re they for?”
“They’re beef burgers at an earlier stage.”
“Oh, I get it.”
So, a Gospel story about sheep. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus employs the imagery of first-century shepherding to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, I know nothing about sheep other than what the washing instructions on my clothing says and I am partial to the lamb option at a carvery,. I also remember my father trying to fool me as a young child that sheep droppings were evidence of a breed of giant rabbits but other than that ….. what a townie eh?
Have you ever tried talking to a sheep? Isn’t it nice to hold the intellectual high ground once in a while? So, that’s another thing I know about sheep: their stupidity is legendary. But their loyalty? Who knew?
So, in order to access John’s passage for today I think we must first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus' choice of image and embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations. It’s worth asking whether this Middle Eastern imagery can have power even in our urban, cosmopolitan, and industrial centres. In fact, isn’t it possible that we long precisely for the kind of relationship between God and us that such imagery promotes?
So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherd on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold. There was no longer a door. The shepherd himself had become the door. That is what Jesus is saying: he is the door.
When the shepherd gets up the next morning, Jesus explains, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he‘s brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." The sheep can't spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There's no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to live more fully. So what is Jesus the door to? He goes on to explain: he is the door to abundant life, which means not just in this world but in the next.
We aren’t talking about sheep any more are we? He's talking about us.
Therefore, this meaning of this parable of Jesus is unlocked when we start to think of Jesus himself as being the door but Jesus isn’t only the door into the sheepfold, he’s is also the door out to green pastures. One side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door into the sheepfold where we will find communities of love, communities of justice and communities of peace. The other side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door by which we go out to green pastures and experience the fullness of life in all its abundance.
Now, another thing about sheep is that they seem to lack an independent spirit. They just amble about eating grass; they are relatively defenceless against predators and they easily lose their way. It’s because they are so dense and defenceless that they need a shepherd. Is that us not in so many ways, relatively defenceless against the negative influences of our society without the guidance of our shepherd, Jesus? It’s something of an insult today to be likened to sheep isn’t it? It’s used for people who seem to follow a herd instinct and don’t think or evaluate for themselves: eternal followers, lacking in initiative. That could well be us in the run up to our general election; following a herd instinct; voting as we’ve always voted out of party loyalty without seeing the wider issues – but let’s not get too political today because there are other areas where we follow like sheep, accepting or colluding in our society’s norms when those norms don’t reflect the attitudes and ethics of the Gospel.
And at the same time, if we celebrate this Good Shepherd, there must also be bad shepherds, those who attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their followers. We often read in the papers or see on television accounts of shepherds or leaders, whether they hold positions in the church or in politics or in big business but, nevertheless, are people who have been viewed as trustworthy but who have let their flock down in some way. Whenever trust has been broken and boundaries crossed, it can take months and years for healing and wholeness to return to victims who have been hurt and communities whose trust has been breached. In today’s Gospel, Jesus differentiates himself from untrustworthy or bad shepherds. He warns us that there are others who exploit and cause division instead of expressing love and bringing about healing, unity, and peace.
We often suffer when our herd instinct becomes stronger than our intelligence. It is a human characteristic - and a failing - that we all too often follow the crowd. We think back to Nazi Germany where many intelligent people blindly followed the lead sheep and the flock of sheep into a war that cost the lives of millions. It has happened so often in human history: It happened in the former Yugoslavia when nationalism led to the break-up of that country with all its attendant atrocities and it’s happening today with the rise of the Far Right in America and France. It’s happening today in Syria and in Russia where authoritarian leaders seek to stamp on dissent and where many are willing to follow blindly. It’s happening today with our cheap and diminished sound-bite politics. The most intelligent and educated among us often don’t want to admit that our herd instinct is stronger than our intelligence but in Jesus we have a shepherd we can unfailingly put our trust in.
On the other hand, though, there is something appealing about the imagery of sheep that trust without fail; about a shepherd who cares without ceasing; about a bond which words can’t fully express. In today’s text, despite any fear about surrendering too much of our independence, we can still appreciate some of the profound meanings of Jesus as door to the sheepfold and voice to the sheep.
I’m sure there have been times in all our lives when, rather like sheep, we have seen the grass on the other side of the fence and it seemed greener when being one of Jesus' sheep didn't sound like such a great thing to be. The book of Isaiah says, in chapter 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” And yet the shepherd continues to love us and call us to follow him. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stood before the people who were sick, who were poor, maimed, blind and lame and looked on all of them, and said, “I will have pity on them for these people are harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” Yet we have our shepherd, even when, like those people, we have reached our lowest ebb.
One of the most famous and best loved passages in the Bible is the 23rd Psalm which begins as you know, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Now that's a profession of faith. And these words speak to us at different times throughout our lives. Sometimes when we have a lot of concern and maybe that's when we're in a hospital or a prison cell or facing a family crisis or serious problems at work, those words come to us and give us comfort. It is a source of huge encouragement to have a Good Shepherd who seeks us out when we are lost and then brings us back into the fold. It’s wonderful to have a Good Shepherd who calls us by name. That’s the nature of our relationship with Jesus. We are known: he knows us by name.
When I take funerals and ask family members what Bible passage they would like to have read, most choose the 23rd Psalm and that's a good choice, because as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s good to know that there’s a leader, a Good Shepherd who has gone before us and who is also present with us at all times and, as we are still in the Easter season, it’s good that we still emphasise the Good Shepherd who was also the perfect Passover lamb: a Good Shepherd who has given his life for the sheep. As Peter wrote, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that free from sins we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."
We cannot import into the sheepfolds the full abundant life that Christ offers us because, safe as the sheepfold is, the very fullness of that life cannot be found there. Jesus calls us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God's unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, let’s strive to join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Let’s listen for the voice of the shepherd calling us by name. Let’s give Jesus the chance to call us out of the sheepfold so that we may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God. Jesus says, “I am the door. Let me lead you in to a community of love, peace, security and justice and out into the fullness of life both here and in the future.” That’s surely an invitation worth accepting.