The Good Shepherd: 4th Sunday of Easter
Many of us are learning new skills to help us to survive and stay connected in these difficult times. Parents and children have been exploring the delights of learning at home.
Jesus often teaches and when he, he often talks to his disciples through metaphors, similes, images, parables and association of ideas. Sometimes they get what he is talking about and quite often they don’t. Nevertheless, he persists in this method so we know that it is a particular way of reaching the mind, the heart and the spirit. He does not just stir the emotions or just appeal to reason. He keeps all these things together and so we know that we need to build our understanding through these multiple layers.
If you have enjoyed a layered dish like lasagne or English trifle, you will know that the taste sensation is greater than the taste of the individual parts. Maybe there’s a life lesson in that. We are more than a collection of individuals and learning is about more than just the head or just the heart.
Billy Collins is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. His poem Introduction to Poetry is a glimpse of what scripture (including the teaching of Jesus) is also like. Here is a part of that poem
(Source: Introduction to Poetry www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html )
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
Why would a poet or Jesus use metaphors and other figures of speech to convey meaning? Well, they convey so much in so few words. If someone says their organisation is like a tight ship, or an orchestra, or a circus, or a jigsaw puzzle, they might all mean that there is common purpose, particular roles and each person is needed, but each metaphor gives a very different picture. Is our church more like a ship, an orchestra, a circus or a jigsaw? Or something quite different?
In today’s Gospel reading we have sheepfolds and gates, sheep and shepherds, gatekeepers, strangers and thieves. In verse 6 we hear that the disciples have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Does he abandon the metaphors? No, they are too valuable. But he gives them the vital clue that he is talking about himself. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am … Jesus’ listeners would hear the echoes of the voice Moses heard from the burning bush, the great I am. Jesus also lets the disciples know that each metaphor is by itself an insufficient measure of all that he would like them to know or to sense about him.
In the reading from 1 Peter, we hear of Jesus as the cornerstone in a house built of living stones. We may not know the fullness of every aspect of God incarnate in Christ but we can sense the greatness, the love, the purpose. We know the strength of the cornerstone, the guidance of the gate-keeper and of the gate, the care of the shepherd. Which image speaks best to you on this day? On another day, it may be another image.
Jesus’ references to life and to his ownership of the flock also give a true sense of the love of God which he embodies, without having to spell out all the details. This calling to life is to life in all abundance. This ownership is the ownership of nurture and commitment, not of possession and personal use for its own sake. It is like our relationship with creation, a relationship of nurture and commitment, not of mere possession and personal use.
When I worked in schools, I often heard teachers talk about my class. my students, my room, my program. This was not the my of lesser ownership for the division of labour within the school but the greater ownership of dedicated commitment and caring. I see this attitude still in the hard-working teachers of today. Had Jesus come into this part of the world today, he might well have spoken of what the good teacher does rather than what the good shepherd or the gate does.
We call today Good Shepherd Sunday and the Lectionary takes us back to this theme each year. The readings are always from this chapter of John’s Gospel. Today, in Year A, we have verses 1-10 where Jesus begins with who comes through the gate of the sheepfold.
Next year we will hear the section beginning with verse 11, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Finally, in year C, we will hear how Jesus talks about who belongs to his flock, hears his voice and follows him to eternal life.
Verse 9 of our Gospel reading today, I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture resonates with Psalm 23, He will make me lie down in green pastures: and lead me beside still waters. (Ps. 23.2)
As we immerse ourselves in scripture and particularly in the words of Jesus. we do not necessarily need to know every minute detail but to open our hearts and minds to what speaks to us of truth, of love, of salvation, of being nurtured and guided in the way that leads to life, eternal life, life in all its abundance. Some truths will strike us immediately. Others will grow and become clearer over time. Jesus is not literally a gate or a shepherd but these images tell us that he is the way we need to go, he is the one who cares, the one who guides, the one who protects and saves. We can trust ourselves to him.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leads me to all that I need. No matter what might befall me, he leads me into life, now and forever. Amen.