The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. We have a reading in which Jesus is portrayed as a faithful shepherd, we read the 23rd psalm. It is the Sunday when the Gospel reading finally moves past the stories of that day of Resurrection, and it is a kind of turning point in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
So we talk about shepherds and sheep. Yet again.
In Jesus’ time, sheep-herding was often done by families. Fathers and sons, brothers, nephews, would all have sheep. During the day, they would take their individual flocks off to good pasture, but then they would come back together at night and put them all in one pen, one sheepfold as Jesus calls it. The sheep would get all mixed together in the pen, and so every morning the shepherds would come and draw their own sheep out to take them back to their individual pasture.
For those of us who don’t spend much of any time with sheep, it’s hard for us to imagine that the shepherds knew each of their sheep by sight. A sheep is a sheep, right? But those shepherds knew each one, and called to them. “C’mon brownfoot! C’mon pink nose! C’mon tatter-ear!” And the sheep would go to their proper shepherd, because they knew that voice. That was the voice that came and found them when they had fallen into a hole, or gotten tangled in briars. That was the voice that led them to green pasture and fresh water every day. That was the voice they could trust to take care of them. So they would go. Each to the right shepherd. Perhaps sheep aren’t QUITE so stupid as we think they are. The shepherd knows each sheep’s particularities, the ways in which it is likely to get into trouble, the kinds of grass it likes and doesn’t like. The shepherd knows which sheep get along and which sheep are better kept apart. The sheep are devoted to the shepherd because the shepherd knows each one of them.
It’s a lovely way of thinking about our relationship with God, isn’t it? The idea that each of us is known completely, all our foibles and faults, known and called by name to follow—that is part of our bond to our Maker, that is why we are devoted to God, and ideally we follow wherever God leads us, even if it’s not the safety of the enclosed pen. We follow because we trust that the shepherd will lead us in safety to greater blessings.
But in today’s reading, Jesus offers a second image, besides the good shepherd. That puzzling description of himself as ‘The Gate.’ It’s a peculiar image, one that at first glance seems inconsistent or even off-putting. Why would Jesus refer to himself as a barrier that keeps some out and allows others in?
I was delighted to discover an explanation by John Kavanaugh that made it all make sense. It goes back to those methods of ancient sheep-herding and that overnight pen that the whole family had in common.
The sheep pen had only one opening in it. All the sheep would go through that one space in the wall into the enclosure. The purpose of this was to make it really hard for predators and thieves to steal sheep in the night. Sure, sometimes they’d manage to slip over the side, but it was still really difficult to get back over the wall with a sheep on your back (or, as a wolf, in your mouth). So it made it possible for the shepherds to take turns guarding them at night. And rather than put up a gate that had to be opened and closed, often the shepherd would just lie down across the opening. That way, if he fell asleep, nothing could get past him without waking him up. The shepherd’s BODY became the gate.
As Kavanaugh puts it:
When Jesus reveals that he is the gate of the sheepfold, he is not just suggesting that he is the unique way into safety or the only way out of the pasture. He is saying that he will prevent our destruction by laying down his life….Can we be lost or destroyed? Only over the Lord’s dead body. But his risen now, to die no more.
Jesus is driving home the idea that the GOOD Shepherd puts the well-being of the sheep over his own well-being, even at the cost of his life. Thieves and bandits want the sheep for their own pleasure, but the shepherd is devoted to tending the sheep so that the sheep can have life. And not just subsistence living, but abundant life.
Now the question that comes to mind is, what exactly is “abundant life” for a sheep?! Clean water, fresh grass, safe environment. The occasional shearing—because even if the sheep doesn’t like it, it’s important for the sheep to be relieved of all that wool from time to time. Unshorn sheep are more susceptible to parasites and disease, and the heat can be too much for them. Abundant life for sheep is pretty simple.
And the truth is, abundant life for Christians is pretty simple, too.
We get a picture of that in today’s reading from Acts. It begins by describing how “those who had been baptized” changed their way of life. We have to look back to last week’s reading to see that this is a reference to the THREE THOUSAND people who had heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon and been convicted and converted to follow Jesus. That’s a lot people!
We are told that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. They pooled their resources and made sure everyone had what they needed. They cared for and provided for each other. And as they spent this time together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, not conforming to the world’s systems of competition and hoarding, valuing people as beloved children of God and not for what they possessed—as they lived this idealized vision of community, miracles happened. And they were in awe. Life was abundant not because of stuff, but because of relationship. Relationship with God, with each other, with the community in which they lived. They saw God at work, and it was wondrous to see. People were desperate for a word of hope, a promise of new life. The story of Jesus drew them in and changed them.
The story of Jesus can still draw people in and change them—if we are willing to tell it. We have to learn and re-learn how to share the Good News. It’s not just a promise of what happens to us in the sweet bye-and-bye.
The life that Christ offers is not just life after death. It is a way of being in the world right now, following the Good Shepherd, going wherever he leads—be it green pastures and still waters or the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Following him in complete trust that we will be provided what we need and protected from anything that could endanger our relationship with God. Experiencing the simple blessings of gathering in fellowship with one another and, as we heard last week, to know Christ in our midst in the breaking of the bread. And sharing the Good News with others, the lost and the lonely. Assuring them that Jesus already knows them by name, and that there is room for them in his flock.