The man who had been born blind walked a few paces behind Jesus. He was still getting used to being able to see – and there was so much to see! He’d spent his whole life depending on smell and touch and hearing just to know what was within reach, but now, he could see far down the road and up into the heavens, and it was almost too much for him. As he heard a familiar sound, his head snapped around to find its source – Oh! That loud music came from that tiny thing? That’s a bird? Putting together what things looked like with their familiar sounds or textures was exhausting, and exhilarating at the same time.
The whole world seemed new. He wanted to laugh out loud, but thought better of it. Those Pharisees were still pretty angry. He knew he should have been upset that they had thrown him out of the synagogue, but all he could do was grin as he looked around,
and looked …
feasting his new eyes on everything in sight. He could see! For the first time in his life, he was physically able to see. He brushed a piece of dried mud from the side of his face. Must have missed that bit when he had obediently gone to wash the mud from his eyes in the pool of Siloam. It had been such a simple thing to do, but what a ruckus it had caused.
Even his parents had been brought in, to confirm that he had, in fact, been born without sight. The religious leaders didn’t know what to do with him, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with the man who had made him see. The man who had been blind was glad that his healer had come looking for him, after all that ugliness at the synagogue. He wanted to say “Thank you for giving me my sight,” but what he actually said was, “Lord, I believe.” Now he knew that seeing was believing, but even more, that believing was seeing. As he followed Jesus, he could hear the Pharisees arguing again. “You don’t think we’re blind to the truth, do you?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered them with a riddle. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” They looked confused, but Jesus kept feeding them riddles. The man who could now see smiled as he listened. He knew what the Pharisees did not. He knew this was the Lord, the Chosen One, the Messiah. Jesus continued …
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. They 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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:1-10)
Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Sunday we call “Good Shepherd” Sunday. The gospel focus for this particular Sunday is always the tenth chapter of John, but each year, the lectionary cycle gives us a different part of this chapter to consider. This year, we get to look at Jesus as the gate for the sheep, offering the only way in and out of the sheepfold.
But to understand the images Jesus uses in these first ten verses, we need remember how they fit into the larger story. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t just start talking about sheep out of the blue one day. His words about sheep and shepherds were directed toward his close followers and his critics, the religious leaders of the day. Jesus told these riddles about sheep and shepherds and thieves and strangers to explain how giving sight to a man, who had never before seen anything in his entire life, showed the huge difference between true believers and false prophets. To make his point, Jesus drew on one of the most common images in scripture: sheep following their shepherd.
Sheep are mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible, more than any other animal. Sheep were important as sources of wool, milk, and meat, and throughout the Bible, sheep served as symbols for God’s people. God is portrayed as the shepherd of his chosen flock in the prophetic words of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and most famously in the 23rd Psalm, which we read earlier in the service. Why sheep? Well, they do share certain characteristics with people, especially people who claim to be set apart, belonging to one Good Shepherd.
- Sheep are followers. They will follow another sheep, even to slaughter, or over a cliff. Lambs are conditioned from birth to follow older sheep. Following isn’t something sheep have to think about, it’s an instinct. They can be trained to follow a distinctive call, or a unique melody played on a pipe. A sheep can learn to recognize its own name and come when it is called. Sheep will follow a shepherd they know well, but they are more inclined to follow other sheep.
- Sheep remember faces. They recognize faces of other sheep, and even of humans who work with them regularly. Sheep remember who treats them well, and even more, they remember who handles them harshly. Sheep will allow a gentle shepherd to come close, but they will balk and run from a person who has handled them roughly in the past.
- Sheep find safety in numbers. Since predators attack the outliers, sheep stick closely together. When grazing, sheep will keep at least 4-5 other sheep in view. They are very social animals, and the instinct to flock is strong.
- Sheep rarely walk in a straight line. By tracking first to one side and then to the other, they can always see what’s behind them. They can spot danger from up to 1500 yards away, but they have trouble finding a half-open gate without help.
- Sheep are surprisingly dirty animals. Lambs may look cute and fluffy on greeting cards, but the reality of adult sheep is that all kinds of mud and yuck get stuck in their wool, clumping together in nasty lumps. Good shepherds know the value of Woolite just before shearing time.
It’s not a very flattering picture, when you think about the people of God being compared to sheep. But there it is. We tend to follow each other more instinctively than we follow our Good Shepherd, even when we’ve been trained to recognize our own name and God’s distinctive call to us. We tend to remember old hurts and grudges, and we run away from potential encounters with those who have hurt us in the past. We tend to stick together with the same 4-5 people we know best, keeping them in our sights and huddling together when we sense an attack coming our way. We spend a lot of time looking behind us, making it hard to walk a straight line. And we can spot a distant threat more easily than an open gate in front of us. Finally, we attract dirt, and we let it clump up and cling to us. Isaiah was right when he wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned to our own way,and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And yet, God claims us as his own. He knows each of us by name, and calls us into abundant life, leading us to safe pasture and sweet water.
But if we look closely at what Jesus is saying, we see that his riddles aren’t really about sheep. Jesus is talking about recognizing the shepherd. Remember that he just gave sight to a man who had never seen, and yet that man recognized him as God’s Messiah while the Pharisees, who should have recognized the One they’d been waiting for, were blind to God’s power working among them. Now, Jesus explains his miracle by comparing these respected religious leaders to thieves and bandits who only want to steal and destroy. By refusing to accept Jesus as God’s own Son, the Messiah for whom they claim to hope, the Pharisees threaten God’s people, stealing their hope, destroying their trust in God alone, who is the Good Shepherd.
And Jesus says he is the Gate, the way to safety and green pasture. The Pharisees who deny Jesus as the way are no better than thieves trying to climb over the wall of a sheepfold, instead of entering through the gate.
Isn’t it ironic that those who hear about sheep recognizing their shepherd’s voice are the same ones who don’t recognize what Jesus is saying to them? Keep in mind that Jesus is not only talking to Pharisees, but to his own disciples. He’s talking to us. We have just as difficult a time as they did, when it comes to hearing Jesus clearly, and following where he leads us.
But he keeps calling us.
Modern day shepherds in the Middle East can be heard leading their sheep with a distinctive call. In his book, Shepherd Poems, Kenneth Bailey writes that a shepherd today could “lead over 200 sheep through a valley by walking slowly in front of them giving his ten second call roughly every 40 seconds.” (Kenneth Bailey, Shepherd Poems, 9.) That’s a lot of consistent, repetitive calling. Jesus keeps calling us, repeatedly, consistently, reminding us of where he is, and where he wants us to go. It is our awareness of that repetitive, consistent call that teaches us to recognize and follow our shepherd’s voice. We can only become aware of that gentle call by listening for it.
But it seems there are so many other sounds and noises clamoring for our attention, so many other voices calling out to us, claiming to offer us the things we need. Advertisers tell us that if we will only buy this car, or those clothes, or that food, or these things, we will have abundant life. And no matter how many cars or clothes or things we buy, no matter how much or what kind of food we eat, we are not satisfied. Because we listened to the wrong voice.
Shepherds start teaching lambs their own names as soon as they are born. God has called each of us by name. He has claimed us as his own. So how do we learn to hear Christ’s voice, to recognize that we are being called by name? It seems so hard to hear, just as it did for those Pharisees who didn’t recognize how God was working in their very midst.
So Jesus gives us another “figure of speech” – another riddle. He calls himself the gate. And to be sure we hear him this time, he says it twice: “I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Then he says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
How do we enter into abundant life? This is where being a sheep pays off.
We enter through the true gate, following the true shepherd’s voice, not that of thieves or strangers. We learn to recognize our shepherd’s distinctive call by hearing it, repeatedly and frequently.
Many years ago, I sang on the stage of Carnegie Hall as part of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. We’d spend a week rehearsing a large work for choir and orchestra, then perform it before a packed house. It was a wonderful experience. In the Carnegie Hall gift shop, you can buy a T-shirt with a slogan that’s based on an old joke. It seems a musician from out of town arrived in New York with little more than his instrument and the clothes on his back. Determined to save every penny he could, he decided he couldn’t afford a taxi, but he also didn’t know how to get where he needed to go. So he flagged down a cab to ask directions. When the cabbie asked, “where to?” the musician said, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The cabbie took one look at the musician’s instrument and replied, “Practice, practice.”
That’s how we learn to recognize our shepherd’s voice. We practice listening for it. We include time for silent listening in our personal devotion time, seeking to hear God’s voice while ignoring the many other voices that compete for our attention. We practice listening together, as a community of faith, for what God is calling us to be and do.
Like good sheep, we value our place in the flock, sticking together, supporting each other in our journey toward Christ-likeness. It’s possible to be a believer in isolation, but to be a true follower of Jesus requires participating in this thing we call “church,” being an active member of the body of Christ. We don’t stray from the flock, putting ourselves at risk. We stick together.
When we get dirty – as all sheep do – we turn toward our shepherd to wash us clean. Through Christ’s sacrifice of himself for our sins, we are cleansed of all unrighteousness, all our filth is washed away. We have only to accept his grace to enter into the abundant life he came to give us.
But we cannot completely experience that abundant life until we share it. As sheep who know our shepherd’s voice, we also lead other sheep through the gate that stands open before us. By joining in Christ’s mission to bring abundant life to all of God’s children, we experience that life even more fully. This means engaging with those around us, to discover what is robbing them of life, and standing with them against those forces. It means realizing that abundant life is not some after-death future promise, but available right now to every one who will enter by the true gate, and it’s up to us to extend the invitation to any who have not yet heard it. It means realizing that abundant life starts when we repent of our sins, but it continues as we live into the grace that we have received, by sharing that grace. It means knowing that church is not a place we go to hear about abundant life, but the body of Christ that is sent out to heal a broken world, offering abundance to all we encounter.
Abundant life isn’t the goal. It is the result of following Jesus, who made the blind to see, the lame to walk, who fed the hungry and comforted those in sorrow, who offered his own life and then conquered death once and for all, so that we, his own dear sheep, could live with him in peace and safety.
Here is the gate. Will you go in? Christ is the gate. Will you show him to someone else? He came to give life in abundance. It’s more than you or I can keep to ourselves. Who do you know that needs more life? Christ is calling you by name, to enter the gate, and to lead another sheep into a life of abundance. Amen.