A Sermon from Sherborne
Following the Good Shepherd
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 22 April 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd’, and perhaps because we live in a rural county where the sight of sheep – and lambs at this time of year – is commonplace, we think we know what he meant. But it isn’t quite as simple as that. To understand Jesus’ words – any of his words – you have to step back a bit, to get his teaching and its meaning into perspective. You often have to do that with the Bible. You hear a short passage read, and you think you know what it is saying. But it is not in a self-contained box all on its own: nearly always you need to look at its context: at what has gone before and what comes after. That’s what I mean by stepping back, just as you might hone-in on a detail in a painting, but then you step back to see the whole picture, and how the detail fits into the painter’s overall vision.
The context for today’s Gospel reading from St John chapter 10 [vv. 11-18] begins two chapters earlier, with something Jesus says and then repeats in chapter 9: ‘I am the light of the world’. With the coming of Jesus, light has come into the world. Now when a room is dark, you cannot see anything in it, neither the good things such as the pictures or the furniture, nor the bad ones, such as the dirt and the dust and the cobwebs. Turn on the light and all is revealed. In other words, the coming of Christ the Light inevitably brings judgement. And those who are most harshly judged by the arrival of the Light are those who profess to be keepers of the light and guides in the darkness: the professional religious people who in the Palestine of the First Century were the Pharisees and scribes and doctors of the law. To Jesus they have failed in their task, and he is not afraid to tell them so to their faces.
So although in chapter ten, in today’s Gospel reading, he changes the image, the targets are still the same. The Pharisees claim to be shepherds of the flock which is the people of Israel, but they are not true shepherds. If anything they are just ‘hired men’ who at the hint of danger – the arrival of a wolf – run away and leave the sheep to their fate. And Jesus makes two claims for himself: he is the door of the sheepfold, and he is the Good Shepherd.
Now to claim that you are both the door of the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd sounds at first like a confusion of images. But it isn’t. Most of us know little enough even about sheep-farming in England today, let alone in Palestine two thousand years ago. Farming is still be a dangerous profession. In New Testament times the dangers were different, but no less real. They usually came either from a human source – sheep-stealers, rustlers – or from wild animals: wolves, bears and even lions still roamed those parts. And so at night the sheep were penned into the sheepfold for their own protection. But the fold was not secured by a nice high gate. Rather, the shepherd would wrap himself in his cloak and lie down across the entrance to the sheepfold. The sheep could not escape nor wild animals enter the fold without his knowing. He was the door. And a good shepherd, who knew all his sheep and called them by name, would be prepared to defend his flock with his own life, as the young boy David in the Old Testament, who became King of all Israel, did on more than one occasion, armed only with a sling and a few pebbles.
And suddenly we see how rich this image is. It speaks, first – and awesomely – to professional religious people like me and my clergy colleagues, who dare to call ourselves the shepherds of our flocks. We have a huge responsibility. If through fear or neglect we lose any of our sheep, we will have to account for that one day, when we meet the owner of the sheep face to face. Please pray for us, that we might always be good and courageous shepherds.
Then, second, the image of Jesus as the supreme shepherd, the truly Good Shepherd of all God’s flock, suggests that the only way into the fold for the sheep is through the door which is Jesus himself. Now that is not a very fashionable or politically correct thing to say today. Even very senior churchmen – much more important shepherds than I – are rather given to saying these days that all religions lead to God and that we should never claim that one is better than another. Well, as the Head Sherborne shepherd I’m going to summon up my courage to say that I think these senior shepherds are wrong. I would never want to say that I am a better person than a Moslem or a Sikh, a Jew or an Hindu – I know that I am not – but I do believe Jesus when he says, in another ‘I am’ saying, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ That saying is four chapters on, John 14 verse 6, but the image is the same as ‘I am the door’: the only way to the Father is through the door or the way which is Jesus Christ.
Think of it this way. There is immense nobility, profound wisdom and massive holiness to be found in the other great religions of the world. But ultimately I believe they reflect, in different cultures and from different starting points, the human search for God. And because God’s signature is all over his creation, and because the Holy Spirit, like the wind, blows where he wills, those great religions (and I mean ‘great’) have discovered all sorts of truths which perhaps we Christians have yet to stumble upon ourselves. But in the end Christianity is not about our search for God. It is about God’s search for us. It is about the God who, when we were still far off, met us in his Son and brought us home. And by Christ’s claim to be the door, the way, and the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, Christianity stands or falls. By that claim alone it must be judged.
I can remember one spring, in a Dorset lane, coming upon a ewe and her lamb that had escaped from their field and were contentedly cropping grass by the roadside. It was for them no doubt an attractive place to be – the grass is always greener on the other side – but it was fraught with danger. The driver ahead of me did what otherwise I would have done: he pulled into the farmhouse drive about half a mile further on to report those errant sheep. I’m sure the farmer was relieved to know that his sheep had strayed, and soon did something about it. Sheep have a choice, and so do we. To be truly at home with God means to make the choice to follow Christ the Good Shepherd along the way which is Christ, and to enter the home that God has prepared for us through Christ who is also the door. I made that choice a long time ago, as a first year undergraduate at Oxford. It’s a choice I have never regretted. I am sure that you haven’t regretted yours, either. And if there is anyone here today who knows in his or her heart that the choice has yet to be made, then why not make it here, now, today – to follow the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for you, and longs that you should know him as he knows you, as one of his own.