Well, this is officially my last blog post before maternity leave (which starts on Friday, whether or not a baby has appeared by then). It’s certainly not how I imagined my time away from St. Paul’s would be beginning. I had no idea that March 8 was the last time I’d see most of you in person. But maybe that’s why I heard these words of Jesus a little differently this year. Every year, we read from John 10 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, so this is a familiar passage to preach on. It’s Jesus–pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection–comparing himself a shepherd who cares for the flock. Often, I focus on what this shows us about who Jesus is. This year, I was more drawn to what this shows us about who we are–God’s sheep–and what that means for us.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
So I know I’ve told this story before, probably on this particular Sunday, actually, but I feel like if we repeat Good Shepherd Sunday every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, I get to repeat my one really good sheep story at least occasionally.
I went to William and Mary for college, which is right next to Colonial Williamsburg. And in Colonial Williamsburg, there are a large number of sheep. They add to the ambiance and smell of a fake colonial town. And there was a challenge amongst the college students when I was there to “ride a sheep.” I won’t share whether I did this or not, but I have to say, I do not recommend this. The sheep do not care for it; it is not a good idea.
But you would sneak into the town at night, and there are no streetlights, no anything. You climb into a sheep pasture, and basically try to catch one. Take a quick picture and be on your way. Except the sheep didn’t like to be caught.
Sheep are often portrayed as kind of dumb animals. Animals that would follow one another off a cliff without much thought. To call someone a sheep is used as an insult; you’re implying the person isn’t capable of thinking for themselves and just follows the crowd.
But sheep aren’t really that dumb. At the very least, they knew they didn’t want to be caught by a bunch of college students. They knew these students shouldn’t have been there. They sensed a threat and reacted accordingly.
“My sheep know my voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know his voice.” My sheep know my voice. There’s a two-fold promise in this lesson where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and the Gate. We often focus on one half of it. That Jesus is our shepherd who comes to give us life, and abundant life. That’s an incredibly important promise.
But the other half matters, too. It’s a promise, a trust, about how the sheep will behave and respond. The shepherd comes to protect, to give life, to walk the sheep through the darkest valleys. And the shepherd knows that the sheep will trust, and follow, and listen.
Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the Good Shepherd. He also reminds the sheep that they know him. That they’ve trusted him. That they’ll continue to trust him. That they know the difference between false hope and real hope. That they can tell the difference between a genuine offer of abundant life and all the counterfeits that are peddled at them constantly. Jesus promises to lead. But he also promises that the sheep will follow.
He says to us: I’ve got you. I will be there, protecting you, guiding you, caring for you, sacrificing for you, giving you life. But that’s not all Jesus says. Jesus also says: you’ve got this. You will trust, and listen, and embrace what I offer, and you will live abundantly.
Perhaps that feels like a lot of pressure for the sheep. But I hear it more as a pep-talk from Jesus. It all hinges on what Jesus has done, and what he continues to do for us. It’s not that we’re tasked with doing this alone, because the Shepherd will always be there to lead the sheep. To love the sheep. To guide the sheep towards abundant life.
And our shepherd promises us: you know how to do this. You know my voice. You know the way. Trust in me, and trust in who you are. I’ve got you, Jesus says, and you can do this. When we’re in challenging situations, when we’re unsure of what the best decision is, when we wonder if we have the reserves of compassion and patience, and spiritual strength to see us through, we go back to the voice of our shepherd, who is always with us, leading us through dark valleys, guiding us to abundant life. And we go back to what we know how to do: to listen, to follow, to trust.
We can go back to that early community in Acts for an example: hold fast to the teaching that you have been given. Gather together, however that looks right now. Share in fellowship and share what you’ve been blessed with so that no one is in need. Pray together. And give thanks and praise to God. Listen to the voice of the Shepherd, and trust that you are capable following. Because you are. You are God’s flock, and God does not leave you alone. Amen.