“I am the Good Shepherd” – John 10; 11
Have any of you seen the film “Babe”? We found the video in a shop, being sold at a give-away price. It’s the story of a pig that thought it was a sheep-dog. It couldn’t be menacing and threatening, or rude and violent to the sheep like a dog – frightening them into thinking it might attack them and rip them to pieces like a wolf. Babe was always very polite, asking them if they wouldn’t mind doing him the favour of moving in the right direction.
Well, when I was active in the ministry, I tried to be like a sheep-pig. In the tradition I was brought up in a minister is often called “pastor”, which means “shepherd”. So, I wanted to convey the Good Shepherd’s wishes to the flock, and encourage the sheep to act as the Good Shepherd wants.
But there is only one true Pastor. Jesus was making it very clear to the crowd hanging on his words that he was the Good Shepherd – unlike any others they had been told to look up to as pastors of God’s people. Israel’s rulers were regularly called shepherds, but their corruption and injustice meant that they were often bad shepherds. Here Jesus challenged their authority as religious leaders, and dared to put himself in God’s place, as the Good Shepherd. That was dynamite, and tension was in the air, as Jesus outlined why.
The good shepherd’s overriding concern is to protect the flock from outside dangers, like thieves and bandits – maybe like some of the rulers of the local synagogues listening, and the false prophets that had gone before. The sheep recognise the good shepherd’s voice, and he knows each of them intimately “by name”. Harry Emerson Fosdick used to tell about a shepherd he met in the Holy Land. He asked him if he had gone to school. The shepherd said “No”. “Can you count?” Again, “No”. “How do you know you haven’t lost a sheep?” The shepherd answered “Because I know them all by name”.
The good shepherd goes ahead of his flock in Palestine – that’s shepherding practice in that land. The flock keeps moving – they know there is pasture to be found as well as the deep still waters of Psalm 23 (sheep don’t like to drink from fast-flowing streams), and they know the good shepherd knows where it is. In England, moorland sheep are not fenced in, but generations of breeding over hundreds of years have made them territorial – the sheep stay rigidly within certain pieces of land. Have you been captivated, as I have, by “Our Yorkshire Farm”, starring Amanda Owen and husband Clive and their 9 children? She is a shepherdess to 1000 sheep and their lambs on 2000 acres of moorland, high above Swaledale. She may not know each of them by name but they all know and trust her. You may also have watched that dairy farmer on “Yorkshire Vet” talk to each of her cows by name, saying they each need love and respect.
I wonder what kind of flock we have become here, isolated as we are. Are we a wandering pilgrim people sensitive to the direction of the voice of our Good Shepherd who has gone on before, or are we tied to our traditions? Sheep need to be led. If you have watched One man and his dog or been to a sheep trial, you know how difficult it is to get the sheep to go in the right direction ahead of you. In Palestine it’s a lot easier because most of the time the shepherd leads the sheep from the front. Our Christian life requires that we follow where Christ leads us. We do not sit down where we are. We do not wander off. We follow him because we totally trust him.
In John’s gospel that “going ahead” leads to the death of the Shepherd. Jesus “went ahead” as they journeyed to Jerusalem. The cross doesn’t fit with our commonsense view of how things should be. With the shepherd dead, surely the wolf can get his teeth into the sheep. But Jesus said that, in laying down his life for his sheep, he gives life to God’s people. That’s why we are reading this story in what is still the Easter season.
In this parable Jesus said he is also the “gate for the sheep”. Those listening to Jesus would have had two different pictures in their minds. The first would have been the communal sheepfold in the middle of the village – a solid structure with a strong gate and gate-keeper. Several flocks would be kept together in it. The gatekeeper would only allow entrance to a shepherd known to him. The other picture would be of a sheepfold out on the hillside, used when the flock had wandered too far to get back to the village for the night – an makeshift enclosure with no gate, just an opening, often made of rough stones with a layer of thorn brush along the top. At night, after the sheep were in, the shepherd would lie down in the doorway. Jesus became that gate. There was no proper way into the sheepfold except through him.
This is where verse16 shifts the focus. In Jesus’ mind there are “other sheep” too. Jesus’ mission was not just to the people of Israel. The “one flock” has often been used to point to the unity of Christ’s Church. But remember John 3: 16: “God so loved the world”. He was referring to the unity God wills for all humankind. The world is the focus of God’s love, not the Church, and it is the whole world for which Jesus lay down his life. Sometimes Churches have added any number of other gates people have to get through to be accepted into the Church – the church members have to believe this, do that, become one of “us”, go through the ritual of baptism. But Jesus is the gate – the only gate, for anyone who wants to become a member of Christ’s flock. Through him alone we gain access to abundant life, life in all its fullness.
As Jesus said on another occasion; “I am the way, the truth and the life”. We will have to follow Jesus wherever he leads, but because he has gone before, the power of death has no hold over us. Whatever happens to us, whether we live or whether we die, we will remain safe in God’s care. Perhaps the best way for us to experience that confident faith is to stay in the flock or company of God’s people. Today’s collect in the Book of Common Prayer sums it up well: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where he leads.” So, listen every day, every waking moment, for his voice calling you by name. Follow in the direction he leads you, and know that everyone else who recognises his true voice, is with you on the way to eternal life. Amen.