The Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Rev. George Pejakovich
John 10:1-10

EVERY YEAR, DURING OUR FIFTY DAY CELEBRATION OF THE RESURRECTION, ON THE FOURTH SUNDAY THE TEXTS ARE FULL OF REFERENCES TO SHEEP AND SHEPHERDS. THIS HAS COME TO BE KNOWN AS SHEPHERDING SUNDAY, OR, SOMEWHAT LESS REVERENTLY, THE SUNDAY OF THE SHEEP. SINCE LESS THAN 5% OF THE POPULATION HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH FARMING OR RAISING SHEEP, THE METAPHORS AND ALLUSIONS OF THE TEXT NEED SOME SHORT EXPLANATIONS. MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH SHEEP IS LIMITED TO HOW MUCH I LIKE LAMB; BUT I AM PRETTY SURE THIS IS NOT WHAT JESUS MEANT.

FROM ANCIENT TIMES, THE KINGS AND PRIESTS OF ISRAEL WERE KNOWN AS THE SHEPHERDS OF THE PEOPLE. THEY WERE THE ONES CHARGED BY GOD, THE GREAT SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL, TO CARE FOR THE PEOPLE AND TO LEAD THEM IN UNDERSTANDING AND LIVING BY THE COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND ISRAEL. THE METAPHOR OF ISRAEL AS THE SHEEP OF GOD IS A CONSISTENT IMAGE THROUGHOUT THE WRITINGS OF THE PROPHETS AND THE PSALMISTS. WHAT IS INTERESTING, TO ME AT LEAST, IS THAT THERE IS NO WORD FOR A SINGLE SHEEP, EITHER IN HEBREW OR ENGLISH. THE WORD SHEEP IS ALWAYS PLURAL, BECAUSE SHEEP ARE ALWAYS SEEN IN THE CONTEXT OF THE FLOCK. THE METAPHOR OF ISRAEL AS THE SHEEP OF GOD IS, THEREFORE, ALWAYS A COMMUNAL ONE. JUST AS AN ISOLATED SHEEP IS DOOMED, THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD IS DEPENDENT ON THE COMMUNITY OF GOD IN THE CARE AND LEADERSHIP OF THE SHEPHERDS OF GOD.

IN THE MIDDLE EAST, THE SHEPHERDS DO NOT HERD THE SHEEP, BUT LEAD THEM BY THE CALL OF THEIR VOICE. IN A VILLAGE WITH A NUMBER OF FLOCKS, THE VARIOUS SHEPHERDS WOULD LEAD THEIR FLOCKS TO PASTURE AND WATER DURING THE DAY, AND, AT NIGHT, LEAD THEM INTO A COMMUNAL SHEEPFOLD. THIS WOULD BE A CORRAL OF BRUSH OR ROCKS HIGH ENOUGH SO THE SHEEP COULD NOT JUMP OUT, AND WITH A SINGLE OPENING. ONCE ALL THE SHEEP WERE SECURED, ONE OF THE SHEPHERDS WOULD LIE DOWN IN THE OPENING FOR THE NIGHT, MAKING HIS BODY THE GATE. THE SHEEP WOULD NOT TRY TO CLIMB OVER THE MAN IN THE GATE, AND ANY THIEF OR PREDATOR WOULD HAVE TO GET PAST THE SHEPHERD WITH HIS ROD AND STAFF.

JESUS USED THIS METAPHOR IN RESPONSE TO WHAT HAPPENED JUST PRIOR TO THE PHARISEES COMING TO QUESTION HIM. HE HAD HEALED A MAN BLIND FROM BIRTH, BUT HE DID IT ON THE SABBATH WHICH WAS A VIOLATION OF RITUAL LAW. THE PHARISEES, INSTEAD OF CELEBRATING AND WELCOMING THE MAN BACK INTO THE COMMUNITY OF GOD’S PEOPLE, GRILLED THE MAN IN AN ATTEMPT TO CHARGE JESUS WITH BREAKING SABBATH LAW. THEY EVEN DRAGGED HIS PARENTS BEFORE THEM TO GET THEM TO TESTIFY AGAINST JESUS. WHEN JESUS HEARD ABOUT THIS, HE WENT TO THE HEALED MAN AND IDENTIFIED HIMSELF AS THE ONE WHO HAD HEALED HIM. WITH THE RESTORED MAN’S PROFESSION OF TRUST IN JESUS, HE WELCOMED HIM INTO THE COMMUNITY OF GOD’S PEOPLE; THOSE WHO HEARD GOD’S CALL IN JESUS.

WHEN HE SPOKE ABOUT THE SHEPHERD OF THE SHEEP CALLING HIS FLOCK, AND GOING IN BY THE TRUE GATE, THE PHARISEES DID NOT UNDERSTAND. THEY UNDERSTOOD, OF COURSE, THAT THE SHEPHERD WAS GOD CALLING HIS FLOCK, BUT THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND WHO HE MEANT WAS THE GATE. NOR DID THEY GRASP THAT THEY WERE THE THIEVES AND BANDITS TRYING TO STEAL THE SHEEP OF GOD AWAY FROM THE TRUE WORSHIP OF GOD AND THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH AND LOVE OF GOD’S KINGDOM. SO, JESUS FIGURATIVELY HIT THEM RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES WITH WHAT HE SAID NEXT; 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 SHALL BE SAVED, AND WILL COME I N 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.

THERE IS NO WAY THE PHARISEES COULD HAVE MISUNDERSTOOD WHAT JESUS SAID. HIS USE OF THE PHRASE, EGO EIME – I AM, ECHOED THE VERY NAME OF GOD, A PHRASE NO JEW WOULD EVER USE. CLEARLY AND FORCEFULLY, JESUS SAID THAT HE AND HE ALONE, WAS THE GATE FOR THOSE WHO HEARD THE CALL OF THE GREAT SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL. ONLY THROUGH HIM COULD THE SHEEP OF GOD FIND ABUNDANT LIFE.

IN THIS DAY AND AGE WHEN WE ARE SO CONCERNED WITH INCLUSIVENESS, THIS STATEMENT SOUNDS AT FIRST AS EXCLUSIVE. WE ARE OFTEN HESITANT TO SAY THAT JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY IN FEAR OF EXCLUDING SOMEONE. THERE ARE, HOWEVER, NO CONDITIONS OF RACE, COLOR, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, STATUS, WEALTH, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN HIS ROCK SOLID AFFIRMATION THAT WHOEVER ENTERS BY ME WILL BE SAVED. IF WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD, WHO SENT HIS ONLY SON THAT WE MIGHT HAVE LIFE THROUGH THE SACRIFICE OF HIS BLOOD, I REALLY CANNOT UNDERSTAND HOW WE CAN CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITIES OF OTHER WAYS TO ENTER INTO THE COMMUNITY CALLED BY GOD. JESUS IS THE GATE, BECAUSE GOD CALLS US THROUGH HIM, AND LEADS US INTO THE FULLNESS OF LIFE IN GOD.

THE ABUNDANT LIFE TO WHICH GOD CALLS US THROUGH JESUS IS NOT THE LIFE OF THE GOSPEL OF PROSPERITY SO OFTEN HEARD FROM THE TELEVANGELISTS; IT IS, RATHER, THE LIFE OF THE COMMUNITY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD. REMEMBER, SHEEP ARE NEVER TO BE FOUND ALONE; NOR IS A FOLLOWER OF CHRIST TO BE FOUND ALONE. THE CALL OF GOD THROUGH HIS SON IS ALWAYS A CALL INTO FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM AND, THROUGH HIS SON, WITH EACH OTHER. WE JUST HEARD A DESCRIPTION OF THAT KIND OF FELLOWSHIP OF ABUNDANT LIFE IN THE FIRST READING FOR TODAY. THEY DEVOTED THEMSELVES TO THE APOSTLES’ TEACHING AND FELLOWSHIP, TO THE BREAKING OF BREAD AND PRAYERS. . . DAY BY DAY, AS THEY SPENT MUCH TIME IN THE TEMPLE, THEY BROKE BREAD AT HOME AND ATE THEIR FOOD WITH GLAD AND GENEROUS HEARTS. WHEN THE VOICE OF THE GREAT SHEPHERD CALLS US THROUGH THE GATE OF JESUS HIS SON, THIS IS THE ABUNDANT LIFE TO WHICH HE CALLS US; NOT A LIFE OF THINGS, BUT THE LIFE SURROUNDED AND SUPPORTED BY THE REST OF THE FLOCK OF GOD.

WHEN MY WIFE AND I MARRIED, NINE YEARS AGO, WE ASKED THE DEAN TO HAVE THIS PASSAGE FROM JOHN READ AT OUR WEDDING. HE THOUGHT IT A STRANGE GOSPEL SELECTION FOR A WEDDING, BUT WENT ALONG WITH THE CRAZY LUTHERAN’S REQUEST. WE PICKED THIS PASSAGE BECAUSE WE UNDERSTOOD OUR LIFE TOGETHER AS A PART OF THE COMMUNITY OF GOD CALLED INTO FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM AND WITH EACH OTHER THROUGH JESUS HIS SON. SO WE HAD THIS PASSAGE READ AS A PUBLIC AFFIRMATION OF OUR FAITH AND AS THAT GOAL TOWARDS WHICH WE MUST CONSTANTLY STRIVE.

THE 23RD PSALM IS THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE OF ALL THE PSALMS, EVEN BY THOSE WHO HAVE NOT HEARD THE CALL OF GOD. EVERY MINISTER WILL BE ASKED AGAIN AND AGAIN TO READ THIS PSALM AT SOMEONE’S FUNERAL; EVEN AT THE FUNERALS OF THOSE WHO HAVE NOT BEEN IN THE FELLOWSHIP OF BELIEVERS SINCE THEIR BAPTISM AND WEDDING. I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW OFTEN I HAVE HAD TO BITE MY TONGUE FROM SAYING, “IF IT IS SO MEANINGFUL TO YOU, WHY HAVEN’T THE DEARLY DEPARTED AND YOU LIVED IT INSTEAD OF JUST HAVING IT READ AT THE FUNERAL.” OF COURSE, I WOULD NEVER SAY THAT; I MERELY SMILE SWEETLY AND SAY, “YES.”

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD, AND, AS A SHEEP OF GOD AND A MEMBER OF HIS FLOCK, I SHALL NOT WANT, FOR THROUGH THE CHRIST OF GOD, I HAVE ALL THAT I NEED IN THE ABUNDANT LIFE OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
AMEN

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