Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter on May 3, 2020.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter


• Acts 2:42-47
• 1 Peter 2:19-25
• John 10:1-10

Our Gospel reading this week is part of a chapter in St John’s Gospel that has given us one of the most popular images of Jesus: that of the Good Shepherd. We have all seen pictures of our Lord surrounded by little lambs or even carrying a cuddly sheep on his shoulders. I completely understand why this image is a popular one. We all like the idea of a Lord who cares for and looks after us. And frolicking lambs in fields appeals to the sentimental side of our nature.

This way of approaching what Jesus says here, however, is not as helpful as it might be in getting to the heart of what this passage about.

Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, or at least the first 21 verses of it, has puzzled interpreters. They feel these verses are somehow out of place and don’t fit well with what is written before and after them. Indeed, some have even suggested that, at a very early stage in the Gospel’s history, they were not originally at this place in the Gospel and have suggested alternative places in the Gospel where they are a better fit. Given there is no evidence that they were ever other than here, I am glad to say that there are very few who think this like nowadays.

The problem, as often is the case in understanding Bible passages, is the chapter and verse divisions. As we know, but all too often forget, chapters and verses were added to the Bible hundreds of years after it was written. They are useful in helping us to find a reference, but the chapter divisions particularly often break up the text in a way it was never intended to be broken up by the original author. We have a clear example of this in our Gospel reading this week.

We looked at what happened immediately before our reading this week on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is the story of the healing of the man born blind. The man who has his sight restored by Jesus is thrown out of the synagogue because, when questioned by those in authority, he defends the action of Jesus in healing him on the Sabbath day. For the Pharisees, healing someone on the Sabbath is work, and they consider any form of work done on the Sabbath as unacceptable and wrong.

Jesus on hearing that the man has been thrown out of the synagogue seeks him out, and finding him challenges the man born blind to believe in him. The man comes to faith and worships Jesus. Jesus comments ironically:

‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ (John 9:39)

Some of the Pharisees hearing Jesus say this ask whether Jesus thinks they are blind? Jesus replies somewhat enigmatically:

‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’ (John 9:41)

And there we normally stop reading just as the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent did. John chapter 10, it is thought, begins a new unconnected topic and, after that, comes John chapter 11 and the raising of Lazarus, which we also looked at on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. But this is not how St John stops his story of Jesus and the man born blind. This morning’s reading is not a new topic disconnected from what went before, but a continuation of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question about what Jesus thinks of them. Notice how Jesus says in verse 6 of chapter 10:

‘This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them’.

The opening 5 verses of chapter 10, then, are still part of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question about whether Jesus thinks they are blind. When they don’t understand what Jesus has said, Jesus has to try to explain what he means to them. St John writes in verse 7: ‘So Jesus again said to them …’. 

All that we go on to read about the Shepherd and the sheep is addressed not to those like the blind man who believe in Jesus, but to those like the Pharisees who do not.

St John describes what Jesus says in verses 1-5 as a ‘figure of speech’. What Jesus actually says using this figure of speech is simple enough. 

In these verses, Jesus describes a scene that everyone at the time would have been very familiar with. It is of a sheepfold. This was where shepherds put their sheep at night for safe keeping. The sheepfold could be out in the fields, but it could also be a courtyard between houses and shared by sheep owners. At night, the sheep would be put in it, and there would be someone employed as a night porter to keep watch over them. Obviously, if someone came and tried to climb in over the wall, it would be clear that they were up to no good. The shepherd himself comes to the gate to get his sheep and the porter lets him in.

The shepherd once admitted calls his sheep to him and leads them out, separating them in the process from the sheep who belong to others. The sheep belonging to the shepherd will only follow him. They won’t follow a stranger.

In an urban setting such as ours, this scene is not one we are familiar with and when we do see sheep being rounded up, it is often by a shepherd using a sheep dog. But the image of a shepherd leading his sheep, who can call his sheep by name, and whose sheep respond to his voice would have been commonplace in Jesus’ time, as it still is in some parts of the world.

Which is all very well and good, but we can perhaps begin to sympathize with the Pharisees and wonder what all this has to do with them. So, Jesus then explains the meaning of what he has described to them. His explanation is in two parts. Firstly, Jesus explains, in the scene he has described, that the gate represents him: ‘I am the gate for the sheep,’ Jesus says. Only secondly, in fact, does Jesus explain in verse 11 that the shepherd also represents him. ‘I am the good shepherd,’ Jesus says.

The first thing that people ask at this point is how Jesus can be both the ‘gate’ and the ‘shepherd’, and often come up with imaginative suggestions. The answer, however, is more straightforward without the need for clever explanations. It is that this is a single illustration that serves to explain two different aspects of who Jesus is. It is as if Jesus tells it twice and, after telling it the first time, says, ‘In this scene, I am the gate for the sheep.’ Then, after telling it again a second time, says, ‘This time in the scene I have described, I am the shepherd.’ There are two metaphors at work in the same story. One to show that Jesus is like a gate and the other to show he is also like a shepherd.

He is not literally a shepherd any more than he is literally a gate. Both are, as St John says, a ‘figure of speech’. How, though, does what Jesus say, in either part of the explanation, answer the Pharisees’ original question, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’

In the scene, as Jesus describes it, not only is there a shepherd who leads his sheep through the gate. There are thieves and bandits. ‘The thief,’ says Jesus, ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy.’ Jesus is not simply explaining to the Pharisees who he is and what he is like, he is commenting on who they are and what they are like. They have driven the blind man out of the synagogue and behaved in a way that was all too typical of them. They don’t care for the ‘sheep’ any more than the ‘thieves and bandits’ care for them.

Anyone reading St John’s Gospel who had also read St Matthew’s Gospel would have known how on one occasion, when Jesus is told that he had offended the Pharisees, he replied:

‘Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ (Matthew 15:14)

Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees and the religious establishment in general are well-known. They had not behaved as shepherds of God’s people should behave. Jesus, however, had sought for the blind man after he had been thrown out of the synagogue and brought him home. Jesus has come to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10).

The background to all this is in Ezekiel 34. In the book of Ezekiel, God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, condemns the leaders of Israel who fail in their care of and responsibility for God’s people. God himself is compared to a shepherd and his people to the sheep who have been badly let down and badly treated by those who should have cared for and looked after them. God will punish the leaders who have let down his sheep and made them prone to danger. God says:

‘I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.’ (Ezekiel 34:22-24)

The two images that Jesus uses in chapter 10 describe how he fulfils Ezekiel’s prophecy. Firstly, by being the ‘gate’ for the sheep and then, secondly, by acting as a ‘good shepherd’ to them. In our reading for this week, we only have one part of Jesus’ explanation of the figure of speech he uses, and it is the part we don’t normally focus on. We tend to be drawn to the second use of this scene by Jesus in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd and pass over the first, but the first is of equal importance, and it is an important theme running through St John’s Gospel.

There is Jesus tells the Pharisees only one way in and out of the sheepfold and that is through the gate. Only those who enter by him who is the gate will be saved and only those who are part of his flock will find abundant life.

What then does this say to us today?

1. It challenges those who are leaders of the Church.

St John’s Gospel closes with Jesus telling St Peter to ‘feed his sheep’ (John 21:15-17). This pastoral role of ‘caring for the sheep’ is a ministry entrusted to all those in formal ministry in the Church. Some Churches call their ministers, ‘pastors’, a word which comes from the Latin for shepherd.

Are we who are pastors - and I direct this question as much to myself as anyone - blind in the way the Pharisees were? Have we allowed ourselves to be distracted from the ministry we have been given and become focused on other things instead?

And do we who are members of Christ’s Church support our pastors in their ministry? Support them, that is, not by simply agreeing with them or telling them they are wonderful all the time (although perhaps some of the time might be nice!), but by encouraging them to do the job that God has called them to do. Insisting that they do it by being faithful to Christ and without being distracted by other things.

I got an email recently from someone who works for the Church in England saying that they hoped I was enjoying all the relaxation time I now had as a result of the coronavirus. The temptation to react when someone says this sort of thing is very great, and I don’t intend to now. Suffice it to say that it hasn’t been like that.

What I would say, though, is that given the present crisis there has been a need to focus more on what I was originally ordained to do. Sadly, now that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, events, meetings and activities are already being arranged that will once again take pastors away from what God wants us to do. The tragedy is that many of them are being arranged by the pastors themselves!

St Paul, knowing he was not going to see the leaders of the Church at Ephesus again, said in his last words to them:

‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert …’ (Acts 2:28-31)

The Pharisees that Jesus is speaking to in our reading were highly thought of by the people. They were the synagogue equivalent of bishops and priests, pastors and ministers. Some were simply bad people; others had allowed their service of God to become more about what they wanted rather than what God wanted; some were more worried about what people thought of them instead of what God thought of them. It’s not that they didn’t work hard just that they didn’t work hard for the right thing. They even devoted themselves to mission and gaining new members. The trouble was, Jesus said, that when they succeeded in making a new member, they also made him or her twice the child of hell they were (Matthew 23:15).

We take Jesus words about being the ‘gate’ and the ‘shepherd’ as offering reassurance and comfort, but, originally, they were spoken as criticism and condemnation of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who offered a false path and who failed those in their care. 

Our Lord’s words, then, are a serious challenge to us all.

2. It affirms that Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

We are terrified of what people will think and say if we teach the uniqueness of Christ. The inevitable questions are asked. What about those who belong to other faiths? What about those who are not religious at all? What about those who live good lives without having faith? (We will return to these questions when we look at the Gospel reading for next week.)

We are not told all the answers to these questions. But we cannot escape the responsibility to preach what we are told. When Jesus says he is the gate, he is telling us how we may get on the path that leads to life and to salvation. In the book of Acts, the early Church described themselves as the ‘Way’. The only way on to the Way is through Jesus the Gate. 

Jesus likens many of the religious leaders of his day to the thief who comes only to ‘steal and kill and destroy’. Jesus came that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’.

At last we breathe a sigh of relief, it’s all been so negative so far. Warning leaders and limiting salvation to those who believe in Christ. At last we can talk of the life that Jesus offers, but the abundant life that Jesus offers isn’t abundant life as the world understands it but as Jesus understands it. 

Sadly, we fail to tell people the truth about the nature of this life and what going through the Gate onto the Way will involve. This is not because we want to lie but because we don’t want to put them off! We want to bring them to Christ, well to Church at least.

So, we talk of the positives, of which there are many, and leave out anything that sounds negative. Is it any wonder, then, that people are surprised, having committed to faith in Christ, to discover that the Way is hard and demanding, involving sacrifice and suffering.

Jesus himself was uncompromisingly honest about what following him meant, and people stopped following him because of it. He himself warned that people would drop off when they realized just how hard being his follower really was.

Sad though it is to say, what is on offer in our Churches is not what Jesus offered his followers. The sheep are indeed led by Jesus to green pastures, but they also have to walk through dark valleys.

Jesus does give us abundant life, but it is not the abundant life that this world offers. In the verses following our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus goes on to talk about how he is the good Shepherd, as opposed to those he is talking to who have been bad shepherds. The first thing Jesus says about what it means to be the Good Shepherd comes as a shock. Jesus says:

‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:11)

Having said that he came that those who are his sheep may have abundant life, he tells us that this abundant life will be at the cost of his own. In the next paragraph, consisting of just 8 verses, Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep SIX times. Our life came through his death.

The first words spoken about Jesus in St John’s Gospel are spoken by John the Baptist. He says:

‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

Many of the sheep in Jesus’ time were reared for the sacrifices in the Temple. A sheep was offered twice a day every day. And then on Passover thousands of lambs were sacrificed during the Festival. John the Baptist tells us that the One who is the Gate for the Sheep to go through to find life and the One who is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name is himself the Lamb who is slain as a sacrificial offering for their sin.

The Gate to life is covered in blood, the blood of the Shepherd who leads his sheep through it and who offers them his body and blood as their food and drink.

Earlier this week, we remembered the poet Christina Rossetti. Shortly before her death she wrote this:

'None other Lamb; none other name,
none other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
none other hiding-place from guilt and shame,
none beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
only my heart's desire cries out in me,
by the deep thunder of its want and woe,
cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art life, though I be dead,
love's fire Thou art, however cold I be:
nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
nor Home, but Thee.'

None other Lamb; none other name.

May we enter by him who is the Gate, follow him who is our Shepherd, and experience the abundant life given to those who worship the Lamb who has died, but is alive and reigns, now and forever.


No comments: