“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
+ May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
We are living in very difficult times, in situations totally new to everyone. Many of us are experiencing stress and anxiety, people report lack of concentration, sleep disturbances, of dreaming more frequently.
I am certainly having strange dreams, mostly of my childhood, actual memories but somewhat distorted. Reviewing these dreams has reminded me how important memory is to our well-being. It defines who we are, how we came to be where we are today. Our memories can comfort us, reminding us of parental love, care and guidance, and they can strengthen us, give us greater resolve, reminding us of teaching, education, friends, experiences both good and not so good, things we have come through and survived.
And memory binds us together as a community. As we arrive at the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, we look to those in our society blessed with long life for their memories of how our country came through the trauma of the Second World War and set about building a new society with new values, greater equality and new institutions like the NHS.
If, along with pain, tragedy and bereavement, any good is to come from the present pandemic, it is perhaps that we look afresh at our society, and that we come to realise (if we didn’t before, which many of us did) how much inequality there is, how those whose jobs are poorly paid are the people on whom, in a crisis, we all depend. How much goodness goes unnoticed and unappreciated, how much care is lavished on those who have no role in society, who are not ‘economically active’ and are still valued by care home workers, nurses, doctors.
And It is interesting that politicians change policies from the pursuit of ‘herd immunity’ (which would have seen many thousands die) to one of ‘shepherding’ -protecting, shielding, tracing and testing, after personal experience of illness and our invaluable NHS which is truly a little reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So perhaps what we are looking for when the pandemic is over is to have life and have it in abundance for everyone.
As always in the Christian Church this time of the year after the joys of Easter Day, we are called on to look at the poverty in the world. It is no accident that Christian Aid week falls in May. We, as Christians need to do something practical about the plight of the world’s poorest people and put Christian love and charity to good use. We are called upon to make real Christ’s claim that He came to ensure that all should have life and have it abundantly. And in the face of a worldwide pandemic (new to us but common in poorer parts of the world) we can look afresh at the vigour and renewal of resurrection, as our communities look for resurrection and new life.
In the last few weeks our liturgy has concentrated on Jesus’
resurrection appearances. Now, on this
fourth Sunday of Easter, we begin a series of readings looking at the way to
the Father, the way to building a better society, valuing all; and
also Jesus’ role in showing us the way.
In today’s gospel, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd and we are his sheep.
And He says that He has come to ensure that we might have life in abundance.
What is abundant life? It is touching and living the divine life. It is about meaning, integrity, purpose, relationship and wholeness. The life abundant adds to the life of others and the world and leads to hope, kindness, generosity and it alleviates the pain of the world. We have been finding abundant life in unexpected places in the pandemic
Sheep and shepherds are recurring symbols in the Bible.
New Testament Judaea was a pastoral rather than agricultural area. The central plateau stretching from Bethel to Hebron is rough and stony, and the most familiar figure in the Judean uplands was a shepherd. His life was hard, no flock grazed without a shepherd present, and the shepherd was never off duty.
One writer describes the Judean shepherd like this: “On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self sacrifice.”
The picture of God as the shepherd and the people as his flock is central to the Old Testament.
It’s not just Psalm 23 which uses this metaphor, five other Psalms use the shepherd and the sheep to illustrate the relationship between God and his people, and the leaders of the people to whom God has entrusted his flock. But in Psalm 23 we are given the most complete picture of a loving God, He revives, leads, protects, feeds, waters and pastures us.
We too are called to be shepherds, and we are seeing many examples of good shepherds in unlikely settings in this pandemic, in care homes and hospitals, in communities and schools, in my street and yours.
And the metaphor of shepherd and sheep is taken up by the New Testament evangelists: Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will risk his life to seek and to save the one straying sheep. He has pity upon the people because they are as sheep without a shepherd. When he the shepherd is smitten, the sheep are scattered.
Even with this rich tradition of Old Testament picture language of sheep and shepherds, Jesus’ listeners find it difficult to understand. So he takes it a step further. He says plainly that he is the door, the gate by which the sheep come and go, by which they enter into deeper relationship with God, through which they must pass to gain redemption, true life.
In this parable Jesus is talking about two different kinds of
sheep folds. In villages there were
communal sheepfolds where all the village flocks were kept at night in safety. There was a strong door, the key held by the gate-keeper. The shepherd went
to the sheepfold each morning, the gatekeeper would open the door, the shepherd would call his own sheep
who knew his voice and take them out to find pasture.
This is the kind of sheepfold Jesus is talking about at the beginning of the passage. But in the summer the sheep were constantly on the hills, not returning to the village each night and another kind of sheepfold was used – a simple space enclosed by a wall its entrance a gap in the wall. Over this entrance, the shepherd would lie down at night and no sheep could get in or out except over his body. In the most literal sense the shepherd was the door, there was no access to the sheep-fold except through him. This is what Jesus is telling his listeners when He says I am the gate for the sheep. It is only through him that we can find the way to the pasture, the refreshment, the life that is God.
In contrast to Christ, the thieves and the bandits are those who suggest we can gain peace and abundant life by other means than the sacrificial way of love. As we struggle with who we are and what our purpose on earth is, it is Jesus working through the Holy Spirit in us and in others who ensures our care and who enables us to move on from our injuries and obstacles to a deeper, truer life in Christ.
The writer of John’s Gospel is aware that his readers are members of a Church under threat, the persecution of the early Christians means that the way of the Cross is a reality to them. He is reminding them that other methods, other spiritual paths are false. He was seeking to encourage a confused Church, facing powerful opponents, and who were questioning the way forward because the Messiah had not returned as they had expected.
Not very different to the challenges we face in today’s world. Persecution of Christians is very much a reality in parts of the world. Wars, poverty, slavery, exploitation and tyranny are much in evidence, although two thousand years of Christian love and Christian aid have led to enlightenment and ideals of equality and human rights.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
What does this mean for us? As our lives become more Christ centred, we find our pasture in ways and places we did not expect or imagine. As Christ works within us, caring for each other becomes second nature. We find through that doorway the healing power of relationship. True pasture, true bread, living water. Abundant life, the hope of new life post-pandemic.
Jesus, may we know your voice and in knowing it, allow it to change us and direct our path. May we use your body and your sacrifice as the gate way to becoming true children of the living God.