Leading the sheep out
Fourth Sunday of Easter, 13 April, 2008
Br Chaplain Soma, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
John 10:1-10, Psalms 23.
Friends in Christ, it is interesting to hear from the Gospel that Jesus is a Good Shepherd. The image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd is a very comforting one. That's why the words of Psalm 23 are so popular among Christians. They bring the kind of comfort and assurance we need especially in difficult times.
The tenth verse of this passage has always been as a warning and encouragement to me. The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly says Jesus. There is something so powerful about the image of abundant life, something so appealing about the thought that Jesus does not just seek life for us, but full abundant life.
Jesus shares a vivid metaphor full of images about sheep, shepherds, gates, gatekeepers and pastures. It all sounds very lovely until we try to work our own way through the metaphor. We are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd. But Jesus is also the gate and there are thieves and bandits, who are they? And who is the gatekeeper?
Commentators point out clearly that Jesus did not heed the well-known rule that you should not mix your metaphors. No wonder his audience did not understand what he was talking about. The message that Jesus tries to convey is not clear, and every time I read it, I find some word that catches my ear like it hadn't before. Like Jesus' promise of abundant life, his words too are full, overflowing with meanings for us to discover.
I had always assumed that the gate in Jesus' metaphor represented the entry to eternal life. If Jesus called himself the gate, maybe Jesus was trying to say sheep could only come into the fold through him. Which means humanity could only come into eternal life through him. It is amazing that, leading the sheep into safe-haven of the gated area was only one part of the shepherd's responsibilities.
In fact, Jesus talks more about how the shepherd leads the sheep out of the safe place into places of pasture. "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." The sheep, Jesus says, come in and go out to find pasture. They move between the place of safety and new places where they can eat and wander, under the guidance of the shepherd.
The gated area does not represent eternal life, and Jesus' function is not to keep unwanted sheep from getting in, in fact, Jesus' aim is to get the sheep out of the gated area, into places where life can be experienced.
In Jesus' time, the sheep of many villagers were kept together in one gated area and some Africans like Sudan including many other cultures adopted the same system. When a shepherd came to lead his sheep out, he would have a unique call, so that his sheep would know who he was and follow behind him. Jesus promises us abundant life, but it is our obligation to leave the gated area to take part in it.
When I was a student, we were often encouraged to talk about God's call in our lives. How we were called? To what kind of ministry are we being called? We talk about our call in theological reflections, before examining chaplains, and in essays. I have to share my call to ministry in more than five required pages. It was very interesting in hearing about how we all understood God's call in different ways.
Through the years, as I have revised and reflected on my call, my statement has changed quite a bit. If you asked me fifteen years ago what kind of ministry God was calling me to, I would have told you anything different than today. I know others have similar stories, how they were headed in one direction, but felt turned to the other side. This call from God is always constant, yet continuously changing and growing. We are at most times hearing some things a little different in God's voice.
The shepherd calls the sheep by name, and because they know his voice, they trust and follow where he leads. The safest place for the sheep might be inside the pen, where the gatekeeper can watch out for thieves and bandits. But to find the pastures, the sheep have to leave the safety of the pen. Day after day the shepherd calls them out again, finding new places where they can feed. Yes, out of the pen there are risks. But with the shepherd guiding them and watching over them, the flock can go anywhere.
I think God is sometimes never content to leave us in our safe places. God is always calling us, to new pastures, to new experiences of life. It is up to us, we can resist and refuse, but when we do so, probably we might possibly miss out the promise of abundant life that Jesus shares with us. We can't experience this abundance from the safety of the pen. We need to go out and take risks. But we don't go alone; God who created us from his own image always goes with us.
There are so many voices pulling on us, telling us to follow, and urging us to go in a certain direction. Friends and family wonder at our choices, suggesting we might be better suited for something else. We even wonder to ourselves, isn't this path too frustrating, too hard, too long, too much? Among all these voices, sometimes it is overwhelming to figure out what's what. But God's voice has a unique sound, as He calls us by name.
Inside the pen is safety, but outside is abundant life full of pains and sorrows, but also full of promise and pasture, joy and hope. Throughout this process, God promises to go with us whatever path our ministry takes. Jesus has come as a good Sheppard so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
In our life journey, we will be tempted along the way to listen to other voices and wander off, but we don't need to worry Psalm 23 promises that the sheep dogs are with us, ready to keep us in the flock. It assures us that surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life. Even though we go through the valley of death, we don't need to fear, God's goodness and mercy is on our side.
God promised to complete the good work he began in us at our baptism, where he planted faith and adopted us as His own. God assures us in Holy Communion that through the body and blood of Jesus we have His mercy, the forgiveness of sins, life now and forevermore.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.