May 3, 2020, Shepherd, Gate, Sheep, Lamb, John 10:1-18 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000193
Of all the images the Scriptures give us to help us know who God is, and specifically who Jesus is, I think it’s probably the image of the shepherd that people find the most comforting. There is something just unspeakably tender and comforting about seeing our Lord as the Good Shepherd, who carries the lambs in his arms, who seeks the lost sheep, who leads the flock to safe pastures. At St. Philip’s, the Good Shepherd window above the altar is a reminder of God’s loving care every time we come in the Church, every time we approach the altar. We can imagine ourselves as the tiny lamb held safely in Jesus’s arms, or as the sheep walking by his side, looking up with confidence and love into his face. No matter that we are modern Americans who have rarely even seen a real live sheep – whether you have a personal knowledge of sheep and their unique ways or not – the image of the Good Shepherd is something we can understand, and something that brings us comfort.
But if we go deeper into what Jesus has to say here, there is even more that Jesus is telling us about himself – and about ourselves as well. First of all, he sets himself apart from all other would-be shepherds. There are a lot of people and causes and powers and principalities out there vying for the coveted position of shepherd of the sheep. There are religious leaders and political leaders and celebrities and gurus of all kinds. But Jesus makes clear from the very beginning that only he has the right to be called the Good Shepherd. Every other shepherd, Jesus says, is a pretender. And not only are they pretenders; they’re up to no good, Theyre bandits and thieves, out to enrich themselves. They all have to sneak in over the wall to get to the sheep. But the gatekeeper opens to me, and to me alone, because the sheep belong to me.
And the proof that the sheep are mine, Jesus says, is that they know my voice. Among all the other voices in the world crying out to us, clamoring to get our attention – and there are so many – we, his sheep, recognize that one beloved Voice above all the rest. This is the way that God reaches out to his children, unlike every other authority. He doesn’t subdue us with force. He doesn’t bribe us with riches and rewards. He doesn’t terrify us with threats. God reaches out to us by talking to us. He talks to us in the Scriptures, through the words of prophets and poets and pastors. He talks to us in the works of his hands, his voice without words – the heavens declare his glory says the psalmist. And Isaiah proclaims, the mountains and the hills break forth in singing his praise. And he speaks within our hearts – that still, small voice that we can hear if we can quiet all those other voices that compete with him. Other voices can impress or dominate or frighten or seduce us. But only the voice of the Good Shepherd belongs to us. His is the only voice that speaks to the deepest part of us. That’s why the sheep follow him.
John says Jesus used this wonderful figure of speech that we love so well, but the people had no idea what he was talking about. So he changed the image. I am the gate into the sheepfold, he told them. Jesus is the good and loving shepherd who brings the sheep safely into the fold. But he is also, he told them, the way into the fold. Later on, when his disciples were confused and frightened because he was leaving them and going to the Father, and they didn’t know the way, Jesus comforted them: “I am the Way,” he said to them then. “I am the Truth and the Life. The only way to the Father is through me. If you know me, you know the way.”
There are narrow, rigid ways of understanding what Jesus was saying. Christians have sometimes used this image as a way to keep the gate closed to outsiders, to the unworthy. “There is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved,” Peter preached in his first sermon, and we make his name into a secret password so we can tell who’s in and who’s out. But what Jesus wanted those people to understand is that he is the only one whose right it is to bring them into safe pasture. He is the only one whose right it is to guard them against all those false shepherd that only want to use and abuse them. Because they belong to him, and to him alone. Later Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. They know my voice too. And in the end there will be only one Flock, because there is only one Shepherd.” Our part is to follow the Shepherd, not to close the gate.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd; the sheep belong to him and him alone. His is the Voice that the sheep know and follow. He is the gate into the safety of the sheepfold for all who hear his voice. But there is one more image. Jesus is also the Lamb, the sacrificial Lamb of the Passover, whose blood protected the people from the Angel of Death. Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, became one of us, a sheep of the flock, helpless, frail, vulnerable. “Though he was in the form of God,” Paul wrote, “he did not count equality with God a thing to be held onto. He poured himself out, taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men.” “He had no beauty that we should desire him,” said Isaiah. He was just one of the sheep, nothing special to look at. Until people heard his voice – and then they were amazed. “He speaks with real authority,” the people exclaimed when they heard him, “Not like the teachers of the law we’ve always heard.” In the Easter Vigil we sing, “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.” To ransom the flock, the Son of God became one of the sheep, suffering everything we sheep suffer in our short, perilous, lives – even death itself.
And all of that is contained in this rich, beautiful, comforting image of the Shepherd and his sheep. We belong to him, and by a work of grace that is wonderful and beyond our knowing he chose to belong to us, to be one of us. He is our Good Shepherd, the one and only Voice that speaks truth in our hearts. He is our Pascal Lamb, by whose blood alone we are cleansed and redeemed. And he is the one Gateway by which every one of us can enter his fold and find safety and rest. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.”