“I am the Good Shepherd” Reflection for Easter 4

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.

So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

John 10: 11-18

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I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

According to bible commentator William Barclay, early editions of the King James Bible had the word “flock” mistranslated to “fold”. As a result, the second sentence of this verse was misinterpreted as meaning “there will be one church, one shepherd”, so just as the Jewish people thought God to be theirs alone, Catholics thought they had exclusive rights to Jesus. Ironically, Jesus would almost certainly have meant “one Church” – but Church with a capital “C”. In other words, any church that recognises Jesus as The Christ, The Lord, the Son of God, Messiah or God in person is the right “fold” to be in. The difference between “fold” and “flock” in this context is the same as referring to church simply as a building rather than a body of believers.

Joan and I love the Lake District and the North Yorkshire Moors. We’ve taken our caravan up there many times. One of the attractions for us is the Herdwick sheep, known affectionately as “Herdies”. These very hardy creatures can survive the toughest conditions, they wander far and wide, up to the highest mountains and they don’t seem to need much shepherding at all. But I learned an interesting fact the other day, it would seem that without regular shearing, a sheep’s wet coat can become so heavy that even the hardest, toughest Herdy can fall onto its back and not be able to stand up again. This raises three questions 1) does your average Herdy actually know he needs a shepherd? 2) Has anyone ever told him that he needs a haircut? And 3) when those shearers so rudely upend him in such rough and undignified manner and he comes out looking like a poodle, does he know or appreciate that it’s for his own good? Before anyone accuses me of being frivolous asking such daft questions, let’s consider the relationship between human beings and The Good Shepherd.

There are many “rebel Herdies” who resent any kind of outside interference and totally reject the notion that they need a shepherd at all. On the other hand, for those of us who know our Good Shepherd and His love for us, there can be no better place than to be safely enfolded in His loving arms. But here’s the shock – we’re not the only sheep He’s after. In fact, He loves those rebels so much that He’s even prepared to leave the rest of us behind to go and look for just one of them. (Luke 15:4-7)

To the audience of the day of course this was a message to His Jewish listeners. Up to that point they’d always considered themselves God’s chosen people, to the exclusion of all others, but here Jesus makes it clear that that’s not the case. God’s love is for all His sheep. We should have guessed that of course. On many occasions Jesus went out of His way to speak to gentiles (non-Jews) or to applaud their faith. The woman at the well (John 4:7-40), the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:10), and the ten lepers (Luke 17:19) are all good examples of this. Even in one of His most famous parables – The Good Samaritan – Jesus “bigs-up” the behaviour of a gentile over and above the Jews of that story (Luke 10:25-37).

If there’s just one good point coming from Coronavirus, it’s the reminder that we are (or should be) all in this together, working and fighting against a deadly foe. Arguably we’ll never beat Covid completely until such unity crosses every national and religious boundary. Various religions have led the way, with churches, mosques and synagogues becoming vaccination centres and volunteers from many different faiths offering their services. If these were to be considered modern day “hired hands”, they don’t seem to be running away and abandoning the sheep! This is where verse 16 – properly translated – begins to make sense. We can either enjoy the unity of belonging to the one flock, or suffer division over who owns the fold.

William Barclay offers a beautiful story to illustrate this very point. A missionary went out to the native American tribes. An old chief came to him after one of his sermons and asked,

“Missionary, when you spoke of the Great Spirit just now, did I hear you say ‘our Father’”?

“Yes” said the missionary.

“That is very new and sweet to my ears,” said the chief. “We never thought of the Great Spirit as Father. We heard him in the thunder, we saw him in the lightning, the tempest and the blizzard and we were afraid. So when you tell us that the Great Spirit is our Father, that is very beautiful to us.”

The old man’s face suddenly lit up as if the Lord’s glory had just shone on him.

“Missionary, did you say that the Great Spirit is your Father?”

“Yes,” confirmed the missionary.

“And did you say that He is the Indians’ Father?”

“I did.”

“Then you and I are brothers!”

Barclay concludes (abridged) that the only possible unity among us is in our common kinship as children of God. The world is divided by nations, and nations divided by class/culture/religion. The only thing that will cross those barriers and wipe out those distinctions is the gospel of Jesus Christ, telling us of the universal Fatherhood of God.

I say “Amen” to that!

Rev’d Geoff Eales

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