Easter 4 – John 10:1-10
Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating ,redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
In one of the scenes in the reredos, the wooden screen towering over the sanctuary of our Cathedral, is a carving of a sheep. This is my favourite scene in our reredos, a scene that I often pause to glance at. The sheep in this scene is standing beside Jesus looking up and Jesus has his hand held down in blessing on the sheep. At the same time, Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Saint Peter. It is as if Jesus is getting on with his work leading people in the way of God, and the work and life of the sheep is to be at Jesus’ side, close to him, keeping him company, listening to his voice.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “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.” (John 10:1-3)
The question is, to whom is Jesus talking? This is the first of a few questions we will find raised by our reading this morning from the Tenth Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. The second question is why, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, have we been given this reading at all? Why have we left the resurrection accounts behind to hear Jesus describing himself the Good Shepherd and the gate for the sheep?
To whom, though, is Jesus talking? John chapter 10 is a continuation of John Chapter 9. You may think I am stating the blindingly obvious, here, but often a new chapter heralds a new scene. That is not the case here. John Chapter 9 tells the story of the man blind from birth who is given his sight by Jesus when he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’. The religious leaders are aghast at this and interrogate not only the man but his parents about the healing. The story goes on for the whole chapter. In the end the religious leaders drive the man out. When Jesus hears that the man has been driven out he speaks with the man and then, hearing the conversation, the religious leaders approach Jesus. They say to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. Jesus continues straight away, “Very truly I tell you …” and what follows is the story of the shepherd and bandits and the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice. Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders who have interrogated a healed blind man and his parents and driven the man out. There is little doubt who he is naming thieves and bandits. In response to those who drive people out from the source of life, Jesus gives this image of one who calls his own sheep by name and leads them out into life.
Jesus hammers his point further. ‘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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-10)
The religious leaders would have been horrified.
In one of the founding stories of their faith, when God called Moses to go to God’s people Israel and set them free from slavery in the land of Egpyt, a conversation took place between Moses and God. Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, who shall I say sent me?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’* He went on, ‘Say, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ (Exodus 3:13-14) When Jesus uses the words “I am” as he does a number of times in this Gospel of John, the words would have rung in the hearer’s ears. “I am” means God. We are dealing with God, here. Jesus is quite deliberate in his use of the words “I am” and he is quite deliberate in linking those words to key images of the Jewish faith. “I am the gate,” and then in the verse immediately following our reading, “I am the good shepherd.” (10:11) According to prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34), the shepherds of Israel failed to care for the sheep. God is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, rescues them from places to which they have been scattered, feeds them and cares for those who are weak, injured or lost. Jesus is clearly saying that he is fulfilling the promise made through the prophet Ezekiel’s image of shepherd, that he is doing the work of God.
Jesus describes a profound intimacy in the relationship of the shepherd to his sheep. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and they know his voice, a voice that calls the sheep by name. The shepherd leads the sheep out and they follow him.
Jesus is addressing, remember, a group of religious leaders who cast doubt on Jesus’ healing of a blind man and drove that man out of the community. Jesus places his healing of the man in the context of a shepherd calling and naming and leading his sheep, leading his sheep into abundant life. And he does this using language that is unmistakably connected with God language.
Not only, though, does Jesus use the image of shepherd in this retort to the religious leaders, but he also says “I am the gate for the sheep.” And we might wonder about these two images. How it is that one can be not only shepherd but gate into the green pastures for the sheep? Jesus is saying that, as the gate, he is the way to life and that, as the shepherd, he leads the way to life. That neither image is sufficient to encompass who Jesus is and what he does when he heals and he feeds and brings to life. We know that as we read further in the gospel, before and after this passage we are given to read this morning, we find Jesus using other significant images of life – water, bread, light, the true vine and “the way, the truth, and the life”. Jesus takes on for himself image after significant image from the religious faith of those with whom he lives and works and uses these images to give insight into who he is, in John’s Gospel, the Word of God, the one who came that we might have life.
It is interesting to ponder how these images of gate and shepherd link with the extraordinary truth of the resurrection that we celebrate in these weeks after Easter. When we reflected on the truth of the resurrection on Easter Day, we pondered the fact that the resurrection could not be heard in separation from the truth of the cross. The truth of Jesus’ embrace of the suffering of the world. Jesus faced the agony of the cross. As Jesus died, his love could not be enclosed, as his life could not be enclosed by a tomb. He loved and forgave as he died. And even when death seemed to defeat him, God would not allow the defeat. The angel’s actions, God’s actions, at Jesus’ tomb set him free. And as his spirit, the spirit of the one who died forgiving, the spirit of the resurrected Jesus, infuses creation, makes space for creation to thrive.
The gate, the way to life, is through Christ’s death, perhaps is Christ’s death. The death of one who loved and forgave as he died. And the shepherd, for us in our time and place is, perhaps, the spirit of Jesus, the spirit who accompanies us and nurtures us in the life of faith.
But there are thieves and bandits; Jesus knew human nature well. This image of a shepherd leading and knowing his sheep is not some sentimental image that we might smile sweetly about. These images are given to counter the aggression of religious leaders who sought to deny the life giving presence of God in Jesus when he healed a blind man.
And we need to remember that for we all have our own thieves and bandits. The thieves and bandits may be part of who we are. Parts of us who, like the religious leaders, deny what is blessing in our lives. Part of us, or things external to us, that “steal and kill and destroy” those things that bring healing to us, that enrich us.
If we find a moment to gaze at the carving of the sheep standing next to Jesus in the reredos of our cathedral, or if we find ourselves enveloped by the imagery of the 23rd Psalm as it is sung by our choir, or if we ponder the many words of scripture that liken God to a shepherd, let us remember that these images are given by Jesus as images of life giving presence to counter images of life denying presence. And let us reflect perhaps on what denies us life and denies life to our world, and let us turn to what brings us and our world what Jesus calls eternal life. And let us give thanks for the one who came among us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), that we might know these things.