The Fourth Sunday of Easter; Year A (5/11/2014)

Lessons:Acts 2:42-47 Psalm 23 1st Peter 2:19-25 St. John 10:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

10:1 [Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

St. John 10:1-10, New Revised Standard Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America).

Of Sheepfolds, Sheep, Gatekeepers, Gates and Shepherds (not to mention Thieves, Bandits and Strangers…)

The image of the shepherd is a familiar one to anyone who has studied the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). The term is used some eight-five times, from the final words of Israel (in Genesis 48) who professes that God has been his shepherd all of his life — to some of the most well-known words of the Bible, the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” — to Ezekiel, who describes Israel as sheep without a shepherd, vulnerable to those who would destroy them — to Zechariah who rails against the “worthless shepherd who deserts the flock.”

In the verse that follows this week’s reading, Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He knows his sheep by name. He goes out ahead of them, and they follow him (because they know his voice). He is the source of their salvation. He gives them the gift of abundant life. In describing himself this way, he identifies himself with the best of those who led Israel throughout the years. He also offers himself to us as our shepherd, if we should choose to follow him today.

Many preachers have reflected on this text and preached moving sermons about Jesus as our shepherd. (A quick look at my files indicates that I am among them…) Yet that is not what he claims in this reading. He speaks of those who enter the sheepfold legitimately and illegitimately. He speaks of the trusting relationship a shepherd has with the sheep. He speaks of the reluctance that sheep have to follow the voice of a stranger. This seems to make sense to us, but evidently not to his disciples. (verse 6: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”)

So he tries again. One might naturally expect that the words to follow will be even easier than the ones that came before. But that is not necessarily so. He now describes himself as the gate to the sheepfold. Entering by him brings salvation, and through him sheep move in and out to find pasture.

It is a strangely obtuse passage, and we can’t for certain explain exactly what he means. But the closing sentences of this text capture the entire text, and shape it into a promise for us. While thieves come in to kill and destroy, Jesus comes in order that they (and we!) might have life, and have it abundantly.

Abundant life is what God wants for us. And whether we think of Jesus as a gatekeeper, a gate, a sheepfold or a shepherd, we know what his desire is for us. Life. Abundant life. That is why he comes. And that is why we celebrate this week.

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How is the image of shepherd used in the Bible?
  2. What examples from the Hebrew Bible do you remember of good and bad shepherds?
  3. How does Jesus redefine the image of shepherd, in teaching his disciples about himself?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How is the image of Jesus as shepherd a word of comfort to me?
  2. What “thieves, bandits and strangers” have sought to draw me away from my faith?
  3. What do I understand Jesus to mean by “abundant life?”