Easter 4A (Good Shepherd) St. John, Galveston 5/3/20
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter, which means it’s also Good Shepherd Sunday. For centuries, the Church has set aside this particular Sunday of Easter to reflect on what may well be, at least from a 1st century Jewish perspective, the most endearing of all relationships, that of a shepherd and his sheep, his flock. The Gospel reading for this morning though doesn’t even refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He takes that title for Himself in the verses just after today’s reading. Here, in verses 1-10 of John 10, He refers to Himself as the door of the sheep
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep (He says). All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and 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.”
The image of Jesus as the door of the sheep probably leaves us wondering at least a couple of things. First of all, since today is Good Shepherd Sunday, what, if anything, is the relationship between Jesus as the door of the sheep and Him as the Good Shepherd? Secondly, since Jesus places a great deal of emphasis on sheep needing a pen and a door, we might ask why that is so? What is it about sheep that keeps them from being able to simply wander the countryside like many other types of livestock? We’ll deal with the second question first, the one about sheep needing a pen.
Most of us, I suspect, know very little about sheep and sheep herding. Consequently, when Jesus uses an analogy from the sheep herding world, it likely doesn’t resonate with us as it would have with Christians in the 1st century. It’s good to know, for instance, that of all the domesticated animals, sheep are the most helpless. They’ll spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. But sheep have no “homing instinct” as many other animals do. They don’t naturally return to a certain place throughout the course of the day, or, at the end of the day. In fact, they are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow.
Sheep are totally dependent upon the shepherd who tends them with great care and compassion. Shepherds were the providers, the guides, the protectors and constant companions of their sheep. So close was the bond between shepherd and sheep that to this day Middle Eastern shepherds can divide flocks that have mingled at a well or during the night simply by calling their sheep, who know and follow their shepherd’s voice. Shepherds were inseparable from their flocks. The shepherd would lead the sheep to safe places to graze and make them lie down for several hours in a shady place. Then, as night fell, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the protection of a sheepfold, or, a pen.
So, on the one hand, left to themselves, sheep, that is you and me, will ultimately be the cause of their own demise. And this is true before we even consider the natural predators of sheep. In this sense, the cause of a lambs demise would be its own stupidity and its tendency to wander away from safety and to put itself in harms way. The Bible describes this particular destructive tendency of sheep quite well, when it says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have each turned to our own way.”
At the same time, sheep are in grave danger from forces outside of themselves. They are at the very bottom of the food chain, in that they are the favored meal of many a predator. David, who was himself a shepherd, mentions the duty of the shepherd to protect the sheep from all sorts of predators. Lions, bears, wolves, hyenas, and leopards were all interested in a sheep dinner. And interestingly and sadly at the same time, when they’re under attack, sheep won’t fight back. They won’t run, or hide. Instead, when a predator comes after them, they’ll gather together, giving the predator a big choice on which sheep to pick for his dinner.
It because of the very nature of sheep that they require protection and shelter, thus a sheep pen. Outside of the pen is danger and peril. Inside is safety and literally, salvation. Perhaps in that sense, we can think of the sheep pen as being similar to the image of the Church as an ark. Within the ark of the Church, God’s people are saved and kept safe from all the threatening perils that rage outside of the ark. Luther, of course, picked up on the same protective imagery, when he penned the words to his great reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress. “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.” And, within ark, or, the pen, through the call to repentance and forgiveness, God’s people are sheltered and protected from their own waywardness.
And so, sheep require a pen for protection because they are so helpless and dependent on their shepherd for their very lives. As to the sheep pen itself, there were actually two kinds of sheepfolds or pens in and around Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. One kind was a public sheepfold found in the cities and villages. It would be large enough to hold several flocks of sheep. This sheep pen would be in the care of a porter or doorkeeper, whose duty it was to guard the door to the sheep pen during the night and to admit the shepherds in the morning. The shepherds would call their sheep, each of which knew its own shepherd’s voice, and would lead them out to pasture.
The second kind of sheep pen, the one most likely referenced by Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading, was out in the countryside, where the shepherds would keep their flocks if the weather were relatively good. This type of sheep pen was nothing more than a rough circle of rocks piled into a wall with a small open space to enter into the pen. Through that opening the shepherd would drive the sheep at nightfall. Since there was no gate to close up the pen—just an opening—the shepherd would keep the sheep in and wild animals out by lying there across the opening. He would sleep there, in this case literally becoming the door to the sheep.
In that sense, you can see how Jesus is both the door to the sheep and the Good Shepherd. The analogy combines two of the most comforting aspects of God’s providential care over His flock. He keeps us gathered together and defended for our own protection. His law and gospel keep us a straight and narrow path, indeed, as the psalmist wrote, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Again, He is a Mighty Fortress. But, He also defends us from all harm and danger. Thus, He is a trusty shield and weapon.
And so, Jesus is, a very profound sense, the door to the sheep. Lying in the opening, He literally, and in every sense, lays His life down for the sheep. As He Himself says, just few verses past the reading for today, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Some of you, I’m sure, are familiar with the works of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He was a Baptist preacher from the 1800’s. It’s ok that he was Baptist though because, in this case, he’s quite Lutheran. He wrote, “Whenever the Savior describes himself by any emblem, that emblem is exalted, and expanded; and yet it is not able to bear all his meaning. The Lord Jesus fills out every type, figure, and character; and when the vessel is filled there is an overflow. There is more in Jesus, the good Shepherd than you can pack away in a shepherd. He is the good, the great, the chief Shepherd; but he is much more. Emblems to set him forth may be multiplied as the drops of the morning, but the whole multitude will fail to reflect all his brightness. Creation is too small a frame in which to hang his likeness. Human thought is too contracted, human speech too feeble, to set him forth to the full. When all the emblems in earth and heaven shall have described him to their utmost, there will remain a somewhat not yet described. You may square the circle ere you can set forth Christ in the language of mortal men. He is inconceivably above our conceptions, unutterably above our utterances.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep (He says). I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” In every way, He lays down His life for the sheep. He is A Mighty Fortress and a Trusty Shield and Weapon. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +