Eucharist Sermon - 25 April 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5–12, John 10:11-18
The Right Reverend ​Gavin Collins, The Bishop of Dorchester
'The Shepherd and the Sheep'

This is a very famous and wonderfully comforting passage with its imagery of the shepherd leading his flock – taking care of them, leading them to good pasture, keeping them safe from harm, and it has some tremendous phrases in it: Just picture in your mind the scene in the second part of v.4: “[The shepherd] goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice”. Isn’t that a wonderful image. Jesus leading us from the front, making sure the way is safe, and showing us the way to go.

Selwyn Hughes described how he often used this passage in talking about the way Jesus cares for us, and how he always made the point that in the Middle East, a shepherd would do just this – even today – they would walk in front of their flock, gently coaxing and encouraging them, and not walk behind them as an English shepherd would, using sheepdogs to nip at their feet and harass the sheep in order to coerce them into going the way he wanted them to go. In Palestine, the shepherd leads his sheep. And Selwyn Hughes describes how on one occasion he was leading a pilgrimage tour to the Holy Land and had given just this talk in the morning, and then in the afternoon his group were in a coach driving to the next place they were going to visit, and they came round a corner and saw a flock of sheep going along the road with the shepherd driving them from behind. Selwyn Hughes was so indignant about this that he asked the driver to stop the coach, jumped out, and went to see what was going on. He talked to the man for a couple of minutes, and then returned to the coach and announced: “It’s alright everyone: He’s not the shepherd – he’s the butcher taking them to the abattoir!”

And that may be funny, but think about that for a moment. For at the end of the day, isn’t that exactly what a shepherd usually does? If you take the long-term view of things at least? Yes, he might tend and care for and protect the flock, but why does he do that? Because ultimately he wants them fat and happy and with plenty of meat on them so that they’ll fetch a good price when they’re sold to be slaughtered. That sounds harsh, but that’s farming – that’s what it’s all about. That’s why the sheep are produced in the first place. That’s why the sheep are tended and cared for – because they’re being fattened up for death. That’s the natural way of things.

But Jesus is different. He says here that he is the shepherd and we are his sheep. But why does our shepherd keep his flock? What’s his long-term plan – his goal – for his sheep? Well, when we look at v.10 here, we see that our shepherd’s motivation couldn’t be more different from what you’d normally expect: [Read v.10].

– Jesus’ aim isn’t to get us ready for death. No! It’s the exact opposite. Jesus’ plan is to get us ready for life! And not just any old life but “abundant life”, “life to the full”! And I think that we’re so familiar with this passage – we’re so used to its cosy imagery of “Jesus the Good Shepherd” – that we lose sight of just how shocking that is. A shepherd who keeps sheep just because he cares for them, because he wants them to enjoy life to the full, and to go on enjoying it for eternity, a shepherd who doesn’t plan to lead his sheep to slaughter in order to make himself rich, but who tends and cares for them simply because he delights in them and loves to watch over them!

And as if that wasn’t a shocking enough thought in itself, as the passage continues, Jesus says that, yes, death is involved, but it’s not the sheep’s death. Instead, v.11: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Again, I want to say that I think we’re so familiar with this passage that we read that and we think: “Yes, yes, jolly good. – ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’, that’s all right and proper, that’s the way it would be.” But of course that’s precisely not the way it would normally be!!! Yes, a conscientious shepherd might well become attached to his flock. Yes, he would care for them and want the best for them, and be upset if they weren’t well. But a sensible shepherd wouldn’t die for his sheep – he’d be far more hard-headed and pragmatic and business-minded than that. It just doesn’t work like that! I’ve listened to “The Archers” for enough years, I know about these things! I know that for all a farmer rejoices at seeing the little lambs born in the springtime, come late summer he’s delighted to see them sold off at market & to cash the cheque they bring!

But not with our shepherd. Jesus works to a different set of values. He looks at us, harassed and helpless as we are; he sees that we’re unable to look after ourselves – unable even to stay alive if left to our own efforts – and his heart is so filled with love for us that he not only draws near to tend us and care for us, but he literally lays down his life for us in order that we might live. That’s what our faith is all about. That’s what Communion is all about, every time we eat the bread which is a symbol of life, we’re reminded of Jesus’ body broken, every time we drink the wine, we remember his life-blood poured out, that we might live. Oh yes: Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep.

And it gets even more amazing than that! For not only is Jesus a shepherd who subverts and goes far beyond what any human shepherd would ever do for his flock, he also makes this incredible statement in v.14: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me”. Think about that. Not only is this Jesus such an amazing, loving, sacrificial, shepherd, but we can: “know him”. We can “know him” – that’s a picture of intimacy, of security, of relationship. No wonder he can talk about giving us “life to the full”.

And the fruit of doing this? The result of following this Good Shepherd? The second half of v.10 again: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. As we follow Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we enjoy life in all abundance, life to the full. And the life Jesus is talking about here is so rich, so abundant that it’s as if he realises his shepherd imagery is breaking down in vv.7&9, so he switches the picture round so that now instead of being the shepherd, he says he’s the gate – the gate to the sheep-fold – and as the sheep keep passing through the gate, as they keep enjoying that fellowship with Jesus, they come into the pen and find security, and they go out into the field and find rich pasture. What a lovely image of “living life to the full”. If I were a sheep, I genuinely don’t think there’s anything more I could want in life! Security in the fold and abundant pasture in the field. And all made possible by continually going through the gate, the gate that gives access to both. Jesus, the gate.