The Good Shepherd: 15th May 2011Strange as it may seem, a Captain in the British army shares something in common with the Good Shepherd in this morning’s reading. In both cases although a uniform makes men look the same as does a breed of sheep, the individual characteristics of men and sheep are different. Jesus says that a good shepherd knows his sheep by name; so will a good Captain. The British Army continues to be made up of regiments which draw from particular regions. Each region has regional characteristics. Different breeds of sheep have different characteristics too – so it pays to get to know both sheep and men if the shepherd or army Captain wishes to convince their charges to follow them readily and unerringly.
Leadership comes from trust built up over time, and a good leader trusts his people. To make this point, Jesus uses the word-picture of the Good Shepherd and the sheep. Sheep follow the shepherd who knows them by name, because a name means that there is recognition of character and individuality.
Equally, the sheep know the shepherd; so they know his character and trust him to keep them safe and comfortable. They then allow him to lead them.
In S. John’s version of this gospel, the Good Shepherd is not a messianic figure. His role is not evangelistic. The Good Shepherd in John’s gospel is concerned pastorally with those who are already of his fold.
This gospel has two parables. In the first, the Good Shepherd is the gate by which the shepherds have to pass in order to look after the sheep. He is the narrow gate which prevents the bandits or thieves from entering and stealing the sheep. In the second parable, the Good Shepherd is the one who enables the sheep to follow him by entering the fold and calling out those of them he knows by name because they belong to him. Because he knows them by name, they follow him since they trust him. They will not follow a stranger because a stranger doesn’t know them, and therefore hasn’t won their trust.
In the first parable, Jesus identifies himself with the gate. The thieves and bandits, representing perhaps the Pharisees, do not want this. They want access to the sheep without having to deal with someone who gets in the way of their interpretation of belief.
In the second parable, it is the sheep that go in and out at the bidding of the Good Shepherd. The gate is common to both parables: it enables the shepherds of the true faith to enter; and it allows the sheep who are true believers to come in and go out, in response to the call of Jesus.
The key to all of this is to be found in the words of Jesus in John’s fourteenth chapter when he says: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ It is only when we see the Good Shepherd as Jesus that we can understand how the gate leads to pasture; as well as the gate being the filter by which those who serve the living God in Jesus Christ may have access to their flock.
Jesus guides the sheep to life in the same way as elsewhere he promised living water and bread from heaven. It is the exact opposite of the thief or bandit coming to destroy.
This gospel is for the whole people of God: On one hand, it is for the clergy who are the pastors of those who follow Jesus; and on the other, it is for the people of God themselves. Both recognize that in Jesus is to be found the way to redemption and salvation.
This is the primary message of S. John’s gospel, and it is the inescapable conclusion of the Easter gospel: that Jesus loved us so much that he was prepared to die for our sins, so that we might live.
The Pharisees oppose this gospel, for they are false teachers seeking after their own glory. They are not seeking to serve the people, or further the kingdom of God. They are after peddling whatever is going to strengthen their position of power and authority in the sight of those in positions of religious prestige.
But they are not the gate: Jesus is. They do not provide the entrance to heaven: Jesus does. If Jesus is the gate, then he is the means of entrance to the fold. For us, the Church is the fold, in that it offers the security of a promise that here we will find God’s grace and love, and be given the space and the tools to work out our salvation.
Jesus knows us by name, and within his fold is to be found the spiritual nourishment, and physical strength that his love and grace makes freely available.
Whether we are timid or headstrong, he is firm yet gentle with us; and he is personally acquainted with our triumphs and disasters. Why? Because he knows us by name, and his love calls us to follow his lead.