The sheep know his voice–A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

May 15, 2011

I’m sure that most of you have figured out by now that I am fascinated by the changing scene of religion in America. I have been for many years but the transition from the Christ-haunted South, as Flannery O’Connor put it, and Madison, where Grace Church is practically neighbors with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, has given me much to reflect on, intellectually and pastorally. We live in an increasingly secular world, where, in spite of the prominence of Christian rhetoric in the political sphere, religious language and religious institutions, a religious world-view, is on the wane. More people identify themselves as non-religious, and many of those who still claim religious affiliation, are less and less connected to communities of faith. And then I read about the study that was published in the last couple of days that claimed to prove that to be human is to be religious, that is to say, that human beings, everywhere and always, have had religious quests.

This points to one of the fundamental realities in church life today; that we aren’t meeting the deep spiritual needs of our fellow human beings. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but I think one basic reason is that we have difficulty translating the language of our faith into the language of our culture. Today may be a good example of that problem.

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on this Sunday we hear a section of chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. Each year on this Sunday, we read Psalm 23. Each year, we sing one or more hymns that draw on this powerful and ancient imagery. Each year, too, I struggle to make sense of this imagery for our twenty-first century lives. It is powerful and familiar imagery; it may tug at our heartstrings or nostalgically make us yearn for simpler lives, but it rarely seems in any way relevant to the lives we lead, here in Madison, at home, work, or play.

There may be no passage of scripture as familiar to us as Psalm 23. Many of us memorized it as children and could recite it from memory today, albeit in the traditional language of the King James Version. It is often heard at funerals and at other services where many non-regular churchgoers are expected. It continues to resonate, even though its imagery is so alien to us. It may be because it expresses a deep yearning in our lives, a yearning for a connection with God, trust in God.

On closer reflection, today’s Gospel may be more than a relic of an ancient lifestyle. Its imagery challenges us profoundly, for it seems to reflect, not only a world in which people understand sheep, shepherds, and gates, but also is attuned to the violence lurking around every corner, the threats to life and livelihood presented by wilderness. It presents contrasting images of peace and violence, safety and threat and while our world displays such stark contrasts, for the most part, most of us don’t experience such sharp oppositions on a day-to-day basis.

One piece of the problem with the language in today’s Gospel is that it seems very exclusivist. The passage begins evoking language of violence and exclusion: “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” It seems to end much the same way: “I am the gate of the sheep, whoever enters by me will be saved,” Jesus says. When we hear such words, we are tempted to digress into a discussion of whether only Christians can be saved, or whether only particular sorts of Christians can be saved, and everyone else will burn in hell. It’s a discussion and debate that has been very much in the news over the last few months, but it probably misses the point of what the gospel writer was getting at.

The gospel writer was certain that Jesus Christ was the gate, actually the door of the sheep, and that others who came were thieves and bandits. The others he had in mind were not everyone who didn’t belong to his community. Instead, by thieves and bandits, he probably was referring to those who sought to attack and destroy his community, most likely the leaders of the Jewish synagogue that had expelled him and the rest of his group that identified Jesus as the Messiah.

There’s another, more important theme present in this passage. The reason those other leaders are to be rejected is because of what they have on offer. It’s one I’ve stressed before when talking about the Gospel of John. Indeed, it may be the central idea in the gospel; the cornerstone of what the Gospel writer believed Jesus offered and continues to offer, his followers:

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go 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.”

Abundant life, full, complete life, that is what Jesus has on offer. He uses the imagery of sheep to help his listeners understand it—whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. But these are just words; our task is to explore what such abundant life might look like today. We might inquire more deeply into the imagery that Jesus uses—the imagery of shepherd and sheep; the image of door and entry.

Abundant life, not just meaning or purpose, not just existence but flourishing. We seek meaning and purpose in our relationships and in our lives, but we also often find ourselves thwarted in that search. And when we are thwarted or disappointed, life seems just a little bit smaller, narrower. Many of us know this all too well. We are stuck in jobs we had never dreamed of when we were young, victims of relationships gone wrong, broken relationships for which we bear much responsibility. Some of us now, as we are growing older are finding our world getting smaller as the things we used to be able to do and enjoy are beyond us. What does abundant life mean for us?

There are two key elements in this text that offer clues. First is the relationship Jesus posits between sheep and shepherd—shepherd and gatekeeper. The doorkeeper knows the shepherd; the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and follow it. He calls them by name and leads them out. Abundant life means relationship with Jesus Christ and through him, relationship with God. These are hard words for us to say, a truth that is difficult to acknowledge, because for many of us, such language of relationship with Jesus tends to make us uncomfortable. Yet we must claim it, for it is only through that relationship that we fill the hole that is at the center of our lives.

The other element or image that is helpful for us to think about when trying to understand the meaning of abundant life, is the sheepfold and the gate itself. It is not just about protection from the cruel outside world, although it is that. It is about relationship among those who find refuge within it, and the means of life, the pasture and water that are offered in it, and by the shepherd when he takes the flock out. To flourish as individuals and as a community means drawing deeply from the springs of nourishment that God offers us in Jesus Christ.

This may connect back to two other images in our readings. The first is from the familiar Psalm 23—the traditional language of the Psalter reads, “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” One paraphrase, by Eugene Peterson, offers this take: “You serve me a six course dinner right in front of my enemies.” It is an image of remarkable abundance and even chutzpah—God will throw a party for us even when things look bad. But in a way that is nothing more than a continuation of the idea expressed in the first verse of the Psalm—The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want—I shall lack nothing.

That, too, is an image of abundant life, life so full that all of the holes we seek to fill with our addictions or needs, the things we reach for to give us meaning, the consumer goods that promise quality of life, for example, all of those desires are met by the God who loves us and calls out to us even when we stray far away from home.

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