Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Ps 23; John 10:1-
The day is ending soon, and a shepherd has to herd the sheep into their pen for the night. He calls for his trusty sheepdog and asks it to get the job done. “Right away, sir,” says the sheepdog. 10 minutes later, and the shepherd glances out his window to see the sheep safely in their pen. The sheepdog bounds in through the door to report the completion of its task. “Excellent work, did you get all of them?” asks the shepherd. “Yes, all 40 of them.” The shepherd stares confusedly at the sheepdog. “Hang on, I thought I only had 37 sheep?” The sheepdog replies, “Well yes, I rounded them up.”
Today is known as ‘Shepherding Sunday’ in many church circles. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter we listen to readings that portray our Lord as the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep. But today’s gospel text is part of a larger story. It’s important we notice that in John’s gospel the writer frequently writes in the pattern of sign – dialogue – discourse. In other words, Jesus performs a miracle, there is discussion about it, and then Jesus offers a significant teaching. Today’s section is the discourse, the teaching, so it would be prudent for us to look back at the sign that provoked Jesus’ teaching.
Setting the Scene
It all begins in chapter 9 with the story of the healing of the blind man from birth. You might recall that we heard this story towards the end of Lent this year. This is the fellow that Jesus healed by mixing mud with his saliva, touching his eyes, and instructing him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man’s sight is restored, the people are amazed, but the religious authorities are not pleased. They call the man in, question him, then his parents, then him again. The authorities try to get the man to denounce Jesus by calling him a sinner. To which the man replied so beautifully:
“I do not know whether this man is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” In anger, the authorities drove him out of the synagogue into the street.
So imagine the scene now…anxiety and hostility fill the air (the authorities are plotting to arrest Jesus and squash his little movement), but there is also unbridled joy and wonder at the power of Jesus to transform this poor man’s life. I imagine some of the witnesses were grinning from ear to ear, maybe even hopping up and down, unable to contain their excitement! But I also imagine others with blank stares, like they’d just seen a ghost, terrified at what power this man held. Some must have sensed the danger upon them…this Jesus was shaking up the status quo, provoking those in power, surely this would not end well?
A Shepherd Knows His Sheep
This is the context in which Jesus shares an important truth: a shepherd knows his sheep, cares for them, protects them, provides for them, gathers them safely in by the gate. The sheep need the shepherd because there are non-shepherds, thieves and wolves, who would look to steal, kill, and destroy the sheep for their own selfish purposes.
We might begin to see the connections between the metaphors Jesus uses here with the story of the healed blind man. The religious authorities ought to have been shepherd-like. Their tradition depicted God as a great shepherd over and again in the Scriptures we call the Old Testament. Kings and prophets and important leaders were called to emulate their God and faithfully participate in the shepherding of the people. The figure that so obviously embodies this idea was king David, an actual shepherd who was called by God to be Israel’s king after Saul, its first king, became violent and corrupt. David did much good in his reign, but we know he was far from perfect, even plotting and seducing and abusing his power for his own selfish reasons. He took what didn’t belong to him when he took Bathsheba to be his own. Even the exemplar king slid from shepherd to thief during his reign.
Of course, this trend continues in Jesus’ day. The powers-that-be were the Romans of course – that great Empire that conquered, pillaged, and set up systems that would continue to extort the people under its thumb. The Romans may also represent all inequitable political and economic systems that see the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. They represent the few that dictate what happens to the many, most often putting their own agendas ahead of the good of all.
But the power-that-be were also within Israel itself – in their puppet political leaders (like the Herods) but also in their religion. God’s people relied heavily on their faith, and on the people that taught them the faith, particularly in times of oppression. I’m sure that many of the Jewish leaders were well-meaning, God-fearing people. I know the Pharisees, for example, started as a religious movement that worked diligently and bravely to protect their scriptures and traditions as empires tried to assimilate them and take away their religion. If it wasn’t for people like the Pharisees, the Old Testament scriptures might’ve been lost.
Fear: the Harbinger of Death
But systems, including religious ones, are made up of people, and people can lose their focus, become fearful, and easily shift on the pendulum from shepherd to thief. When change is in the air, when we lose our sense of ‘normal’, we are tempted to fight and claw and finger-point and do whatever we can to get things back to the way things were. Fear keeps us from seeing the truth and can make us do profoundly irrational things. Fear can make us point fingers, take what we think we need (often at the expense of those in greater need), and so fear destroys community. Put simple, fear is the harbinger of death.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says.
Jesus: The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd is not like the failed shepherds of this world who fight to maintain power, influence, and wealth through their political, economic, and even religious systems. The failed shepherds failed the blind man. Blind from birth, without the aid of support from his community (or even from his family so it would seem), this man was forced to beg for scraps just to survive.
But Jesus saw him. Jesus called him. And the man began to follow the voice of the Shepherd before he was even able to see him! (Remember, Jesus told him to wash in the pool before his sight was restored). Jesus’ disciples saw only in the blind man an opportunity to talk religion and theology (‘Who sinned that this man was born blind?’) But the Shepherd saw one of his precious and beloved sheep. The religious authorities saw this miracle as a threat to their power (surely someone of Jesus’ power would be able to turn many over to his controversial teaching). And so, in fear and anger, they drove the healed man out of the synagogue.
Threats to Community
Thieves destroy the sheep’s community. Jesus, the shepherd, creates community. Jesus, the shepherd, gathers the sheep in. Jesus the gate, provides them a way in, and protects them from the thieves and bandits threateningly circling about. We don’t talk about Jesus as the Gate too often, but I think it’s a helpful image because the Gate is the Way into the community of Life. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of how the gospel of Jesus Christ brings people together from every walk of life, inspires them to share their belongings, and provokes them to worship and prayer and thanksgiving. This despite the fact, I may point out, that their society remained just as unjust and oppressive as ever. Their inner lives were changed, and through Jesus, the Gate, they found abundant life in community together.
Abundant Life is Experienced Together
The first Christians knew the abundant life of Jesus, the abundant life Jesus poured out upon the blind man. “The man blind from birth is saved from isolation and marginalization. His healing saves him from everlasting darkness. Never again will he wonder where his next meal will be or who will answer his pleas as he sits begging outside the city. He will know the safety and security of community.” (Karoline Lewis)
This man’s life would never be the same, his encounter with Jesus changed everything. Encountering Jesus changes us. We don’t need to see before we hear and follow the voice of Jesus. We don’t need to find the right job, or the right relationship, to experience the fullness of life we crave. No, we just need Jesus. We need the Shepherd who tends to us, guides us, provides for us just what we need when we need it.