SJF • Easter 4a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Peter wrote, He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
We continue our Easter exploration of the teaching of the apostle Peter this week as he takes up an image with which he had heard Jesus describe himself: the Good Shepherd. This is one of the most popular images of Jesus — literally: there are hundreds of stained glass windows and statues and paintings of Jesus portrayed as the Good Shepherd. I can’t even remember the last time I was in a church that didn’t have at least one image of the Good Shepherd. And we have one here at St. James — you may not see it very often because it is around the corner in the transept; but take a moment, perhaps later after worship, to come around the side and see our picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd in stained glass. The oldest known image of Jesus, in fact, is an image of Jesus painted on the walls of one of the ancient catacombs, showing him as a young man with a lamb over his shoulders, gently bearing it home — one of the oldest images.
We tend to think of the shepherd’s life in just this way: spending the lonely days and nights chasing after fluffy lambs, sitting on the hillside in a sunny afternoon as the sheep graze contentedly, playing on a pipe and drowsing as the bees buzz and hum around the flowers: just the kind of job where snoozing the day away seems just about right: a low-stress job!
What gets lost in this imagery, however, is the reality of just how hard and dangerous it is to be a shepherd. Not only are there thieves and bandits to contend with (as our Gospel text this morning reminds us) but also wolves and lions and bears and other wild beasts who would snatch up a young sheep for a tasty meal.
We sang David’s shepherd song today, in a musical version of that belovèd Twenty-third Psalm. You may recall that when King Saul told David that he was just a boy and no match for the Philistine giant Goliath, young David answered, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
So David knew just what was involved in being a shepherd. Above all he knew that it was no easy-peasy, lazy-hazy, laid-back way of life. It was hard; it was dangerous. If we look closely at David’s beloved Psalm 23, we find it filled with danger and strife. In fact, it is because of all the danger and strife that the comforting parts of the Psalm are there — for who needs to be comforted when he’s already comfortable? Look at the perils described in this Psalm: the valley of the shadow of death, the enemies before whom the table is set, the rod and staff which aren’t just for show, but for striking down the foe and giving strength to the weak, and even that wounded head anointed with oil.
So being a shepherd is no easy task; it rates high on the scale of hazardous work — something which Peter the fisherman would also have appreciated. For fishing is also not just sitting dozing by a stream with a can of worms at one’s side and the line tied around your toe to wake you up when there’s a nibble. Commercial fishing — for that is what Peter and James and John and Andrew were involved in — commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. There was a TV show about it, that they had to amend the filming of because two of the fishermen were killed in the course of doing the series. Fishing has always been one of the most dangerous jobs you could undertake — on the stormy sea of Galilee in Peter’s day or the stormy North Atlantic today. Peter knew perfectly well that a fisherman might lose his life when a storm swamped his boat and swept him overboard. He also knew that he might risk his life to catch fish, but no fisherman would lay down his life for the sake of the fish themselves! He wasn’t there to save them; he was there to catch them! But on the other hand, a shepherd might well be called upon to lay down his life for the sheep — to lose life and limb to protect them by fighting the thieves, the bandits, the lions or wolves or bears, or whoever might seek the life of that flock.
+ + +
Being a shepherd, then, is a risky business, a rough line of work. And our Gospel reading this morning shows us just how rough and risky with another surprising image. Note that in the second half of the gospel passage, Jesus doesn’t describe himself as a shepherd but as “I am the gate,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This is odd, isn’t it? If you think so, you aren’t the only one. We’re used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a shepherd, but not as the gate of the sheepfold. Years ago pastor George Adam Smith was on a tour of the holy land. This was quite an extensive tour, and it hit all the backwater spots not usually visited today. One afternoon he stopped at a shady oasis, rarely visited by outsiders. Off to one side was a perfect Near Eastern sheepfold, such as has existed for thousands of years: it’s a low enclosure about so high, square, with an opening on one side — but no gate. The sheep were all in the fold, resting in the heat of the afternoon, and there was an ancient Arab shepherd sitting outside by the opening. Smith called for the tour interpreter and said, “Ask him where the gate for the sheepfold is.” The interpreter asked the question, and the old shepherd looked up at the curious visitors, and then smiled a knowing smile — revealing that he had more wrinkles than teeth. He spoke a few words in the local dialect, and smiled again, as the interpreter translated. He said, “I am the gate for the sheep. When I have brought them in, I sit here, and watch that none goes out. At night I sleep in the doorway, so if a sheep tries to go out it must pass over me, and if a wolf tries to get in it must pass over my body. I am the gate.” And Pastor Smith learned a lesson he would long remember.
For Jesus is the gate of our sheepfold. He watches over us day and night, protecting us from harm and preventing us from wandering. He will not allow a thief or a bandit to get past him, nor a wolf or lion or bear. He will block their way, and say, “You’ll get to my sheep over my dead body!” And that’s not a threat, it’s a promise!
For Jesus did lay down his life for us — for you, for me. He bore our sins, as Peter said, bore them in his body on the cross, so that, we, free from sins, might live for righteousness. We were gone astray like silly sheep, wandering off in search of greener pastures but finding ourselves lost in the middle of the desert — and he found us laid us on his shoulder and gently brought us home. He put us in our sheepfold, and laid himself down in the opening, to keep us safe within, and to keep out the thieves and the bandits. And when the wild beasts of sin and fear and despair came stalking by that gate, he set himself between them and us. His rod and his staff took the form of a cross on that hill outside the city gates, a rod and a staff set crosswise, upon which he suffered and died in the presence of his enemies, upon which he entered into the valley of the shadow of death — for us, for us, my beloved brothers and sisters. He set that table before us on the night before he died, in the presence of his enemies, and ours — which for us was our own sin and waywardness.
And not for us alone. For there where he was lifted high upon the cross he could call the whole world to himself — he, the gate of the sheepfold. He, the way out of the valley of the shadow and into the pasture of the beautiful sunlight of God; He, the way out of the desert of sin and into the fields beside which the waters gently flow, the still waters whose still surface is as clear as glass. He is the gate of the sheep, of all the sheep who hear his voice and come to him, raised high upon the cross in all of his woundedness so that all might see him from afar, and come, and be healed by his wounds, and then enter the sheepfold. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly — and he gave his life for us, for our sake, placing himself between us and our sins.
We enter into life because of his death and resurrection; they stand between us and the thieving banditry of sin, the wild beasts of fear and wrong, and the foolishness of our own wandering. He is the gate, he is the shepherd.
So let us, beloved, this Eastertide and always, give thanks for our Good Shepherd, who calls us to him, each by name, and leads us in and out of pasture; who laid down his life for us; who rose again from the dead and who now lives in us, and we in him, the shepherd and guardian of our souls, forever and ever.