Text: John 10:1-10
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Two sheep were standing in a field.
“Baaaa” said one.
“Bother” said the other one, “I was going to say that!”
It was only last week when I got an email from a lady whom I had married, I think in my first year here. “Well now that lambing is finally over, we can start to think about our daughter’s baptism…”
For a city boy like myself, and I suspect for many of you, I find it hard to make grasp the reality of this Good Shepherd Sunday simply because unlike many others of you in this beautiful part of Devon, I have no farming experience. Sheep simply do not enter into my mindset, and perhaps yours either: what do we in Woolwell or Glenholt or Southway know of sheep other than when espied from a distance on the moorside? So to fully understand the significance of our Gospel this morning, we need to get closer to some country ways.
We often think of Shepherds as people who drive sheep, from the rear with their snarling but canny sheepdogs, pushing the flock of sheep to where the Shepherd wishes them to go: to safety, or to the market or even the abattoir. I recall watching on holiday once a demonstration of shepherding. One man and his dog, a whistle and a large field, it was amazing to see man and dog working together as one to guide and drive these sheep. My dog Ruby (a German Shepherd no less) could only aspire to be so obedient, God bless her…
However, it would be quite incorrect for us to assume that when Christ spoke of being a shepherd, and we in the language of Psalm 100 as the sheep of his pasture, he was thinking of driving us poor creatures to where we didn’t want to go. That is a metaphor for the west, and the modern age, not the Middle East at the time of Our Lord.
Out there, a shepherd does not have the advantage of a sheepdog, and so rather than driving his sheep forward, from the rear, a shepherd leads his flock, leads from the front. Indeed, the text of the Gospel makes explicit reference to this:
“The sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. He goes ahead of them and the sheep follow because they know his voice”
With this metaphor in mind, we can see the role of Christ much more clearly: to lead us towards God, not to drive us; to guide and inspire, protect and save rather than to coerce, bully or harass.
The Good Shepherd is a challenging illusion. We tend to think of Shepherds as being part of the biblical scene, as they are referred to frequently by Christ; they were witnesses of his birth, we recall. We grace them perhaps with the dignity of the working man, and see them as perhaps a representative of us, the common people.
That is, however, not how the original hearers of Christ’s words would have interpreted them. Shepherds were required to spend long periods of time away from their homes. They lived uncomfortable lives in the semi-wilderness confronted by the dangers of wolves and thieves. They did not have the luxury of a day off, and so Shepherds were seen as disreputable and scandalous because they had to break the Sabbath Law. We have lost our awareness of how scandalous it would be for Christ to liken himself to one who broke the Sabbath – would Christ today say “I am the Good Prostitute?” – would we be equally scandalised by such a suggestion? That sounds outrageous doesn’t it? It would have had the same impact in the first century.
And yet, time and time again God proves to us that his ways are not our ways, and many of our concepts of scandal are misplaced. King David was a shepherd: a loyal, good and effective shepherd as well if his prowess with the slingshot was anything to go by. His descendant, Our Lord identifies himself with the scandalised, he was revealed to these poor-quality Jews at his birth, and uses them to teach us something very significant about his mission.
Christ, of course, was frequently the subject of scandal: he ate with sinners as well as likening himself to them, and he died a criminal’s death. The lamb of God is not an image of a pastoral ideal, but the image of a sacrificial victim – the lambs sacrificed for the Passover on the night we call Maundy Thursday.
For Christ be the Good Shepherd to us, we need to accept being his sheep. Today is also Vocation Sunday; a day when we pray not only for vocations to the sacred priesthood or the religious life, although that is both necessary and welcome. We pray for the discernment of a vocation for all of us, to respond to God’s call to be whatever he leads us to. The Good Shepherd has a vocation in mind for all of us, a ministry for us all to perform, a response to Him as one of his flock.
When we think of vocation, we usually focus on priesthood, on the religious life. But what about the other vocations that being a Christian is all about. What about visiting that otherwise lonely elderly person. What about enabling a harassed single mum have an afternoon to herself. What about the friendly smile to the disaffected youth on the street corner? These are all part of our vocation as Christians and vocations that we can all aspire to.
In participating in God’s holy sacraments at this altar, and doing God’s work here on earth, building the kingdom of God, we are responding to his call, the lead of the Good Shepherd: our vocation as Christians is to be the Sheep of God’s pasture – to follow where he leads us, to be protected from harm by him, to be nourished through him, to join with him as one body.
There can be no greater vocation: the vocation to be a Christian, to be a sheep for the lamb of God.