The Fierce Shepherd

4th Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017

[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:1-10 

See also Acts 2:42-47.

Listen to today’s sermon here:

I don’t know about you, but I want to be in Jesus’ sheep pen. Whether Jesus is the shepherd, the gatekeeper, the gate itself, or the whole sheepherding operation, I want to be in that flock. Surrounded by something to keep me safe, let out to pasture when and where it’s safe, provided with green pastures and quiet waters.

I want to be in Jesus’ church, too. The one described in the Acts reading. You know, sharing everything. Devoted to teaching, fellowship, and prayer. Breaking bread with glad and generous hearts. Praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Just perfect all the time. I’m not sure that church ever existed for longer than about three minutes, but I want to be there.

After a week that drew our attentions to the killing of Jordan Edwards and renewed attention to the killing of Alton Sterling, I want to live in a world where young men don’t get killed for the color of their skin. Where the people who shoot them don’t just get away with it, but also a world where the people who shoot them don’t get thrown away and forgotten about either.

I want to live in a world where people no longer fear the loss of essential healthcare, where people don’t have to choose between food and medicine and rent. A world where class and wealth no longer determine the quality and accessibility of medical services and healthy food.

I want to live in a world where demons of self-doubt are revealed for what they really are. A world where depression and anxiety, emptiness and confusion, fear and failure are long forgotten.

I want to live in a world where the Great Thief, death itself, does not climb in and steal away the people I love. A world where sickness and death and grieving and pain are no more.

The thing is that I’m a person with a lot of privilege, which means that some days I can choose to forget that I don’t yet live in that world. Some days I can imagine nice pastoral scenes of happy sheep grazing with their docile shepherd. Some days the good shepherd means to me that I get nice things and a comfortable life and all is well. That’s a privilege many people in our world simply don’t have.

So it’s a good thing that isn’t what the good shepherd image is all about. Because Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. And it simply isn’t abundant life until it’s abundant for everyone. The flock is not full until everyone’s in it. The church is not done reforming until everyone is actually welcome and gladness and generosity abound. Abundant life means there’s so much of it that it overflows one to another to another. And we don’t yet live in that world, even those who can sometimes pretend we do.

Which is why I actually kind of like today’s part of the good shepherd reading, which doesn’t actually use the phrase “good shepherd.” Come back next year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter to hear that part. But in today’s reading Jesus mixes his metaphor a little. He implies he might be the shepherd or the gatekeeper, then he says outright that he’s the gate. In one sense or another he’s responsible for the security and sustenance of the sheep.

And a good shepherd is not always docile. There are bandits and thieves about, wolves and coyotes, not to mention sheep prone to wandering. The Jesus of this reading is one who calls over and over again gathering and leading the sometimes obstinate sheep. The Jesus of this reading is one who fights off all manner of ferocious beasts and ill-intentioned intruders. The Jesus of this reading is a strong and sturdy gate that keeps out the forces that harm and destroy. The Jesus of this reading is an impossibly wide gateway that allows the sheep room to find safety and go out again for sustenance without pushing others away. The Jesus of this reading is one who isn’t afraid to push and prod and yank and pull us into the way of life, abundant life. That’s a good shepherd.

This shepherd is one who will rip open our carefully constructed worlds in order to make room for the people whose voices we have silenced in pursuit of selfishly abundant life. This shepherd is one who will slice through the barriers we put up to loving ourselves and loving others. This shepherd will literally move heaven and earth to find safe pasture that is open to everyone. This shepherd will yank us back when we forget the voice that calls us by name. This shepherd will kick us out when we ourselves become the bandits stealing life from others, and make us come in through the gate as sheep again. This shepherd will fight the Great Thief all the way to our graves, to hell itself, and back again to bring abundant life. That’s a good shepherd.

Some weeks it’s enough to imagine the traditional gentle shepherd, but a lot of weeks I need something stronger. Because I’m still longing for that world I described. And because I’m still making decisions that don’t match up with the world I want to live in. Because sometimes there are simply forces beyond my control that require a God who breaks through the worst there is to breathe abundant life into us.

Today in this season of resurrection, we look to the font and the table. The green pasture and still water to which our strong and gracious shepherd leads us. There we find not just a promise of what is to come but the actual experience of that world we long for if only for a moment. There we are refreshed and renewed. But eat and drink knowing that in that meal we are also yanked and pulled, pushed and prodded, such that by God’s fierce shepherding we are led to the life we long for in such a way that abundant life is made possible for all creation.

-Pastor Steven Wilco