A Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday (the 4th Sunday of Easter)
This fourth Sunday of Easter is often referred to as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday. This is because we always have part of John Chapter 10 as our Gospel reading. A large chunk of this chapter is taken up with Jesus talking about himself through the image of being a Good Shepherd. Thinking about Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’ has taken up quite a lot of my time in the last few months. In January, St Dunstan’s school launched its new vision, which begins:
St Dunstan’s – a thriving Christian school, guided by the Good Shepherd, founded on faith, inspiring the best in everyone.
I’ve been involved in leading sessions with teaching staff, support staff, and governors, reflecting on how placing Jesus as the Good Shepherd at the centre of the school’s vision affects the school’s approach to all its work. There have also been lessons and assemblies with the children exploring different aspects of the Good Shepherd theme in faith.
One assembly was led by a group called Sutton Schools Work, who deliver assemblies and workshops with Christian themes in schools across Sutton. In their assembly, they reflected on what it might mean to be a good shepherd. They suggested five ways in which we might understand this better. A good shepherd:
· Guides – they will lead their sheep to good pasture and back to safety;
· Provides – they will ensure that their sheep have all that they need, especially food and shelter;
· Protects – they will do all that they can from guarding their flock from danger;
· Loves – they will give the loving care that their sheep need;
· Lays down their life – they are prepared to go the extra mile to secure all of this.
This is a very useful way of understanding Jesus as the Good Shepherd on a basic level. We are going to use these headings in school to explore this further, to open up the different ways in which we can understand how, as our vision says, the school is ‘guided by the Good Shepherd’.
Faith, however, is very complex. So much of faith, especially at its more basic level, can verge on being more than a little trite. Seeing Christ as the Good Shepherd can be such a clichéd image. There’s more going on here than just these five words. We need to understand more. We need to go deeper. We need to examine it in greater detail. In the first part of the passage, it seems very clear that Jesus is talking about himself as the Good Shepherd. He is the one who knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. He guides them. They know his voice. The gatekeeper (whoever that is) lets him and his sheep in and out. This is fairly comfortable ground. This is the familiar Good Shepherd who guides, provides, protects, loves, and lays down his life.
In the second part of the passage, though, Jesus veers away from this. Suddenly, he says, ‘very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep’. He’s no longer the shepherd. He’s not even the gatekeeper he’s mentioned. No. He’s the actual gate itself. To describe himself as a gate – the very mechanism by which people go in and go out – is curious to say the least. In some ways, Jesus is saying that he is both the shepherd and the gate. The function of the gate is to provide safety for the sheep in their fold at night. The function of the shepherd is to guide the sheep and provide for their nourishment and wellbeing. We can see that this might work – how Jesus can somehow be shepherd and gate.
But I’ve always found this image of Jesus being the gate really quite perplexing. Have a think of a sheepfold. It possibly has four sides, or perhaps it’s circular; it’s maybe walled or fenced; it will have a gap somewhere for the gate, which provides a way in and a way out. It both prevents the sheep in the fold from escaping and also any predators from getting in. The gate is a barrier. It is something that goes between the inside of the fold and the outside. If we’re not careful, we can begin to interpret this in ways that should concern us. When the gate is closed, it may protect those inside, but it also seals them off. It puts a physical obstacle between insider and outsider. It gives a licence to exclude rather than include. It turns those inside into an inward-looking, contained sect. The protection given can come at the expense of the nurture and growth of the insiders. The gate can be a good thing. But it can also be dangerous. If we only see within the walls that contain us, how can we learn from and respond to the world beyond?
I’ve been playing around with this idea of Jesus being the gate. A gate, of course, is not always a way in and a way out of an enclosed area. It is also a way between two places – think of a gate between two fields. It is a liminal point, a threshold between two distinct areas. To keep us entertained during the lockdown, we’ve subscribed to Disney Plus. We have all been watching the films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are the vastly successful twenty odd interlinked superhero films which have been released since 2008, with the Avengers films at their heart. One of the themes that holds this huge cinematic undertaking together is the idea that it is possible to move between different realms of the universe. Thor and the Asgardians move from realm to realm via the Bifrost. Harnessing the power of the Tesseract – a space artefact – can open portals through the universe. At the end of the first Avengers film, a hole is ripped in space allowing an alien race to attack New York. Dr Strange is able to see different dimensions and create openings in space so that people, including himself, can teleport across vast distances. All of these portals are gateways. Characters stand on the threshold of these portals and can see something unimaginably distant and different, but which is only a short step or journey away.
When Jesus says, ‘I am the gate,’ there is no doubt that he is using the language of sheep and shepherding. But, as we’ve seen, it is a problematic gate. What if we look at this gate differently? What if we see it more as a portal? As a boundary between two different ways of being? As a liminal space between two different ways of thinking? As a threshold where on one side we have the world as we know it. And on the other side we have the Kingdom of God - the world as God would have it be, the world of the radical reversal I talked of on Easter morning. When we follow Jesus, he becomes the gate through which we see a fundamentally different, transformational way of being. When we follow Jesus, we step into the Kingdom of God – or least we stand across the threshold with one leg in and one leg out. We see a place where life can indeed be had – and had in abundance. Like a tear in space in time in the Marvel films, Jesus as the gate brings the kingdom of God and the abundant life it brings closer than it has ever been.