(Acts 2, 42-47; 1 Peter 2, 19-end; John 10, 1-10)
If someone called you a sheep, how would you feel? I suspect you would feel insulted. The usual adjective that goes with ‘sheep’ these days is ‘silly’ or ‘woolly’ and the usual simile is ‘followed like sheep’.
Today most people value independence and intelligence in themselves and others – so being compared to something which is regarded as thoughtless and stupid, and which follows the group in a mindless way, is not going to be taken as a compliment!
On the other hand, however clever and independent we think ourselves, most of us like to feel we have somewhere secure to return to; so the idea of being kept safely in a sheep pen might appeal to all except the most adventurous among us.
In this first part of John’s meditation on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he pictures the sheep in a pen in the village, surrounded by high walls, and guarded by a gatekeeper. The gate is only opened for the shepherd who owns the sheep, and they respond to his voice and follow him out. The gatekeeper will not allow anyone else near the sheep – if they want to get a sheep, strangers and thieves have to climb in over the walls, and the sheep will run away from them because they don’t recognise their voice.
This is a very different way of regarding sheep from our modern one. These sheep are not seen as silly – they know who they belong to. They hear and respond only to the voice of the person they know and trust, the person who will lead them to places where they will be safe, where they will be fed and grow.
They are also valuable. Sheep represented a major part of the the wealth of an individual or a community, so they were worth protecting and nurturing. They also represented for most people a celebration meal – meat was eaten rarely, and only on special occasions. Think of them, then, as the Palestinian equivalent of your bank account, and caviare, smoked salmon, fillet steak and champagne, all rolled into one!
That should make us feel better about being compared to sheep. This tells us that we are people whom God values, who are precious to him. All we, like sheep, represent God’s wealth on earth.
There’s only a very small amount of sheep farming going on now in the UK. But in, say, Australia, many people still have a lot of their wealth invested in sheep. Because of that, the sheep are marked with a brand. So, how are we, as Jesus’s sheep, branded?
We were marked at our baptism with a cross in oil or water, but that is now invisible. The only way we now show that we are branded with Jesus’s mark, is by the way we live. Our Acts reading tells us that the first believers were visibly marked by their experience of the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, so much so that even non-believers noticed the change. Are we distinguishable from our neighbours by our Christian way of life? Are we visibly owned by God?
In our second reading from the Letter of Peter, we are reminded by the writer of the way that Jesus lived, enduring abuse and suffering without complaint or retaliation, and are urged to imitate and follow him, as sheep follow their shepherd. John distinguishes in the reading between the true shepherd who owns the sheep, and leads them to abundance of life, and ‘thieves and robbers’, false shepherds who want to exploit them.
At the time when John’s Gospel was written, Jesus and his followers were accused of being ‘sheep stealers’, taking loyal Jews away from their true allegiance to the Law of Moses; in this passage, Jesus is accusing the leaders of the Jews of the same thing.
Jesus also says he is the gate for the sheep. A door or gate has two functions: it can let the sheep (the followers of a religion) out into the place where they are nurtured and grow, or it can confine them in a place where they can be at the mercy of false shepherds or thieves who will destroy them. This is what Jesus accuses the contemporary leaders of the Jews of doing.
It is worth pondering, then, what is it that steals people away from the true message of Jesus in our own time? What calls us in a voice which is not the authentic voice of our true shepherd? It is hard sometimes to hear the voice of Jesus through twenty centuries of tradition and interpretation; though we are lucky that there are scholars (like the Jesus Seminar) who try to take us back to what Jesus actually said. Unless we can get back to the original words of Jesus, we may be following ‘thieves and robbers’ rather than the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is one who leads the sheep in the way that leads to ‘green pastures’, which stands for fullness of life. It is important to notice that, in this metaphor, the shepherd we follow is a living one. This passage is not talking about gaining fullness of life as a result of the death of the shepherd, of after our own death, but in this life, and as a result of following his way of life.
So, as our other readings from the New Testament remind us, we are called to follow Jesus’ way of openness to the outcast and the stranger, of sacrificial service, and of peaceful opposition to the forces that oppress and dehumanise us and others. It may put our lives in danger (as Jesus says the Good Shepherd does in the verses that follow this reading); it will certainly involve living sacrificially. That makes this a very good reading for the start of Christian Aid week. It reminds us that we cannot help others without being prepared to sacrifice our own self, as Jesus did.
The Acts reading illustrates some ways of following the Good Shepherd in the way we live. Some of them may be appropriate to our lives now; others may not, but the passage should give us food for thought about the way we show that we are part of Jesus’s flock.
Acts tells us that at this time the followers of Jesus held all their goods in common. That ‘communal’ way of living is not something that works well in today’s society; but it does remind us that we should not regard our possessions as being just for our own enjoyment and benefit; they are meant to be used for the good of the whole flock. The goods of the believers were used for the benefit of those in need, as should ours be.
Acts also tells us that worship was important in the life of the first disciples. They went together to the temple on a daily basis; they prayed; and the Eucharist – the breaking of bread – was central to their lives. They were attentive to the teaching of the apostles, and they spent time in fellowship with each other. In all these way they went ‘deeper into God’ on a regular basis and strengthened their commitment to following the Good Shepherd.
Their attitude was one of thanksgiving and joy. This made them attractive to outsiders. It was apparent that they were enjoying a new fullness of life. Their faith enabled them to do signs and wonders – through their faith they were ‘transforming the communities’ in which they lived.
Their joyful attitude and the obvious mutual love and fellowship had the effect of drawing in ‘new disciples’, expanding the flock and increasing the wealth of their owner. This was not overt evangelism, but it was, and remains, the most effective sort of evangelism. People will be drawn into the fellowship of Jesus’s flock not by our words, but by the attractiveness of our worship, the strength of our fellowship and the witness of our service to the community. That is the sort of sheep fold that the flock of the Good Shepherd as meant to be in.
But the sheep in God’s flock are not meant to stay in the sheepfold for ever. We may remain for a time within the safety of the sheepfold; but the voice of the Good Shepherd invites us to follow him out into the wider world, to live life abundantly in the green pastures we will find there, transforming the community we live in and adding more and more new sheep to his flock.