Jesus said: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is often known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’, because our readings focus on the Bible imagery of sheep and shepherding. I wonder what your mental image of sheep and shepherding is? Do you remember the ‘Pure New Wool’ advert of the 1970s and 80s which popularised Pachelbel’s Canon? Or do you go further back to Sunday School images of Jesus carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, the kind of romantic pretty baa-lamb images of yesteryear? Many of you will know that I regularly go out walking around the Benefice, and at this time of year it is delightful to see fields of sheep with their new-born lambs gambolling about on the hillside. Even though we live in the beautiful English countryside, we may actually have a rather idealised picture of shepherding, an image that is not wholly accurate. The work of a shepherd is in reality quite hard and at times full-on. This is particularly so during the lambing season, when shepherds are on call day and night, and often have to deal with still-births or with lambs that have been orphaned by their mother ewes for whatever reason. As a shepherd, you are involved intimately in matters of life and death.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is also dealing with life and death. He is not only the good shepherd, but he also calls himself the gate. Both images are to do with sheep and shepherding, but they are distinct. What you need to bear in mind is that Middle Eastern sheepfolds do not have any gate. Permanent sheepfolds are formed with dry stone walls (wood after all is a luxury in a semi-desert environment) with a gap for the sheep to enter and leave. The shepherd himself would act as the gate by sleeping in the gap, keeping the sheep safe inside while protecting them from wild animals. The image of Jesus as gatekeeper and shepherd would have been familiar to any of his hearers with basic knowledge of nomadic farming.
The biblical images of shepherds paint them as people of wisdom, care, comfort, reliability, fortitude, sacrifice and protection. In the psalms, the Lord, as the shepherd, protects the flock, carries sheep and lambs, feeds and waters them, gathers them into the fold and fends off anything and anyone that could harm them. In the Gospel parable, it is the shepherd who searches for a single lost sheep, leaving ninety-nine to find it, who lays it across his shoulders and carries it home. Jesus tells this parable relying on his hearers knowing that this is how a shepherd would behave.
The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is one to ponder, to meditate on, to sing about. Many people, reflecting on the recent or distant past, will acknowledge a sense of God’s gentle presence, of being carried through difficult circumstances, or healed and soothed. We have been guided and protected, even in the most difficult times. And when we have behaved foolishly, wandered off and got ourselves stuck in a tricky situation, God has gently guided us back to the right path. Jesus then presents himself as the “gate”, the one who both liberates the sheep to find fresh pasture and also encloses and protects them.
How may this imagery help us today? Maybe there are times when we feel that we have strayed like a lost sheep, or when we feel that we need someone to protect and comfort us. This may be particularly so at the present time when we will all feel vulnerable to a greater or lesser extent in the face of the Covid-19 virus. No one is immune from this threat, and so we rightly look to God to shepherd us through this crisis and protect us from harm.
Yet there may also be a calling we feel to look after others, to fulfil some of the role of shepherding. This may be because we are looking after dependent people like children or the elderly and housebound. Yet we are also called to look after each other, for we will all need tlc at this difficult time. Social distancing and lockdown rules mean that we cannot visit them as was the norm a few weeks ago. Doors and gates, to our homes and our churches, are firmly shut for the moment. We are all having to be gatekeepers at the moment. Yet we need also to find ways to carry on offering care, hope and love despite the distance we have to keep. As shepherds, we take as our model Jesus the good shepherd and Jesus the gate, who offers love, protection and guidance to find nourishment for our lives.