A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”
Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter’s Gospel reading is from the 10th chapter of John about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This year we get the first part, and a lot of it is about the sheepfold and its gate. The image is of a pen built out on the hillside in the area where the sheep are grazing—usually in ancient Palestine, this was a stone enclosure. Such pens were often shared between the owners of different flocks of sheep.
That’s not much different from when my mother was in college and she spent a summer as a cowboy, working on the range with the cattle on her father’s grazing lease. A number of small ranchers had cattle in that area. Each rancher provided certain resources that were shared, the cattle went where they wanted, ate grass and drank water where they were available, and the cowboys sorted the cows out by their brands, and branded the calves who were at their mothers’ sides. In the sheepfold, the shepherd knew the individual sheep by sight, and had a name for each one.
We are used to sheepherders herding the sheep from behind, often using dogs to push them toward where they should go. However, one of my professors was meditating out in the wilderness in Palestine one day, when she heard a young man singing. When she looked up, she saw a shepherd walking in front of his flock and the sheep were following to their pasture.
So that’s the image that Jesus is using. The shepherd knows the sheep and calls them. They follow him because they trust him, and they know that it is him that they trust, because they know his voice. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about being the Model Shepherd, right after the episode where he healed the man who was born blind. That man who had always been blind could see and believe in who Jesus was, but the religious rulers could not see, and tried to bully him into denouncing Jesus. So Jesus tells the people what it takes to authentically lead God’s people. The true shepherd doesn’t burst in by force and seize the sheep—that is what a robber does. The true shepherd approaches gently, respectfully and knows his own sheep, and they trust him and follow him.
In the New Testament it’s clear that there were many charlatans about, claiming to have the real word, claiming to be Christ or his representative. Sort of like now. Religious frauds abounded and the church was on its guard about those who would use religion to manipulate people and serve themselves, to seize power over others for exploitation rather than the compassion of Christ. And at this moment, Jesus was in a conflict with religious leaders who were acting out of their own fear, and distorting the law by narrowing it and interfering with its life-giving aspects.
So Jesus talks about being a Shepherd. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep.” That might refer to something like what we think of a gate or moveable wall for an enclosure. Or it might mean situations where shepherds would take their turns sleeping across the narrow opening of the sheepfold wall. Animals are unlikely to walk over a human being, and if they did he would wake up and rectify the problem. In any case, Jesus says he is the gate of the sheep, in other words, he keeps the flock secure, and is there to stop those who would do violence to the flock.
“Whoever enters …will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus guards his community by compassion—he gives life and vitality—the green pasture, the sign of life, comfort and nourishment. That life is the life of his Resurrection—in this Easter season we know that the Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep, has come to give us life. It is not the priest, or any other earthly leader that is the Shepherd, it is Jesus and it is in the love of Jesus that we know that we are nurtured in that life of the resurrection.
Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles describes the church in those days shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles knew the resurrection and lived without fear of this world, they trusted Jesus and the demons melted away. It says of the people,
They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common…
We should not exaggerate or romanticize this picture, or assume all early Christians lived in a commune. What I read here are two things, things we see as well in our own day, and even right here: a community of trust and generosity. They would gather, watch out for one another, and live in generosity of spirit, knowing and serving one another’s needs. And the other is the power of Christ’s teaching—the one who died on the cross and was raised by God from the dead, has taken away the power of fear, and of the demons of our collective fear, selfishness and anger. Marvelous things happen when people are no longer fearful—as it says, “Awe came over everyone.”
They heard the voice of the Shepherd and they followed him. And as we follow him: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”