A devout old shepherd lost his favorite Bible while he was out looking for a wayward lamb . Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The shepherd couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is written inside the cover.”
Baaaaaa. Sheep, shepherds, gates … what is this all about? Today is Good Shepherd Sunday - every year a couple of weeks after Easter, we have similar scriptures about sheep. We need some context for what Jesus is saying in this reading so let me go back to John, chapter 8:
Early on the Sabbath morning, Jesus is at the temple, teaching and preaching. His basic message is that he is the Messiah and that isn’t going down well with the leaders of the temple, the Pharisees. For quite a while, Jesus goes back and forth with them about his true identity. They contest everything he is saying. The situation degrades until the Pharisees are fed up and start throwing stones at Jesus.
He leaves the temple and encounters a man who has been blind from birth. Jesus spits in the dirt, makes some mud and spreads it on the man’s eyes. He tells the man to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. After doing so, the man can see for the first time in his life. He is brought to the Pharisees in the temple who aren’t impressed that his sight is restored. Oh no, they are focused on the fact that Jesus sinned by healing on the Sabbath. They finally kick the blind man out of the temple where he meets up with Jesus again and declares his belief that Jesus is Lord.
Here come the Pharisees and here we start today’s reading. Jesus is VERY annoyed at how these religious leaders have treated this poor blind man. He starts talking about sheep, gates and thieves and bandits… he is essentially telling them that they are the thieves and bandits who are crawling over the walls of the sheep pen and hurting the sheep, while he is the good shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep.
The Pharisees are confused. So Jesus clarifies, saying; “I am the gate. You are thieves and scum. I am the gate. With my help, the sheep will come in and go out and find tasty grass and cool water. The thief is all about killing but I am all about life, abundant life.”
Now all this talk about shepherds is familiar to the Pharisees. They intimately know the 23rd psalm and they are very familiar with scriptures from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel which all refer to good and bad shepherds. These scriptures predict the coming of another shepherd, one like David, chosen by God, to love and care for his people.
Here is another version of the 23rd psalm. As you listen, please notice how it opens with God the shepherd leading us to good places, then walking beside us through dark places, then following us as goodness and mercy:
“Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need! He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He gives me new strength. He helps me do the right thing.
Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding me all the way. You provide delicious food for me in the presence of my enemies. You have welcomed me as your guest; blessings overflow!
Your goodness and mercy shall follow me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.”
Christ is surrounding us, keeping us safe. There is a beautiful Irish prayer that says, in part: “May Christ shield me today. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left”. Christ surrounds us, keeping us safe. Thanks, Jesus.”
Back in the first century, shepherds high in the hills could lead their sheep into pens, usually built of stone. There was no door, just an open area. The shepherd would sit right there, blocking the way, keeping the sheep safe. On a quiet night, the shepherd would sleep, laying prone across the open area, blocking the entrance.
Jesus was a living gate, a door who invites us in, who shows us the way to an abundant life. He says; “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
I didn’t like this gospel reading - I thought that this was an exclusionary statement by Jesus. I thought he was saying that “I am the only door, and without me, you can’t get to the good place.“ I was wrong. Thinking that makes us like those exclusionary Pharisees who were so concerned about drawing lines, making rules which determined who was in, who was out. Those Pharisees kicked the blind man out of their temple.
The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. Remember the key message of John’s gospel: that God SO loves the world. The whole world. Following our reading today, in verse 16, Jesus continues, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The purpose of the gate is to guard all of us and keep all of us safe. Thanks, Jesus.
Jesus promises abundant life. He is not talking about life after death. It is abundant life, here and now. There is abundant life in community, life finding security and love as part of the flock. This is life, full of meaning and value. My own life has been exponentially enriched through my faith community. Thanks, Jesus.
Our reading from Acts tells us about the very early church community and how they lived. Selling everything, sharing everything… this is a hard lesson for us today. So what do we do to live out our faith? Fredrick Buechner gives us a good task: “There is plenty of work to be done down here, God knows. To struggle each day to walk the paths of righteousness is no pushover, and struggle we must, because just as we are fed like sheep in green pastures, we must also feed his sheep, which are each other. Jesus, our shepherd, tells us that. We must help bear each other's burdens. We must pray for each other. We must nourish each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other. Sometimes we must just learn to let each other alone. In short, we must love each other. We must never forget that.”