In the Name of the True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of our mothers and grandmothers that are here! I would also like to extend a warm welcome to aunts, great-aunts, great-grandmothers and even cousins or anyone else who has had the privilege and honor of helping to raise a child…to protect, nurture and to guide even when we are well within our way into adulthood. All of us who have participated in this process know that none of this happens on our own, but in the context of a community. Even if you are not a mother yourself, today we give thanks to what you have brought to the next generation of those who are coming up. It is quite appropriate that this year Mother’s Day also falls on what many churches call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” from which we take from the theme of our lessons today.
One of the iconic images of Jesus and one of the names for himself is “The Good Shepherd,” a powerful symbol for the people of Israel. After all, King David began his life as a shepherd so this image had a strong resonance during the day. Sheep in those days were quite valuable since they not only provided food but wool for clothing, so anyone who looked after them had to be on constant vigilance for thieves and bandits. When they were not roaming in the pasture, they were kept rather large pen surrounded by a stone wall with only one gate for them to go in or out. Usually that warranted hiring a gatekeeper to watch them at night. During the day, the shepherd would lead them out of them pen so they could graze, calling to them to keep them together so they don’t go astray, and often he would know them so well he knew them all by name or by their quirks or eccentricities or by their distinguishing marks. Believe it or not, shepherds in the Middle East by and large follow this same practice. To get an idea of what this is like here in Key West, watch a mother chicken with her babies as they wander the streets.
Today’s lesson is the first part of a longer passage where Jesus talks about his particular relationship to the people of God. We are all familiar with some of the lines which are not mentioned here like, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep. My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.” But before he gets into all of that, he says something rather interesting: “I am the gate.” Now before we try and sort out what he could be talking about, we need to look at what’s happening on either side of the lesson so we can understand where Jesus is coming from. This is a small part of could be called a three act play, something which happens fairly regularly in the Gospel of John. In Chapter 9, we have a miracle – the healing of blind man, that’s Act I. Act II is the controversy that comes out it, which is when the religious leaders of the day are trying to figure out how this all happened and Jesus basically tells them that they are the ones who are blind to the coming of the Kingdom of God. And then we come to Act III, where Jesus attempts to grant sight to their blindness and to shine a light for those who are still stumbling around in the dark. In all honesty, if we wanted to we could be here all day trying to untangle the knots of what he is saying! However, if we don’t know the backstory, or we heard the discourse on the Good Shepherd without any knowledge of what the context, we would certainly be as confused as the Pharisees. Is he a shepherd? Is he the gatekeeper? Is the gate itself? You may as well ask him, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
When Jesus talks of himself as the gate, it raises some rather interesting questions, some big and grand like “What is the nature of salvation?” or “Is the work of Jesus exclusive?” or even, “What about other teachers and other shepherds?” You cannot begin to answer these questions without taking into consideration that the point of the entire Gospel of John is to show and tell how Jesus is the embodiment, the enfleshment of God. Those of you who have heard me speak know that one thing I am fond of saying is that the story of our faith is not how we went off to look to search for God, but God came in the flesh, found us and called us to be his own. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
With that in mind, the key to unlocking not only this lesson, however, but the entire discourse I think lies in the sentence, “I have come that they may have abundant life and to have it abundantly.” Jesus as the Good Shepherd knows each one of us personally and by name. He ensures the safety of his flock, and he is also the gate by which the flock enters and becomes members of the family of God. When he speaks of other shepherds he is warning us about the dangers of not hearing and focusing on his voice. During this particular time in which Jesus lived, there was no shortage of those claiming to be the Messiah or other revolutionary leaders to lead people against the Romans. And today there are no shortage of people on the TV or the internet who claim to give us all the answers to success and safety and spiritual peace and well-being all for the price of a DVD or a book plus shipping and handling. These other shepherds seek to lead members of the flock astray into danger and disaster, but Jesus … is offering abundant life as only God is able to do.
Without understanding the concept of the gift of abundant life, we would quickly become as confused as Nicodemus when he was asking how he could re-enter a mother’s womb so he could be “born again” or “born from above.” At that point, we miss what it actually means to be a part of Jesus’ flock which is perfectly expressed in the Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
“There are green pastures, still waters, and it is the presence of the shepherd, the presence of Jesus, which makes all of this possible.”
“Yes there is danger, yes people will come to divide us, yes there are thieves and bandits … but even in the valley of the shadow of death there is no need to be afraid for God is with us.”
It is also tremendously important that we remember that while life is given to us individually, it is also given to us and meant to be expressed as a community. As Americans, we take great pride in our individualism but Jesus reminds us that we are not a flock of one. We are called to be a community in which we actively participate to serve each others common good, building strong relationships with each other, and most importantly, to foster a deep abiding trust that the Shepherd is looking out for us even if we are tempted to walk away. To make his point clear, later in this passage Jesus says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand. No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
Community is a very important idea in the Gospel of John, and in the early church. In the book of Acts we read that they certainly had their own set of problems, but also that they all stuck together and worked together for each others well-being. The Gospel of John later talks about how we are all branches that live together on the vine that is our source, Jesus. And at the end, we read a miraculous catch of fish which are bound together in a net when they were just basically doing their own thing. And that net doesn’t break.
“No one can take them out of my hand.”
Jesus as the Good Shepherd shows us a God who isn’t willing to remain distant from us. He comes to us. He keeps us safe and guides us and shelters us even when there seems to be danger on every turn. He call us his own and knows every one of our names and who we are as part of his flock. It is a call to solidarity, to sacrifice, and to abundant eternal life. Our focus as a community is to stick together and to make sure we are listening out for his voice so we know where he is calling us to next. Under the care of the Good Shepherd, we can rest assured we are loved … we are protected … and no matter what else happens … we belong to him.