The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Reading: John 10:11-18
Our Gospel reading contains one of the most familiar and best loved images that our Lord uses to describe himself. ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, he tells his audience. The problem with this image is that it has been cut loose from its context and from the reason why Jesus originally used it with the result that we fail to understand what Jesus himself meant by it. Instead, we have a rather sentimentalized idea of our Lord as the Good Shepherd.
The images used to depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd usually show a perfectly manicured Jesus with flowing and beautifully conditioned hair, in sunlit fields, surrounded by woolly sheep and often holding a cuddly lamb. Living in cities, it is perhaps understandable that we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by romantic and idealized images of sheep and their shepherds. These images of Jesus, however, somewhat miss the point, and because they are so removed from reality we fail to grasp what our Lord is wanting to tell his audience and us by using this image.
To understand what our Lord meant then and what he would say to us today, we need to go back and begin by asking who Jesus’ audience was. Who is it that he is speaking to? Yet again, the chapter divisions encourage us to separate Jesus’ words from their original context. The people Jesus is talking to in chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel are the same people he is talking to at the end of chapter 9 of the Gospel.
In chapter 9, Jesus has healed a man born blind. The Pharisees, rather than being happy that a blind man can now see, are upset that this is just encouraging more people to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They end up turning on the blind man himself and casting him out of the synagogue. This was about more than preventing the formerly blind man from attending services on the sabbath, but about isolating him from the community. He is like a sheep cast out from the flock. Jesus says that his coming into the world is for judgement. Those who are blind will see; but those who see will become blind. In other words, those who reject him show their spiritual blindness.
Some of the Pharisees, generally considered by the people to be spiritually insightful, hearing Jesus say this, ask him:
‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ (John 9:40)
Jesus’ reply to this question starts with the last verse of chapter 9, and then continues in chapter 10. Jesus begins his reply by saying:
‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’’ (John 9:40-41)
Jesus doesn’t stop there, however, but continues by telling them what is effectively a parable about the sheepfold, the gate and the shepherd. St John tells us:
‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.’ (John 10:6)
In explaining his initial response to their question, Jesus draws on two different images from the parable to describe himself. His use of these two images has caused some confusion amongst interpreters. However, seeing them as two different, albeit related images, helps us to understand what Jesus is getting at.
Firstly, in verses 7-9, Jesus describes himself as the ‘Gate for the Sheep’. Then, secondly, in verses 11-18, Jesus describes himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’. It helps to understand what Jesus is saying if we read the parable through once seeing Jesus as the Gate for the Sheep, and then a second time, seeing him as the Shepherd of the Sheep. In his use of both images, Jesus describes the people of God using the image of sheep. In his relationship to the sheep, Jesus is both the Gate of the sheepfold and he is the Shepherd of the sheep in it. The two images describe two different aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the sheep.
But how does this answer the Pharisees’ question about themselves? As I said last year in my sermon on the first part of chapter ten, a passage in the book of Ezekiel helps us to understand what Jesus is getting at in his answer. In the book of Ezekiel, God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, condemns the leaders of Israel, who have failed 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)
To begin with Jesus focuses on the image of himself as the Gate. The only legitimate way of gaining access to the sheep is through the Gate. Anyone who tries to get in another way is a thief and a bandit. The Pharisees, by refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah sent by God, are trying to gain access to the sheep, that is, to God’s people by another way. There is no other way. By trying to gain access to the sheep another way, the Pharisees are more like the thieves and bandits who steal the sheep and cause them harm. Jesus came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
Jesus then answers their question focusing on the image of himself as the Shepherd of the sheep. And so, in verse 11, Jesus says the famous words, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.
What is that makes for a good shepherd? If we were advertising for a good shepherd, what would we be looking for? The truth is that being largely urban dwellers, with little or no experience of rural life of any kind, we wouldn’t have a clue what to look for. If I were to ask what makes a good teacher or a good doctor, we would at least have some idea of what to look for. But shepherds? We wouldn’t know where to begin. One thing, however, is for certain: the manicured Jesus of popular imagination wouldn’t last more than five minutes in the job.
For us, the word ‘good’ in the phrase ‘good shepherd’ means ‘gentle and kind’. Doubtless being gentle and kind are good qualities in any job, but they are not the first qualities you would look for if you were looking for someone who would make a good shepherd.
The people Jesus spoke to, however, would have known exactly what to look for in a good shepherd, regardless of whether they owned sheep themselves. Sheep were everywhere. Even urban dwellers couldn’t miss them; they were surrounded by them. The Pharisees themselves would have been very familiar with them. After all, literally thousands of sheep were sacrificed in the Temple.
Sheep were an important part of Israel’s life and history. Shepherds and their sheep feature prominently in the Bible. The first shepherd was Abel whose offering of a sheep was accepted by God, while his brother Cain’s sacrifice was not (Genesis 4:1-16). Cain murdered Abel because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice rather than his. But not only the son of Adam, but many other figures in the Bible were also shepherds. Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses, and David were all shepherds. It is because sheep and shepherds were so much part of Israel’s story that God himself is described in the Scriptures as the shepherd of his people. We are all familiar with Psalm 23, for example, where the psalmist describes God as his shepherd who leads, protects, and provides for him.
There is a programme on British TV called ‘Our Yorkshire Farm’. It follows the life of a present day shepherd, Amanda Owens, who lives with her husband on a 2,000 acre remote farm in Yorkshire, looking after a flock of 1,000 sheep. Amanda also has nine children. To give you an idea of the sort of person she is, you only have to read her description of how she gave birth to her eighth child.
As she lives 70 miles from her nearest maternity hospital, when she went into labour she decided it wasn’t worth trying to get to the hospital. She decided instead to have the baby at home. Rather than waking her husband, who was asleep upstairs, she went downstairs and had the baby in front of the fire with just her dog as company. Having safely delivered the baby herself, she then went upstairs and woke up her husband with the baby.
A good shepherd, then as now, has to be tough. Shepherds have to be out in all weathers, and have to put the needs of the sheep above their own needs. It is not a job for wimps but for people willing to get their hands dirty. At times, it could be dangerous. Jesus talks about the threats from wolves who seek to snatch the sheep and threaten both the sheep and the shepherd. The good shepherd needs to know how to protect the sheep despite the danger to himself. Jesus’ audience would have known all this. Jesus is using images drawn from their faith and experience.
As well as having the right character, there is something else that you need, again then as now, to be a good shepherd. You have to care for the sheep. Again, we mustn’t get overly sentimental about this; as I have said, many of the sheep at the time of Jesus were being reared for sacrifice in the Temple. You aren’t going to get far as a shepherd, however, if you don’t care what happens to the sheep while they are in your charge. While they are in your care, you have to be willing to put the sheep’s safety and needs before your own.
It is amazing in schools how many candidates when you are interviewing them for a job as a teacher manage to get through the interview without actually mentioning the children. As a teacher, being ‘child-centred’ shouldn’t in the first place be about teaching method but about the teacher’s motivation and focus. Shepherds for their part have to be ‘sheep-centred’.
Jesus describes those who are not ‘sheep-centred’ as mere hired hands who run at the first sign of trouble. They are in the job for the money and not because they have any interest in the sheep. As Jesus says:
‘The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.’ (John 10:13)
So, what is it that Jesus thinks distinguishes him as a good shepherd of God’s sheep and what can we learn from it? Jesus says twice that he is the Good Shepherd.
Firstly, in verse 11, Jesus says:
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:11)
In the sermons and podcasts during this Easter season, I have been stressing how Jesus laying down his life, that is, his death for us, is at the heart of what Jesus came to do. His care for the sheep is to be seen primarily in his willingness to die for them. St John, in his letter, explains that Jesus’ death is as a ‘sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 2:2); it is the way we find forgiveness and find God himself. In his use of the image of the Gate for the Sheep, Jesus makes clear that there is no other way we can find forgiveness and no other way we can come to God except through him.
The significance of Jesus’ laying down of his life for us, however, doesn’t stop there. It is never less than that, but it is more. Jesus by laying down his life for us also gives us an example of how we too are to live. We too are to die to sin, but more than that we also are to lay down our lives for those who Christ laid his life down for. St John writes in our reading this morning:
‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.’ (1 John 3:16)
Jesus’ willingness to die in obedience to the Father’s command (John 10:18) is an example for all who seek to follow him. It is also meant as an example especially to those who would lead Christ’s flock on his behalf. At the end of the Gospel, in chapter 21, Jesus restores Peter’s relationship with himself after Peter has broken it by denying Jesus three times before Jesus was crucified. After his resurrection, Jesus famously asks Peter, again three times, whether Peter loves him. Three times Peter says he does, and each time Jesus tells him that he is to look after his sheep: ‘feed my lambs’ (verse 15); ‘tend my sheep’ (verse 16); ‘feed my sheep’ (verse 17).
Those who are entrusted with leadership in the Church are to be ‘pastors’, that is, shepherds under Jesus. The word pastor itself comes from the Latin word for shepherd. St Peter writes to leaders in the Church using this image and language (1 Peter 5:1-4). They are to care for the flock and be examples to it. St Peter describes Jesus as the ‘Chief Shepherd’. The Church leaders are shepherds under him. St Paul uses the same image and language, particularly in the letters that we now know as the ‘pastoral letters’. These are the letters to Timothy and Titus in which St Paul gives guidance to his two trusted co-workers on how they are to behave as leaders in the Church of God.
It is worth remembering in all this that Jesus is talking about being the Good Shepherd in response to the Pharisees’ question about themselves. Jesus is saying all this because they are bad shepherds. We can get an idea then of what being a good shepherd is by seeing some of the ways the Pharisees are bad shepherds. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes some severe criticisms of the Pharisees. He describes them as ‘blind guides’ (Matthew 15:14). A good shepherd is one who has seen the truth and who knows the Shepherd and what his will is for his people.
In St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for wanting to be looked up to and to be seen by men. They are concerned about their reputation and position and about what people think of them. They love titles, getting the best seats, and being treated with respect. Jesus tells his disciples that instead the greatest amongst them is to be their servant. There is no place for hierarchy and special titles. The one who humbles themselves is the one who will be exalted.
I don’t want here to say too much about the Church and clergy today. I will let you decide whether or not you think that in the Church today we have a hierarchical system in which people seek advancement and love positions of honour and the titles that go with them. What I would say is that it has most certainly characterized the Church in the past to its great shame and loss.
What we certainly should be doing today is seeking to rid ourselves and our Church of all practices and models of ministry that encourage such thinking and behaviour. I have always hated it when people talk about having a career in the Church. One comment I will allow myself on the present-day Church is that we have largely abandoned the image of ministers as shepherds of the sheep for one that sees them as managers of an organisation. The dominant model of ministry is the managerial one. It is inevitable if this is how we see our church and clergy that this will be how clergy behave and think. We shouldn’t be surprised then when the Church looks less like sheep led by a shepherd and more like a business run by an executive.
Secondly, in describing how he is the Good Shepherd, Jesus says:
‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me …’ (John 10:14)
Jesus repeats after this, in verse 15, that he ‘lays down his life for the sheep’.
Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. This too has a message for those who would be pastors in the Church. It is a reminder that, first and foremost, we should be more concerned in the Church with our relationship with each other and with God than with all the other things that are we urged to take an interest in and spend time on.
But there is an important message for each one of us, whoever we are. It is that that being one of the sheep who follow the Good Shepherd is about knowing the Shepherd and being known by him. As St John tells those he is writing to in his letter, what we believe and how we live does matter. But what matters more is whom we know. Do we have a relationship with the Good Shepherd? If we don’t, then we are not part of the flock, but just an outsider looking in.
So, if today you want to be a follower of Christ, the Good Shepherd who leads his sheep, then you need to meet and get to know the Shepherd. There is no other way to become part of God’s people than through him who is both the Shepherd of the Sheep and the Gate to the sheepfold.
No Other Name (Christina Rossetti)
'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.'