So far on Sunday’s in our Easter season we’ve been hearing stories of disciples’ experiences after Jesus death. Experiences of encountering a presence, a companion with them, they come to recognise as Jesus. Almost every time this presence appears, breaks into their world, they’re gathered, with another, going about their normal activities. Today the focus in our gospel shifts. Perhaps this ragged band of gathered followers is trying to make sense of things. Put some explanation around, some flesh to the one they’d gathered around. To strengthen and make meaning of the curious draw Jesus had, that he called out from them. Remember we’re embedded in a Jewish community here, a tradition replete with shepherd and sheep imagery narratives. Imagery used to evoke meaning and response, to enable understanding and stimulate action. I wonder the response arising in us to images of shepherd and sheep. I think there’s value in noticing and paying attention to the response these images engender in us, especially if we attribute them to God/Jesus. Unintended or unattended images of God can have potent impact on us and in us, especially if we’re cast as a sheep.
Lynda Patterson, a late Dean of Christchurch humorously illustrated this in a reflection included in a 2015 Lenten Bible study. “Once I was talking to some Catholic friends in Auckland, they invited me up for their little daughter’s first communion celebration. Little Casey was very excited about is and grabbed the phone to tell me about how she held out her hand and the priest put a wafer in it and then he said the special words. Her Mum took the phone and said that Casey had been particularly taken with the words, “God be with you” when she received the host. So much so that she marched home, sat her mother down, presented her with a pink wafer biscuit from one of the packets in the pantry and whispered to her mum in her most reverent voice, “God will get you.”
Out of the mouths of babes … It struck me that that’s a reasonable assessment of what some people think of God. [God] is out to get us.
[Lynda’s] grandmother was a keen embroiderer and [her] first encounter with theology was in the texts she embroidered and illustrated and left in various significant spots around the house. One of her favourites was “Thou God seest me” from Genesis 16:13. It was in every room of the house, accompanied always with an enormous and rather threatening eyeball. As a child it made [her] quite anxious. It was particularly disturbing to sit in the bath with the eye of God gazing down from slightly to the left of the bathroom mirror. [Lynda] always found [her]self adding an awful lot of bubble bath.”
She reflects, “I wonder how many of us secretly believe God is out to get us. God is the looming presence which makes itself felt whenever we’re doing something slightly dodgy; God is the admonitory finger which waves whenever we have an unworthy thought. The eye of God watches at the keyhole and sits under the bare light bulb interrogating us about our failings. We build up the image of God who is high up and far away – too high up to tolerate our slightest weakness and too far away to feel a great deal of sympathy for us.”  I wonder if this resonates with any of you. Even a more benign shepherd image is still other than a sheep and a sheep’s still need fully dependent.
Today’s gospel from John seems, in this Easter season to be moving us from resurrection revelation toward a naming, a validating of Jesus’ identity. The gospel passage is ever so slightly confusing. We hear of sheep and sheepfold, gatekeeper and gate, of thief and bandit, shepherd voice calling and sheep hearing, shepherd entering and sheep going out. Jesus explicitly claiming to be the gate, then explicitly claiming to be the shepherd and, depending on how you look at it, he might at the same time even be the gatekeeper.
So Jesus-the-shepherd enters Jesus-the-gate because Jesus-maybe-the-gatekeeper opens it for him ... so that he can get to the sheep. Confused? Perhaps he’s having an identity crisis, mixing metaphors … or maybe he’s trying to make a larger point.
Jesus as shepherd, well that’s familiar but Jesus as gate, how are we to understand that? There’s an interesting little detail, easily missed, which may help to clarify. But we have to visit Gospel of Luke, in the 13th chapter Jesus tells his disciples to “strive to enter through the narrow door, for many I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” This teaching from Luke is much better known than the gate-teaching in the John that’s often lost. This can create a problem because, if we’re not careful, we’d read “I am the gate” in John and think it’s Jesus talking about the same thing as in Luke. It isn’t.
The teaching from Luke tends to be remembered because of its moralistic overtones, as if to say you must walk the “straight and narrow,” and strive to make it into God’s Kingdom. It may be what the writer of Luke’s gospel is having Jesus say. But this differs from what the author of John has Jesus saying. This is a very different teaching.
I don’t know whether you noticed but the sheep aren’t the ones entering the gate (door) – Jesus is going in the gate (door). The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Notice Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out. Not in. The sheep’s coming and going to find pasture is secure when they hear their name and respond to being called. But first Jesus goes in to lead the sheep out, it makes you wonder: if we’re being led out, where are we being led out from? And, maybe more importantly, where are we being led to?
So if you understand yourself as one who’s chosen to respond and meander towards the one who knows your name, what’s it feel like to be called a sheep? A sheep’s become symbolic in our culture of someone who’s a mindlessly compliant follower of social norms. Many an Internet commentator has delivered withering, independent-minded diatribes against the unquestioning masses they deride as “sheeple.” Even if you’re comfortable with being compliant, there’s the discomforting reality that sheep are none too bright.
Hilariously commented on in the Monty Python skit, Flying Sheep , in which a tourist begins talking to a farmer leaning on a gate, looking into a field. The tourist is shocked to see sheep up in the trees – nesting – the farmer has come to the conclusion. They observe the sheep trying to hop two-legged around the paddock, unsuccessfully trying to perch and to fly. The trouble is, the farmer explains, that sheep are very dim. Despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ve been convinced by a sheep named Harold that they are, in fact, birds. Harold, the farmer explains is “that most dangerous of all animals: the clever sheep. He’s realised a sheep’s life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten, a depressing prospect for and ambitious sheep.” Might this suggest being clever is a problem? I don’t think so. But you might want to ask where Harold’s cleverness left the sheep? Harold’s doubtless correct in wanting there to be more to life than being eaten, but that doesn’t mean a sheep can make itself a bird – make itself something other than it is.
Do you sometimes wish you could be different, or your circumstances changed or that life in the world were different? I wonder whether the call in us is not toward being something different, but rather toward being more truly who we are. As we uncover this we change, our world changes and we become part of changing our world. The shepherd imaged today doesn’t round up the sheep with a whistle, or herd with whips and prods and dogs. This shepherd calls the sheep by name. Is our wisdom to recognise, to know our name when we’re called? Our skill as sheep is to listen – to listen from the deep place in us from which we recognize who we truly are.
Maybe when we’re called from the sheepfold, we’re called from ways of living that limit or entrap us to abundant life. Inside or outside the sheepfold there are risks and there are many clamouring voices. Choosing to respond and align our life toward the one who knows our name may not lead to a life miraculously made easy, certain and secure. But it may be known in the nature of the life engendered in us – we find ourselves opened to possibility, in some way freed, with courage and a passion to enquire and explore life beyond our familiar bounds. It’s strange to think we’d recognise our name being called. It might almost suggest we’re uniquely intended, honoured and respected. Our choice to respond and follow the one who calls enacts this, brings it to life and makes it real. Once called we’re not to stay in but to go from the sheepfold to give as generously as we’ve been given, to risk granting others the recognition, honour and respect already given us. Even as their being who they are is different from us, even as we may be changed in order that sufficient space is created for them so that they can share pasture with us.