I am sure we have all encountered sheep at some point in our lives. We may well have been infuriated by them if they are on the road when we want to get past in the car. If you have ever had the experience of trying to get one out of your garden you will have become very frustrated and threatened them with mint sauce. We usually think sheep are stupid but I don’t think they are especially so. Like all animals, they are driven by their instincts for food, comfort and to breed, especially in the case of the ram!
They are vulnerable creatures unable to defend themselves. The nature of their skin and wool makes them especially prone to worms, ticks and lice or sheep scab, hence the widespread practice of dipping. They are at the mercy of dogs and historically wolves. In their quest for better pastures, they can easily get trapped or escape onto the roads. As they become older, they can roll onto their backs and then can’t right themselves. Unable to access food and water, they will quickly become weak and attacked by crows and birds of prey. While the birth of lambs delights us all at this time of year, ewes do not give birth as easily as some animals. Shepherds traditionally spent time in the hills in shepherd’s huts overseeing the lambing. Today, farmers will spend long sleepless nights in lambing sheds, when necessary putting their arms inside the ewes up to the shoulder to ‘pull’ the lambs.
Sheep have been part of human life and diets since the earliest times. They are farmed across the world where ever the climate is reasonably temperate and there is sufficient pasture. They are prominent throughout the bible for then, as now, they were an important source of income to the Middle Eastern farmer. Unlike our experience, sheep in the Middle East are often kept in the same flock as goats and are led by the shepherd rather than driven by trained dogs or men on quad bikes. This helps make sense of Jesus’ story of the separation of the sheep and the goats and Psalm 23 which speaks of the Lord’s leading into green pastures.
Today’s readings take up this very biblical theme of sheep and shepherd. The gospel (John 10.1-10) forms part of Jesus’ teaching about himself as the shepherd, the good shepherd. In identifying himself in this way, Jesus makes overtures that he is one with his father that he acts as God, a point not lost on the Jewish leadership.
The sheep would then have been seen as the Jewish people. Jesus was also indirectly claiming that he had been given the job of shepherding them by his father thus throwing into question the positions of the priests, scribes and elders.
Our passage today focuses on Jesus as the ‘gate for the sheep’. This draws our attention to the vulnerability of the sheep; of their need of the security of the gate. The picture which Jesus paints is of the sheep enclosure of his day which was constructed in open country from rough stones or thorny branches. These sheepfolds had a single open door across which the shepherd would bed down at night to ensure that he would be woken if a wild animal or a sheep rustler came calling. Jesus pictures himself in this protective role. Who then are the thieves and bandits who gain unauthorised access? It did not take the Jewish leaders long to work out that Jesus was making allusions to them considering their oversight of God’s people to be lacking. As Jesus goes on to say in the verses which follow, many who claim roles of leadership over God’s people are no more than hired hands who care nothing for the sheep, who will leave their posts when ever danger strikes.
Just as sheep are vulnerable creatures, so are God’s people. We can so easily be enticed away from the good pastures which God provides for us to other fields and places which appear much more inviting. There is always something which seems more pressing or exciting than prayer or time spent with our bibles. Church can seem rather dull when compared to many other attractions which compete for our time. We understand God’s standards of truth, honesty of generous and faithful relationships. But it can seem so much easier and more fulfilling to put those things aside and live by the shifting and changing standards of the world.
Like sheep’s diseases, Christians are prone to scepticism, cynicism and doubts. These eat into the soul and the spirit, weakening our resolve. It is possible in the face of huge pressure which challenges our faith for us to roll over and not have it in our own strength to get back on our feet. We need assistance from the good shepherd.
Yes, there is the more direct form of attack. Peter in his letter talks of the devil being like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. (1Peter 5.8) He refers here to the persecution, the direct physical attacks which many Christians faced across the world in his time. It is no different for Christians in many parts of the world today. In Egypt on Palm Sunday 44 Coptic Christians were killed in a bomb attack in their cathedral in Cairo. Images have emerged of some showing anger. While that is understandable, we know that retaliation is not what Jesus teaches but to love our enemies. As Peter reflects in our New Testament reading today: ‘…if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.’ (1Peter 2.20) It is hard for them and we do not know the full circumstances, but let us pray that they may have strength to resist the devil’s provocation and by God’s grace good might come from appalling evil.
Whether we are Christians in Egypt or in Wrexham, we are vulnerable sheep. We may be tempted to anger, bitterness and retaliation or by the ease and fun filled life styles which we might perceive others have unencumbered by the teachings of scripture. We may feel at times that our faith in a God who loves us to death in the cross of his Son and raises him to life in order that we might share eternal life with him is just too much to believe; that we should instead share the same open minded scepticism that we so often encounter in the media and views of others.
But Jesus remains as the gate of the sheepfold. As the risen Lord, he wants to give us protection, to keep us safe from all these temptations from the evil one. He is uniquely placed to do that for his succumbing to death and his powerful resurrection demonstrate his mastery over all that might hurt and harm our Christian lives, as sheep of his pasture. The leaders of his day were unable to do that for the people. Indeed, as Jesus says elsewhere, they ended up placing unbearable burdens on God’s people. Jesus speaks of his yoke being easy and his burden light. (Matthew 11.30) Church leaders today can struggle as much as the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time. The temptation is either to be too ‘laissez faire’, anything goes or to over burden the Christian flock with regulations. Whoever we are and whether or not we are in any form of Christian leadership, we need to look to Jesus, the good shepherd; to realize that we all like sheep that have strayed, that we are all vulnerable to being picked off by the evil one. Let us look to the unassailable protection of Jesus, the door of the sheepfold.
Easter 2 07.05.2017