Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter April 26, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
There are a couple of strange things about this Sunday. We’re still in Easter season, but you wouldn’t know it from the readings. Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading do not come from a resurrection appearance story, but instead from a moment of conflict during his public ministry. In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a man who was born blind, and the religious authorities investigated the incident. They were hostile to Jesus and tried to get some dirt on him, or find someone willing to denounce him, but only managed to provoke favorable testimony, devotion, and worship. Jesus then tried to explain to the authorities who he was, but they didn’t understand, and were still out to get him.
So even though they sound gentle, reassuring, and comforting to us, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel came out of a tense conflict in a broken world. He starts by talking about the direct threat to the sheep, the wolf, and the ineffectual response to that threat, the “hired hand” who runs away at the first sign of trouble. Jesus may or may not be making a direct comparison between his enemies and wolves or hired hands, but if they thought so, they might have reacted violently… so it’s a good thing they were already confused. While we can blame the enemies of Jesus for many things, we can’t really blame them for being confused, at least not this time.
Jesus was playing fast and loose with this shepherding metaphor. First of all, most shepherds were hired hands. Being a shepherd was a terrible job in those days. It was dirty, lonely, dangerous, and poorly compensated. Anyone who was rich enough to afford a flock of sheep would have made hiring a shepherd a top priority. But for the sake of argument, let’s go along with this part and assume that the owner of the sheep is acting as the shepherd. A shepherd would certainly look after the welfare of the sheep, but he would have to strike a balance between keeping them safe from attack and keeping them fed.
From what I’ve read, which I’ll admit is not an exhaustive survey of ancient animal husbandry practices, shepherds would keep sheep in circular stone pens. Rather than a door or a gate, the shepherd would block the one gap in the ring with his own body once the sheep were safely inside. Then, to feed the sheep, he would lead them out to graze on open pasture. Jesus referred to both parts of the job explicitly in the verses just before the ones appointed for today. Both parts are essential.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t really talking about animal husbandry, either. Few literal shepherds would really die for a sheep, because none could rise to life again after doing so. Instead, Jesus is talking about how much he loves us, how much he does for us, and the extent of the power he possesses over us and the forces that threaten us.
I’m not a fan of the traditional imagery surrounding the notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It tends to portray Jesus as too calm and quiet, and the sheep as too clean and passive. And even though the very metaphor comes from Jesus’s own words, our tendency, at least subconsciously, is to place ourselves not in the role of the sheep, but in the role of evaluating Jesus, and deeming his shepherding performance as “good.” I’m sure he appreciates that. But seriously, Jesus puts us in the role of the sheep, and since this is all a metaphor, that’s a good place to be. Jesus calls us and leads us. When we listen and follow Jesus, he leads us both into the security of protection from evil and into the vocations and ministries where we might find prosperity and joy. He does care for us, but he does so in order that we might live our lives fully and well.
Another thing that doesn’t fit with the traditional imagery of the Good Shepherd is the kind of sheep Jesus is tending. Many images show Jesus with a single sheep or a small flock of identical, tame, adoring sheep, all pure white, of course. If we are the sheep, and we are, we know this is not an accurate portrayal of ourselves or any community we’ve ever heard of. Each of us is complicated, and a sinner who doesn’t always listen, or follow; sometimes because we are distracted, and sometimes intentionally. Even healthy Christian communities like ours have disagreements over preferences and direction, which is a sign of good health and vigor. But then you have communities roiling with internal conflict, and enmity between communities at every level from local to global. Jesus said unambiguously, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Well, that sounds… optimistic. And it sounds like Jesus has taken on an awfully big job for himself. But he’s got time on his side, and as John’s letter says, God is greater than our hearts. By laying down his life and taking it up again, Jesus opened the gates of eternal life where all of us will be reconciled to Jesus and to one another. That doesn’t mean we should just wait around until then; that’s not what the Good Shepherd is calling us to do. He didn’t give up on the world, even when it gave up on him, so neither should we. Jesus calls us to join him in making our broken and troubled world a better world, making reconciliation, protecting the innocent, serving the needy, proclaiming salvation in his name, and always loving one another.
We are the successors of Peter and John who carried the message and the mercy of Christ into the world that is, not the world to come. When, like them, we listen to, and follow, the risen Christ into the world, our lives become the resurrection appearance story the world longs to hear, and to experience. Sheep who follow the shepherd from the safe confinement of stone into the open pasture are a Gospel that breaks out of its binding and into the world.