Hearts Overflowing, John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, May 3, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Sheep and shepherds, gates and walls, thieves and outlaws: there are a lot of different images for us to consider and bring together in only 10 verses in this morning’s gospel of John.
The first set involving sheep and shepherd probably is the easiest to understand, although I’m not totally comfortable with the thought that you and I are considered the sheep of the story. Sheep are generally not thought to be the most intelligent of animals, but they are often portrayed as creatures who will mindlessly step off the edge of a cliff just because the sheep out front are doing it. And, although you may think of cute little lambs you see in photos around this time of year for some reason paired with baby chicks, cute little bunnies and Easter eggs, I think of “Bucky,” a little lamb of my grandpa’s when I was a little kid, who obviously had a bad reputation or he wouldn’t have received that name to begin with, and who in my memory almost killed me. I realize that my memory may not be totally accurate, especially as I re-consider it as an adult—but what I remember is that Bucky came at me, head-butted me, threw me way up into the air and I landed unconscious and not breathing in the pasture. Because my Aunt Vickie was with me when it happened, I returned to consciousness as she administered mouth-to-mouth respiration. Because she saved my life that day, she will always be my hero.
Of course, getting winded and unconscious and dying don’t exactly fit together, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. And though little lambs, I agree, are cute, from my experience, they can’t be trusted.
So, in scripture, in more places than in this one, you and I are considered “sheep” which doesn’t seem to me to be a complement.
Jesus, in contrast, is the shepherd. That image does make sense. Jesus is the good
shepherd who takes care of us, who leads us, protects us, and keeps us from harm.
Jesus remains the good shepherd until verse 7, when he says he’s the gate. Ok, wait. “Gate” might fit when we learn that a shepherd in ancient days would protect his sheep by lying down across the opening of the sheep pen (you know, like a gate), so sheep desiring a romp in the pasture couldn’t get out without stepping over the shepherd, while a hungry predator couldn’t get in without dealing with the him, either. So, the shepherd as a gate still works as we envision Jesus as the good shepherd who protects and cares for his sheep/for us… We have come to know that he is even willing to give up his life for his sheep/for us.
It’s pretty much always a good thing to look at what’s happening before and after the scripture you’re studying, and it’s helpful to know that this teaching follows, and comes as a result of Jesus healing a man who was born blind. After the man can see, he is interrogated/investigated by the pharisees, who ultimately throw him out of the synagogue, as he admits to them his belief now that Jesus is from God—if not, how could he have done this? he asks the pharisees.
Jesus hears about the conversation this man has had with the pharisees and that he has been driven out of the synagogue. Jesus seeks him out, tells him that he is the Son of Man, and the man who was once blind professes his belief and worships Jesus. While they’re talking, some pharisees overhear the conversation and begin questioning Jesus—wait, are you saying that we’re the ones who are blind? That’s when Jesus tells the story we’ve read today, speaking of sheep and shepherds, gates and walls and thieves and outlaws.
So, who are these characters in the story Jesus tells? We understand who the sheep are, and that Jesus is the good shepherd. He enters the gate where there’s a guard. The guard recognizes the good shepherd and lets him in. In John’s gospel, the guard could be John the Baptist, who came to prepare his way. The guard could be the Holy Spirit or even scripture itself: everything in our Old Testament spoken by the prophets. If we were to reset the story to our day, the guard at the gate could be any person, any situation that leads us to Christ. Anyone who leads us to faith; any person or experience that prepares our way. The thieves and outlaws—would be anyone or anything in that day or ours who does just the opposite—a person or an experience that leads a person away from God, away from the Good Shepherd; any voice or experience that we listen to that claims our allegiance over him.
That will bring destruction, Jesus says, while the task of the Good Shepherd is to lead us to life—to live in its fullest.
His listeners don’t understand, and so he tells the story twice. As we hear it again, we can see that the characters in the story mirror members of the community in that day who will need to be turned out of their former place of safety—their synagogue—in order to follow Jesus into a new place. Jesus enters the gate of the sheepfold, sees the blind man and heals him. The man can now see, and unexpectedly sees in a new way. He believes Jesus is from God, and is ready to follow him, but doesn’t fully know or understand what that means or where it will take him, and yet he follows Jesus out of the sheepfold and into a new pasture. He’s leaving it all behind and enters into a mystery. He was once physically blind, but now he’s blind to the future. But it doesn’t matter. He trusts and he follows.
You and I are entering a mystery, as well. We were totally unprepared for what we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of months. It’s as though we were blind, and now we are beginning to see that we can no longer live as we used to. We don’t know exactly what that means, we just know that the old ways of doing things aren’t going to work anymore. Life has changed for us in ways we still don’t understand. But the good shepherd is leading us…into new pastures. We know his voice. He calls us by name. And so, we trust him and follow him into the mystery.
I read Acts 2 and think of that first century church. Their “ministry plan” covered the basics: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings, to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers. They loved Jesus and they loved and cared for one another. Their hearts overflowed with love and God blessed them daily…the Lord added daily to the community, those who were being saved.
Though we don’t know exactly what the future will bring—it is a mystery to us—but it is not a mystery to the good shepherd who leads us, who loves us so much that he gave up his life for us. In response to that kind of love, may we live our days with glad and generous hearts, facing the uncertain future with faith and confidence.