Sermon on John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47 for Easter 4A, May 7, 2017
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
In Greek mythology, the God Hermes, son of Zeus, is considered the god of transitions and boundaries. He moves between the worlds of the gods and mortals as a messenger. Sometimes he is depicted with winged sandals or a winged cap. You may have seen him in the FTD florists icon.
Hermes is also shown carrying a ram draped around his shoulders, in preparation for sacrifice. Early Christians took that image and with a few changes, made it into the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep.
Jesus, according to the gospels, looked at the beleaguered peasants of Galilee and had compassion on them because they were “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt 9:36).
He told the parable of the shepherd who leaves the flock to go out searching for the one lost sheep. That image of Jesus with the sheep on his shoulders, like Hermes with the ram, fits that parable to a Tee when the shepherd returns the lost lamb safely to the fold.
I think we all identify with that image. Who has not been through times of lostness? Maybe you are in one of them now. The way forward is uncertain. It feels dangerous and threatening.
I remember walking down a path in a woods. It was overgrown, but there was defiantly a path there. But the further I went, the more overgrown it became, until finally the path disappeared. It was all woods and weeds with no clear direction. Sometimes life feels like that.
The early Christians also had their Jewish scriptures and knew well the Psalms, just as Jesus did. With the words of Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” fresh in their minds, it was not a leap, at all, for the community that produced the gospel of John to imagine Jesus saying directly, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
The image of Jesus as the good shepherd carrying the lost sheep to safety is an intimately personal picture. The danger is over; the lost lamb has been found. It’s all good for one thankful lamb.
The Shepherd is the Gate
As true and as helpful as that personal image is, however, it is not the full picture. Being part of the Jesus-sheep-fold is bigger and broader. It is importantly about feeling personally cared for, about being personally found, about God’s unconditional love that comes to us without any sort of pre qualifications or conditions, but it is not that alone.
So, in the gospel of John we hear Jesus mixing the metaphor back and forth in a way that would drive my high school English teacher crazy, between the gate and the shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd, and Jesus is also the gate to the sheep fold.
Sheep are vulnerable to predators, like wolves, so they spend the night in the fold, protected by its walls and its gate. In other words, sheep live with danger. The gate is there because there are wolves out there. So Jesus is the gate. Jesus is standing between the sheep and the wolves.
The life of sheep is complicated. In the fold, the sheep are safe. But there is no food or water there. To live, the sheep have to leave the safety of the fold and follow the shepherd out to find pasture and water. The sheep, in other words, have to go out into the dangerous world where the risks are real.
So, Jesus, as shepherd, first leads the sheep into the fold at night, then he becomes the gate that keeps them safe, then he becomes the gate that opens, and finally, he becomes the shepherd again. As Shepherd, his morning role, John says, is:
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
Here is how I read the metaphors today: the fold is like the church when we gather. We have been brought together by Jesus, and we celebrate the life we live knowing that we have a Good Shepherd. We celebrate the unconditional love and inclusive community of fellow lost lambs who have been found.
The Way of the Wolf
But our calling is to follow the shepherd out of the fold, and into the dangerous world. What makes the world dangerous? We are constantly exposed to the temptation of believing that the wolves are right after all.
The wolves have sharp teeth and claws, and are always hungry. They are out for themselves, and they are never satisfied. They may hunt in a pack, but their ideal is the solitary individual, in an exclusive territory. They are very good at what they do.
The sheep are constantly tempted, as they go out into the world, to think that maybe the wolf way of life is better after all. Maybe their way of looking at life is more realistic.
A Higher Vision
Well maybe. But we are here because we have been given a higher vision. We believe that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that compassionate caring is a higher goal than competitive conquest.
We believe that community and sharing is superior to private acquisition. As Jesus said, we do not believe that a person’s life consists in the abundance of their possessions, or investments, or assets.
We have, from Jesus, an alternative vision. Our vision is of a community that is so inspired by Jesus’ way of life-for-others that our highest goal is to live that vision in practice, out beyond the sheep fold, even among the wolves.
What does that look like? Well, one way to picture it is the way Luke does. Writing his gospel decades after Jerusalem had witnessed her failed revolt, and had been destroyed by the Romans, Luke tells a story about that early Jerusalem church. It is an idealized portrait.
We have no idea how close to literal reality his picture is, but importantly he holds up this as the ideal. This is what it is supposed to look like. This is the picture of the community that best expresses our ideal.
So let us look at that picture. Luke says, first:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
The apostles were the ones who taught about Jesus. They were the ones who were with him, so they taught his words and deeds. So, the early church devoted itself to the study of Jesus.
Second, to fellowship, which in Luke’s language did not mean pot-lucks and coffee, it meant sharing life together – and he will detail that in just one moment.
Third, to the breaking of bread, which most people take to mean the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. They reenacted the breaking of the bread around a common table, as Jesus taught them to do, “in remembrance of” him.
Fourth, they devoted themselves to the prayers, again, as Jesus had taught them to pray “may your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven…forgive us, as we forgive…”
Opposite of Wolf Ways
So those were their communal practices. What did that fellowship, or that sharing together look like specifically? Luke sums up their lifestyle this way:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
This is the opposite of wolf philosophy. This is about looking around and asking, not “Who can I eat?”, but “Who is in need? What do I have that could help? How could my blessings become a blessing to others?
The church, as we go out into the world, following Jesus, is a huge sign that the wolf philosophy is not the only way to live. In fact, it may work for the biggest and strongest wolves, but it leaves a trail of broken bones and blood behind.
Our vision is of a world in which, as the prophets imagined it,
“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa 11:6, 9)
So the question we ask ourselves everyday is this: how can we live into that vision? How can we make the world more like that today than it was yesterday?
So we look around and ask, just as Jesus did, who is hurting? Where is there suffering? Where is there need? How could my life, my skills, my creativity, my time, my assets be used to make the world better? How could our collective good will bring about a more just, peaceful, and whole world?
This is a dangerous world. I personally believe that a lot of the church in our country has been convinced that the wolves are right, and you might as well join them.
The Good Shepherd’s Way
I do not believe that. I believe in the Good Shepherd who goes so far as to lay down his life for his sheep. I believe that lost ones need to be and can be found by compassion and love. I believe that James was channeling Jesus when he said that
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Caring for orphans and widows is pure religion. Stained is how wolves look, just after the kill. Pure religion remains unstained.
So, in order to avoid the danger of being seduced by the wolf’s perspective, it is important to practice the way a Christian community practices: devoting ourselves to the teachings of Jesus, the breaking of the bread in communion, the fellowship of sharing together our lives and resources, and to prayer.
So today, we will gather around the table and break bread. We will be invited to see Christ in the breaking of the bread. We will all share the bread in common as the table is extended and the bread is distributed. And we will enact, in this common meal, a vision of a redeemed world. A world in which all are welcomed, all are fed, and all share the joy of the alternative community created by the Good Shepherd.
And after this meal, we will follow the shepherd out; out into the world, as living signs of that alternative. And insofar as we do this well, as Luke says,
“Awe will come upon everyone”
because this alternative to the wolf way of life is awesome! This is the way, as Jesus said, to:
have life, and have it abundantly.”