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Easter 4: The Good Shepherd

13 April 2008
Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10; Psalm 23 The Lord guides me
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep John 10:11

In the 21st century, in a society where very few of us are personally involved in the care of sheep, most of us nevertheless welcome the spring for its associated vision of lambs gambolling on the hillside, though we barely pause for breath before debating whether to eat them with mint sauce or redcurrant jelly. This apparent dichotomy seems to worry most of us not at all, but it does vividly illustrate some of the contradictions inherent in our relationship with the animal kingdom:

The fool said to the animals:
'You are merely my chattels,
With one lesson to learn'
What what happens to you is not your concern
But mine; for God has set
You on earth for my profit.'
The animals answered the fool
Nothing at all,
But for a single moment
Turned on him their wild, true, innocent
Eyes, where an Angel of the Lord
Holds Eden's flaming sword.
Frances Bellerby, 'The Exile'

In 'The remarkable story of the humble animal that built the modern world', Alan Butler argues that:

the most important step in civilization was when we began capturing wild sheep, domesticating and breeding them. Sheep were the mainstay of ancient cultures, by far the most important of the domesticated animals: they provided not just milk and meat, but warm clothing. This is why so many of the earliest gods and their myths are sheep-related. Sheep-farming also underpinned the growth of international trade and European nation states. In effect, sheep 'built' the modern world. The demands of the woollen textile industry both drove and financed the Industrial Revolution. The British Empire was founded on wool (think of the Woolsack). With over a billion sheep in the world today, the humanity-sheep relationship represents the most successful example of mammalian symbiosis on the planet. The story of sheep 'is' the story of humanity.

Religious symbolism and ritual involving sheep began very early: Skulls of rams occupied a central place in shrines dating from 8,000 BC, and since then, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians and Greeks have all accorded sheep a central part in their worship. Pliny the Elder, in his 'Natural History', declares: "Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece."

Sheep are the first animals mentioned in the Old Testament and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds.

So, Jesus knew that not only were his listeners familiar with sheep as actual pastoral animals, they would also have been aware of their symbolic and religious significance over the centuries as animals of religious sacrifice. Still, it is quite a leap to go from that to describing his followers as sheep, as Chaplain Helen Roenfeldt comments:

In Luke's gospel, Jesus compares man to sheep, and that's not a compliment. Sheep are very weak animals. A sheep is not very clever either: you may see a trained elephant, horse, or dog, but not a trained sheep. A sheep is defenceless: a horse can run; a wolf can bite; and a cat can scratch; but a sheep cannot defend itself.

As our own shepherd and pastor, David Sullivan, ruefully says: Sheep are always thinking of new ways to die.

Tom Fath ponders:
Christianity is a dynamic, challenging, and difficult way of life. It is not a religion for the sheepish. Yet Our Saviour more than once drew parallels between His followers and the four-footed woolly ruminants of the genus 'Ovis'. Speaking for myself, I am not aware of possessing any particularly sheepish characteristics. I ruminate - but only my thoughts, not my food. I eat greens, but never grass. I feel no need to be dipped or shorn. 'Lost Shepherds, Vulnerable Sheep' 1

People who are easily led are often compared to sheep. In fact, perhaps the least flattering aspect of the comparison is the idea that, herded together, all we, like sheep can be bent to our Shepherd's will in a moment. In fact it is at this point that the metaphor breaks down as, unlike sheep, we know that we have free will. So what should we read into the parallel? First of all, perhaps, a sense of humility as we recognise our place in the scheme of things - the city whizz kids who claim hubristically to be masters of the universe may be in for a shock as they, along with the rest of us, discover we are not required as strategic managers, but vulnerable children needing to be protected and guided. Secondly, although Jesus stresses in this morning's reading that he knows us all by name, we have value not just as individuals but as part of a community. And thirdly, I think, he wanted to offer us reassurance, a feeling of being protected in a safe haven. After all, Arcadia always included sheep and, as J S Bach's aria puts it, sheep can safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them. This image retains its ancient power to sustain us through the darkest of times.

The fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday because the readings for each of the three years in the cycle are parables about sheep. The emphasis this year is on our Shepherd as the Gate, as Tim Owens explains:

The shepherd built a temporary sheep pen. He left an opening where the sheep could come and go. Here they would be safe. All that remained was to close the door, but there was no door. The good shepherd simply lay down across the small opening. The shepherd became the door, and in this way the sheep remained inside and the wild beasts remained outside. Because the shepherd had become the door, there was nothing for the sheep to fear. Their protector and provider had guaranteed their protection. A true shepherd literally lays his life down for his sheep.

Jesus said, I am the gate for the sheep...If you will enter through Me, you can come in and go out and find pasture. Again, not only would the pastoral background have been familiar to his listeners, but in ancient times the gates to settlements were closed at night, even as recently as the 1970s in Oman.

In 'The Wardrobe as Christian Metaphor', Dr. Don King looks at the extended exploration of this metaphor by the writer C S Lewis:
References are made to 'striving to enter [heaven] by the narrow door', to 'the door of faith'. Jesus Himself is often associated with a door: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me'.

In Lewis's Narnia stories:
[I]Literally, the doors function to take the children out of their real world and into a new other world; that is, the doors serve to move them from a mundane, everyday experience to a new world, a new reality, a new life. More importantly, however, the doors inexorably lead to Aslan, Lewis' Christ figure, who offers the children an additional 'new life' experience. In 'The Silver Chair' Eustace and Jill only think they are calling Aslan; actually, He has called them. Aslan says: You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. Lewis is paralleling here the Biblical notion of God calling to Himself all those who are willing to come to Him as outlined in John 10. In 'The Magician's Nephew' Digory is called into Narnia so that he can be the agent of both death and life... Lewis again alludes to the John 10 passage, for when Digory approaches the place where the tree is, he encounters a high wall and door. Above the door is the following inscription:

'Come in by the gold gate or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear.
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart's desire and find despair.'

In his sermon 'The Weight of Glory', Lewis employs this same metaphor: The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last...Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.

And finally, this is how the chapter from this morning's reading from St John ends:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one. John 10:27-30

Almighty God, allow us, the least of all your saints, to keep a door in Paradise; even the smallest door, the furthest, darkest, coldest door, the door that is least used, the stiffest door. If so it be in thine house, O God, if so it be that we can see thy glory even afar, and hear thy voice, and know that we are with thee, O God. Amen.
After a prayer by St Columba


Grateful thanks to Dr Don King, whose article 'The Wardrobe as Christian Metaphor' © first appeared in Mythlove 14, Autumn 1987 for permission to quote him as above.
Grateful thanks also to Chaplain Helen Roenfeldt, a source of inspiration, for permission to quote from her © article above.
1This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of the New Oxford Review, and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1999 New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A., www.newoxfordreview.org.