1 Peter 2.19-2nd;
John 10. 1-10
BACK IN the giddy ’60s, it was asserted that Christians — at least those who lived in built-up areas — should stop talking about shepherds and sheep. Jesus’s imagery, we were told, needed to be industrialised.
The tenth chapter of John’s Gospel was judged to be particularly in need of a makeover. So we were invited to reflect on such reinventions as “I am the true crankshaft. Everything revolves around me.” We shudder at the memory, overlooking the possibility that some of the ways in which we treat the Bible today will be deemed one day just as dotty.
Yet we do have a problem. The picture of the Lord as my shepherd is one of the great images of the Hebrew Bible. The 23rd psalm — the song we sing this Sunday — is the most well-known of the many texts in the Old Testament where God is portrayed as the shepherd of his people. In a passage of extraordinary beauty, which has inspired Christian art across the ages, the prophet speaks of the Lord who will “feed his flock like a shepherd”, and who will “gather the lambs in his arms” (Isaiah 40.11).
The Messiah will be God’s shepherd-king, the heir to David, whom God “took from the sheepfolds, from tending the nursing ewes, to be the shepherd of his people Jacob” (Psalm 78.71). However distant our own lives may be from that of a Palestinian or Cumbrian shepherd, the scriptural image retains its timeless appeal, and, above all, its ancient power to sustain us as we pass into the dark.
The difficulty arises when we turn from the shepherd to the sheep. The sheep is a useful animal, and, at least in its infancy, an endearing one. But its lifestyle is hardly a pattern of discipleship. The point is made seriously. Over-exposure to sheep-shepherd imagery — perhaps in hymns more than in scripture (“Loving Shepherd of thy sheep, Keep thy lamb, in safety keep”) — can inculcate a spirituality of over-dependency.
The good sheep meekly follows wherever it is led. It always complies. It stays safe. It does not explore the unknown and the perilous. The attributes most desirable in a sheep turn out to be those most deplorable in a disciple.
Here we turn to our reading from 1 Peter — or, rather, to the verse before the one where we are supposed to start. Peter says: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle, but also those who are harsh.” What follows is a moving account of Christ’s refusal to return evil for evil. His silent suffering proves to be the “one abyss of destroying love”, in which all our iniquities are absorbed without recoil — and so their deadly sting is drawn.
Yet Peter’s purpose in this sublime passage — one of the foundational texts for our understanding of the atonement — is to defend his initial injunction, his insistence that slaves should always do as they are told. If we read this passage on Sunday, we should start where Peter does, and not where our lectionary says we should. We obey a first principle in the use of the Bible: Don’t leave out the awkward bits.
The first Christians did not immediately challenge the cultural assumptions and social institutions of their world. It was taken for granted that the good slave, like the good woman, always defers. After all, that is what the good sheep does. But the image that illuminates can also mislead, unless it is complemented and corrected by other images.
So it is with “sheep talk”. To be sure, we belong to the Lord’s flock, but we also belong to his family. We are his sheep, but we are also his children. Children, like sheep, are vulnerable, and they need to be protected and guided, comforted and corrected. But, unlike sheep, children need to pose questions and to ask why, to challenge authority and not always to do as they are told, if ever they are to grow up.
It is because we are more than sheep that we are bold enough to challenge some of the attitudes that the Bible itself seems to sanction — slavery, and the subjugation of women among them. The more abundant life that Jesus promises never allows unquestioning acquiescence in the way things are.
It has been well said of John that “his thought moves in spirals rather than straight lines.” So we are invited to think of Jesus not only as our shepherd, but also as “the gate”, the door to the fold where the sheep find safety and shelter.
Again, John’s picture calls to mind Old Testament imagery. Jacob, wandering the earth, lay down with his head on a stone, and dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven. “This is the house of God,” he said of that field under the stars, “and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28.10-22). Jesus may be claiming to be the only way to heaven, but the gate of which he speaks is in many places.
Text of Readings
Many were baptized and were added to the community. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
1 Peter 2.19-end
Brothers and sisters: 19It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Jesus said to the Pharisees: 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.’