St Mary’s, Puddletown
Sunday 7th May 2017
Acts 2.42-47; John 10.1-10
The Bible is very much a living book for us today. It is one of the gifts that God has given us to enable us to know God for ourselves, to learn about who he is, what Jesus has done, and the way of life expected of those who are disciples.
Don’t let anyone tell you it has no relevance for the 21st-century. Absolutely it does, because it is the living Word of God. There is no end to what God teaches us through it – however much we read it and study it, we will never know all that there is to know in it.
And it’s not just a book to read and study – it is a book that lives within us as we make it our own.
But using the Bible well is a more complex thing than we might at first think.
When we interpret it, we need to take into account the world of the people whose stories it tells and whose traditions it shares, the world of the authors and the context in which they wrote, the world of those for whom it was written, the world of those who have interpreted it through the centuries, and our own world and circumstances, as we seek its relevance for today. Without a wide range of the understanding of all those contexts, we will never truly comprehend its meaning.
I wonder what pictures your mind conjured up, when you heard today’s Gospel reading. I imagine many of us can bring into our mind’s eye, if we try, a picture of Jesus the Shepherd in a white dress with a few calm sheep around his feet – try putting Jesus the Shepherd in a search on Google images and you will find loads of them.
What we need to know is how far from reality those pictures are. There is nothing soft and gentle about a New Testament shepherd, and the message Jesus is giving here is not soft and fluffy either.
When we look at this in context, we see that he is speaking against the leaders of Israel, who have been questioning his authority. Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel is completely given over to the story of a blind man whom Jesus heals.
We are somewhat distracted by the fact that we have started in today’s reading a new chapter, but let’s remember when this Gospel was written, chapters and verses didn’t exist, so we must read today’s reading in the light of what has immediately gone before.
The man who was healed is adamant that his healing has come from God, but the Pharisees are having none of it. They don’t like the fact that Jesus is claiming to be from God, but is entirely bypassing them, their authority and their power.
We would never call our Queen or Theresa May a shepherd – at least I think it highly unlikely.
But throughout the Old Testament, there is a tradition that the leaders of the people are shepherds – David the real king and the archetype for the Messiah was a shepherd before he was a king, and Ezekiel denounces the leaders for being poor shepherds. Now Jesus is indirectly doing the same.
In setting out how a good shepherd works, Jesus is comparing the role with the poor shepherding that the Pharisees have undertaken.
In the first century, shepherding was a hard job. Shepherds had to protect their flocks from wild animals, and work hard to find good pasture in a dry and stony land. As they moved from place to place, they literally led their flock.
Back then, sheep were kept mainly for their wool not for meat, so unlike today when shepherds may only have their sheep for a few months before they are slaughtered, first-century flocks were with their farmers for much longer – years rather than months. And they truly did learn the sound of their master’s voices.
In many places, different flocks were kept in the same pens at night. When a shepherd came to collect his flock, he would literally call them and only his sheep would come to him; the others would flee from what was a stranger to them.
Jesus is saying that his own flock, like the sheep, know his voice, and will follow him. He compares the Pharisees to thieves and bandits, who creep in round the side.
True people of God, he argues, will not follow them, because they are not the real shepherds, even though their role in society was to shepherd God’s people. But they hadn’t done it properly, and had been too tied up with their own interests.
The blind man couldn’t see, but when Jesus, Son of God turned up he recognised him, and followed his call to wash in the pool of Siloam, and in so doing he was healed.
In chapter 11, we see another man who can’t see also responding to the call of Jesus – this time not a blind man but a dead one. Lazarus comes out of the tomb on hearing the voice of his shepherd.
There are so many false voices in our world, that it is important that we stay tuned to the one whose voice we really need to hear, and use his protection to block our hearing off from the voices that would lead us astray – the voices of the thieves and bandits, if you like.
Those voices are all around us, and are the voices that call us away from the path of discipleship. These are the voices that call us to selfishness; to pride; to fill our time so that the things of God get only what is left after everything else has been done; the voices that tell us it doesn’t matter, if we don’t go to church, if something seemingly better comes along for a Sunday morning; the voices that mean we order our financial affairs according to worldly not godly priorities; the voices that minimise sin and God’s grace.
These are the voices that tell us our desires are more important than someone else’s needs, the voices that tell us we are useless because we can’t do all that once we did, the voices that undermine our sense of worth as God’s precious children, the voices that tempt us to overindulgence while others starve, the voices that misrepresent God’s love and narrow the gates of heaven.
The gates of heaven – again we can only truly understand what Jesus is saying when he calls himself a gate by knowing that the people to whom he was speaking and for whom the Gospels were written would immediately have thought of the gate of heaven. We still use the phrase occasionally, such as when we talk about the pearly gates, but it’s not a common one in everyday parlance.
For Jesus to call himself the gate means that he is the gateway to heaven, the gateway to abundant and eternal life, to the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees had put so many stumbling blocks in the way of ordinary people who wished to be faithful. They had made the gateway to heaven very narrow, and had done so in a hypocritical way – making up rules and regulations about minor things such as tithing one’s herbs while forgetting the really important values of God – love, justice, care for the vulnerable.
Jesus frees us up from all those rules and regulations. He calls us and those who respond to his call will receive the new life he offers. It’s a simple as that.
It doesn’t mean that sin isn’t important. But we only know what sin is when we know what God’s love is. If we don’t know what complete goodness looks like and feels like, we cannot know what sin is, for it has no meaning.
One of the big deceptions of our times is that sin doesn’t matter or is only about the big things like murder and theft.
And that misunderstanding comes about mainly when we see faith as a list of rules and regulations rather than as a relationship.
When we love someone and are loved by them, we realise how much the relationship can be damaged by wrong actions, wrong thoughts, wrong attitudes, by things we don’t do as well as by things we do.
When we turn sin into something that is only about the big things, we put it on to other people, and remove ourselves from its span. It’s not fashionable in the church to talk about sin any more in case we put people off Christianity. The fire and brimstone preaching of the past isn’t helpful, but nor is bypassing the subject completely.
The old saying that the most important letter in the word sin is the “I” in the middle may be a bit trite, but essentially it explains what sin is – when our way of life is governed by ourselves and rather than by Jesus.
How do we remedy this? We listen to the voice of the shepherd, a shepherd who in the words of William Barclay provides constant vigilance, fearless courage and patient love.
How do the sheep know the voice of their shepherd? By spending time with him and knowing his love for them.