Easter 4. Year B.
Psalm 23. John 10, (1-)11- 18
I don’t suppose many of us know much about sheep. We live in a suburban environment. We may see a few sheep on the hillsides in the green belt from time to time, but they’re not part of the reality of our daily lives. I suspect that, for most of us, sheep only come into our consciousness as part of our holiday mindset. We think of tranquillity, of fat sheep and cuddly lambs, grazing in green fields, surrounded by hedges, watched over by a weather-beaten shepherd and his faithful sheepdog, who drive the sheep from their pretty farm to safe pasture. We don’t ever get close enough to know the reality.
I only once came nearer to the reality of sheep rearing. A friend of mine became vicar of a country parish, and discovered that this gave him the right to graze sheep on the churchyard. Since the parish could not afford a large lawnmower to keep the grass in the churchyard down, he decided that each year he would buy a couple of lambs and rear them. First of all he allowed them to graze in his large vicarage garden, and then he put them into the churchyard to keep the grass short, and then he had them slaughtered to use for meat in the winter.
When we visited them one spring, the lambs were in his garden. I discovered that their coats were not soft and clean, but wiry and oily. They were surprisingly strong, and could knock you over, rather like an over enthusiastic labrador. They also ate everything, including the daffodils and the young shoots of the garden plants, so they were very quickly moved to the churchyard, where a square of electric fencing kept them where they were supposed to be.
Many people would be insulted if you called them ‘sheep’. They like to think of themselves as individualists, who make up their own minds, and don’t just move with the flock, as we see sheep doing on the hillside.
In spite of that, ‘Jesus the Good Shepherd’ is a favourite image of Christians. Think how often you see Jesus portrayed with a lamb across his shoulders or cuddled in his arms in stained glass windows or oil paintings. Think of the hymns that are sung at weddings and funerals, and how often one or other version of the 23rd Psalm is included. We obviously find the image deeply reassuring. We don’t need to worry, it says. Jesus the Good Shepherd will keep us safe from all the nastiness of this world.
But, as our readings today make clear, the reality of life for a Palestinian shepherd and his sheep was far from tranquil and safe.
The Palestinian shepherd had to find safe grazing for his sheep in an often barren landscape. That might mean walking miles and miles, so his sheep, far from being fat and cuddly, were lean and hardy.
He had to find a safe path for them through rough country and rocky places before they could settle in any green pastures they were lucky enough to find. The sheep needed still water to drink. They couldn’t cope with swift running water, in which they could get swept away. So the shepherd might have to form a pool in a mountain stream before they would have the water they needed to drink.
There were numerous predators, both animal and human, against whom the shepherd had to fight to defend his sheep: wolves and bears, thieves and robbers. His rod and his staff were his weapons and his tools, to defend the sheep and to rescue them. His life, and theirs were often in danger. When they were injured, he had to care for them, anointing their wounds with oil to help them heal.
There was no ‘pretty farm’ to return to each night. There might be a sheepfold in the village, but on any night they were too far away to return to it, the shepherd had to build a temporary sheepfold from rocks and branches to protect the sheep. Once they were inside, he lay down across the entrance, to prevent them from wandering, and to stop predators from entering. His own body was their security.
The shepherd was an honoured figure in the Old Testament, because the Jews had originally been a nomadic, pastoral people, whose wealth was in their flocks and herds. Abraham was a shepherd, and so was Moses. David, the ideal king, started life as a shepherd, so that is how it came to be a metaphor for the rulers of Israel. But by the time of Jesus, the Jews had been a settled people for hundreds of years, with a lot of their wealth coming from agriculture and trade, and shepherds were now considered as rather disreputable, especially if they were hired to care for sheep they didn’t own.
Religious people saw them as outsiders, particularly because their nomadic lifestyle and contact with animals meant they could not keep the rigid rules of cleanliness before eating. The pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd show him as clean and well groomed. In reality a shepherd at that time would not have had the time or facilities for personal grooming, and would have smelt of sheep, and dung and the outdoors.
This is the sort of person Jesus is claiming to be in our gospel reading – an outsider, an adventurer, a fighter, a pioneer. And the question this passage poses to us is “Are we one of his sheep? Are we part of his flock?”
It might seem a strange question to ask, if we have the image in our minds of an English flock of sheep being driven by a sheepdog. But the Palestinian flock was not like that. The Palestinian sheep followed their shepherd – nobody drove them. They knew his voice and followed it. The shepherd went ahead and found the path. His sheep followed him because he called them by name and they trusted him. They relied on him to lead them safely through the dangers, to provide for their every need, to rescue them when they were in trouble.
And as the earlier part of this passage showed, if they were to have the ‘abundant life’ they needed they had to follow the shepherd out of the sheepfold, away from safety and into hardship and danger. That was the only way to find enough food and drink to enable them to grow. The Good Shepherd is not able to shield his sheep permanently from the troubles and dangers of the real world. What he can do is to face those dangers with them, at the cost of his own life, if necessary.
One of the verbs used in the earlier section of the passage talks of the sheep being “cast out” of the sheepfold. Understandably, they are reluctant to leave the safety of the sheepfold, and only go because they trust the shepherd. Following Jesus, the passage reminds us, may involve becoming an outcast, or at the very least associating with the outcasts, who Jesus tells us are also part of his flock.
In the time when the Gospel of John was being written, Jewish Christians were being cast out of the synagogue. Following Jesus meant they had to find abundant life away from the security of the religion that had nurtured them up to that time. The same is true for us. The safety of the sheepfold could be stunting our growth, and preventing us from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus calls us to. We may need to hear Jesus’s voice calling us out of our comfort zone, leading us into the valley where death threatens us, where we have to meet up with those who don’t belong. Who are they?
Who are the ‘sheep’ who are cast out from our church communities in our own time, yet who still seek their salvation in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd? How can we demonstrate that we are part of that flock too?
The story of the passion of Jesus, which we heard in the weeks leading up to Easter, tell us that Jesus was a shepherd who made the ultimate sacrifice, who laid down his life for his sheep. But the story of Easter assures us that, although he and his sheep go through the valley of the shadow of death, evil will not ultimately triumph; they will come safely home, to enjoy the celebration feast together in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Christian story tells us that, whatever Jesus our shepherd asks us to do, he’s done before. He’s been cast out of the sheepfold, he’s been let down by his fellow shepherds, he’s faced the worst that life can throw at him; he’s been there, he’s got the T-shirt.
“I am the good shepherd’ is the slogan on Jesus’ T-shirt. But are we prepared to risk being one of his sheep? Will we follow him, no matter where he leads?