The Fourth Sunday of Easter
22nd April 2018
Acts 4: 5 – 12;
1 John 3: 16 – 24;
John 10: 11 – 18
By Ms. Leslie Spatt
Who would be a shepherd??
Who would be a shepherd?? it certainly isn’t a sort of comfortable, idyllic pastoral life, clean country smocks and cream coloured rustic trousers with clean, cream coloured obedient sheep. Perhaps a dog or two on the edges. Probably none of us know the realities of what a shepherd or sheep farmer’s life really is, certainly not 2000 years ago. Not an easy job, by any means; it’s 24/7, all year round, hard physical labour and masses of worry about disease, safety, lambing, food, and the weather, even with tough, almost weatherproof Welsh mountain or Lakeland sheep. About the only thing current shepherds don’t need to worry about nowadays is a wolf attack.
The language of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is scattered liberally through the Gospels. John’s Gospel being what it usually is – a mass of symbolism and hidden meanings, where almost nothing is meant to be taken literally – uses sheep and shepherds to tell us about Jesus; what he meant to John’s own emerging Christian community and what Jesus can do for us. And although in the Jewish scriptures the 23rd Psalm talks about the Lord being the best of shepherds, and both Moses and David were shepherds before they became leaders, by the time of Jesus a shepherd was almost an outcast, on the fringes of society – necessary and tolerated but not particularly welcome.
According to the Pharisees, following the Law meant observing all the purity regulations, where anyone who touched a corpse or was in contact with nasty things like poo or spilled blood was ritually unclean and had to go through all sorts of religious hoops before being able to enter the temple to worship, or offer a sacrifice. Nobody in regular society would have anything to do with them in case they, too, became impure by touching them. As shepherds were always around dead animals and sheep droppings and the blood of lambing in their daily work, that meant they were always impure and effectively ostracised from social contact. So, we might wonder, why would a gospel writer use the imagery of a shepherd, even a “good” one, to describe Jesus? What’s the difference between a good and a bad shepherd?
A shepherd can be in charge of a flock either as the owner of the sheep or as someone assigned to take care of them, paid or unpaid. If you’re an owner, you have a personal interest in seeing that the sheep are kept together and fed and nothing can harm them. In the ancient world, there were no gates on sheepfolds, just an open space in the wall for animals to get in and out of the enclosure. And no sheepdogs to help guard the animals inside. The shepherd had to be both the gate and the guard – he (and it was usually a “he”) slept in the opening, so that his body, his life, was between the sheep he owned and any predator like a wolf. If you’re only an uninterested third party looking after the sheep there’s little incentive to put your life on the line to protect and care for them; if threatened, your own life is more important, isn’t it. So if the wolf turns up, well…the hired shepherd will be off. And then anything bad can get at the sheep to scare them away and gobble them up one by one.
The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep if he needs to. Jesus gives his life for his sheep –the ones he has called and the others who hear and know his voice and follow him. He voluntarily chooses to pay the highest price possible to protect what the Father has given him. And he wants to gather up any stray sheep who might be wandering around without a leader so that everyone will be safe together. On one level, the symbolism of John could be saying that Jesus is the only one who can protect us from the wolf of sin and eternal separation from the Father. We learn to recognise and then listen to his voice leading us into eternal life.
The Gospels did a lot to change the beliefs about shepherds from being ritually impure and not really nice to have around, into shepherds being leaders, protectors, important and valued. Where the ultimate example of the best shepherd was Jesus. In the past, Moses was the shepherd who was the legalistic lawgiver, but Jesus is the shepherd who says that the law is really about loving your neighbour and loving God in a new type of relationship. David was the shepherd who became the king of Israel. The expected Messiah, the rescuer of the Jews, would have to be descended from him. Jesus, born of the house of David, as the risen Christ, is the Messiah and universal King for everyone, not just for the Jewish nation. Perhaps a lot of this change was because the growing number of Jesus followers were living in increasingly non-Jewish environments. Where Jewish purity laws were irrelevant or unknown, and where Christian community leaders exercised a vital role in keeping the Christian sheep safe and following the right track; and spreading the Good News to attract others into the true sheepfold.
What might John’s scripture teach us? A lot about trusting Jesus. And how do we grow into being committed followers of Jesus? God the Father, or Jesus, or the Spirit – however we relate to the working of the Trinity, will find us. We join the flock by being baptised, but we need to learn what the voice of the true shepherd sounds like in order to develop a closer relationship of trust. Are we hearing Jesus’ voice, or the misleading voices of hired shepherds who might not be what they seem? We can choose to close our spiritual ears if we don’t want to take a route which seems difficult; we can get too tied up with the things which block off our hearing and get us confused. Psalm 23 is a good bit of Scripture to hang onto. The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing. If we get to know the sound of the Good Shepherd then we’ll be OK. Even if we’re unsure about the way to go, his will be the voice guiding us, protecting us.
As we baptise Wilhelm this morning we welcome him into the Christian sheepfold, where he will never be abandoned or left to face the bad things in life alone – even though at times it might feel like that. Where he will always be part of the Good Shepherd’s flock. And at the end of his human life, our good shepherd will take him – as he has taken so many others and will take all of us – by the hand, lead us through the shadow of the valley of death and bring us back into the light we came from, to live with the Father forever. Forever.
©Leslie Spatt 2018