Sunday, 30 April 2023
Rev. Janet Spence
Jesus’ description of himself as both shepherd and gate shows that we can find whatever it is that we need, when we need it.
May I speak in the name of God, Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen
Psalm 23 is rich with promises, and draws a beautiful word painting for us. We are led in our imaginations to a green pasture beside still waters where our souls are restored. We need fear nothing. Hardships will undoubtedly come our way, but even in these places of darkness we will be comforted by the shepherd’s presence with us. We will want for nothing for the shepherd leads us into life.
In today’s gospel, Jesus, perhaps with this Psalm in mind, portrays himself as the good shepherd, an image commonly seen in artwork, stained glass and sculpture in churches around the world. The things that come to mind when we hear the phrase ‘Jesus the Good Shepherd’ provide comfort and assurance, and remind us of that place promised in Psalm 23 – the place of rest and nourishment, of protection and belonging, the place where we are known and loved.
So what aspects of shepherding can we recognise in the person of Jesus, and to which aspects does Jesus draw attention? Shepherds know their sheep, and have their wellbeing at heart. They are comfortable in the sheep’s environment and enter the sheepfold openly and honestly. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and when the shepherd calls the sheep by name, they respond to the call.
The shepherd knows them; they recognise the shepherd’s voice; they are called by name, and when the shepherd calls, they respond.
Today’s gospel follows directly after the telling of the story of the man born blind who is healed by Jesus. When Jesus and the man later encounter one another the man does not recognise Jesus until he speaks. He knows his voice.
And we might be reminded of another Easter ‘calling by name’, when Jesus appears in the garden to Mary on that first Easter morning, and she mistakes him for the gardener.
The moment of recognition comes when Jesus says to her ‘Mary’; when he calls her by name. In that naming she knows him, and is then able to begin to enter that first Easter joy.
The second half of this passage is marked by a change in metaphor; Jesus speaks of himself as the gate (or more literally in the Greek as the door, but a gate fits with the pastoral image … our sheep are not usually graced with doors!)
Gates for sheep serve several purposes. When the gate is closed and the sheep are in their pen, they are safely protected from predators. They do not any longer have to be on high alert as the shepherd has provided for their protection; they are safe.
The shepherd is also the one who opens the gate, and once the gate has been opened, the sheep can go out to green pastures. They are free to explore, to seek food and shelter where they can find it, to live full lives being true to themselves and their calling to be sheep! The pasture is freely offered to all, and in the words of Psalm 23 again, it provides a place where souls can be restored, where we are comforted, where our cups might be filled to overflowing.
Martin Laird, an Augustinian priest who teaches and writes on contemplation, tells a powerful story in his book Into the Silent Land. He speaks of walking across a moor with a friend who had four dogs. As they walked three of the dogs would run out across the moor, leaping, chasing and joyfully exploring their environment.
But one of the dogs would only run in a very tight circle, always keeping very close to them. Laird asked why, and his friend replied, ‘This dog was kept for his entire life prior to coming to me in a very small cage. His body has left the cage but his mind still carries it with him. For him, the world outside the cage doesn’t exist, and so no matter how big and beautiful the moor he will never run across it. He’s still running circles in his cage.'
Sometimes, when we are hurting, or afraid, we might not recognise that the gate is open. Sometimes the events that we carry from our past, or that we are experiencing in present difficulties, mean that we need the safety of the sheepfold. Sometimes our hurts make it just too difficult to trust that we are loved entirely, to believe that it is safe to leave the fold.
Jesus’ description of himself as both shepherd and gate shows that we can find whatever it is that we need, when we need it. For those ready to go and explore in the wide green pastures, the gate is wide open; and for those who need security, safety, and protection, the gate provides that too.
Today is often called ‘Vocations Sunday’ – a day when we are encouraged to consider what God’s call to each of us may be, and traditionally to pray for ministerial vocations.
My own story, of trying to listen, hearing, and responding is a lifelong one. I was baptised at 6 weeks old, and my vocation, becoming who I am, continues to develop. Listening for the voice of God is not a facile endeavour; it is a lifetime’s ongoing adventure. In this adventure called life God calls each one of us to become, and to keep becoming, more and more true to who we are, because this deepest part of ourselves, present at our very beginnings, and throughout our lives to the end, is where we draw closest to God.
I think this is something of what TS Eliot is writing in the last poem of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In a moment, Niamh and Zoja will be welcomed, through baptism, into the church; the worldwide family of God, the body of Christ. Their parents and godparents have heard, and are responding to God’s call to Niamh and Zoja to be baptised. As this next step in Niamh and Zoja’s relationship with God is taken, all of us here gathered will also affirm that we hear and accept God’s call to us, we too have felt the draw of this Love, and heard the voice of this Calling, to welcome, care for, and share our faith with them. And so, their ongoing encounter, conversation, relationship, and journey of life with Jesus as their shepherd continues; their lifelong adventure with God, who protects them, and opens the gate to abundant life.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.