SERMON: The good shepherd

St.Mary’s Iffley: Fourth Sunday after Easter 2017 John 10

I don’t suppose that many of you realize just how difficult it is to preach on the text set Sunday by Sunday for the Gospel reading. For the Gospels were never meant to be chopped up for weekly lessons. They are books like any other books with a beginning, middle and end. The story they tell develops and reaches its climax at the conclusion. It is true that Hebrew literature, which includes the New Testament as well as the Old, normally gives the game away in the first chapter, as St. John does in his Prologue, and continues repeatedly to drive home its message. But tackling isolated pieces of the text without reference to the work as a whole can only distort the evangelist’s purpose.

To-day’s passage which comes bang in the middle of St. John’s Gospel begins a long discourse with the Jews about Jesus’ identity. John starts by identifying Jesus with the good shepherd whose sheep know his voice and, in contrast to the stranger, follow him. Further, in the verse that immediately follows to-day’s reading, Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’. Indeed Jesus goes on to proclaim that he can both lay down his life and take it again. This power he has received from his Father. Already John is telling the reader how his Gospel will end which he immediately confirms in the incident which follows this dispute, the raising of Lazarus.

The Jews then debate among themselves as to whether or not Jesus is possessed by a demon. For some he is mad to make such claims about himself and no one should listen to him. But others point to his healing of the blind man at the pool of Siloam which Jesus had just performed and ask: Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’.

John then notes that this incident is taking place on the Feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem. This is not a simple chronological note but a significant theological statement.

The Feast of Dedication marked the restoration of the sanctuary of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 B.C. following the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Maccabeans had revolted against their Greek rulers, the Seleucids, successors of Alexander the Great, who had placed an idol, the abomination of desolation, at the centre of the temple. In a guerilla war they defeated the much more powerful Seleucids, so enabling the Jews to practice their religion freely. As a consequence, within the purified sanctuary, through the process of sacrifice, the people could again be reunited with their God. Similarly Jesus, who called his body a temple, would through his sacrificial death enable his followers to meet with their God, as we shall do this morning in taking his body and drinking his blood. As Judas Maccabeus liberated the Jews, so Jesus would liberate all who heard his voice and followed him.

The divided and exasperated Jews now look for a definitive statement from Jesus as to his identity. Is he or is he not Messiah? The phrase translated in the RSV as ‘How long will you keep us in suspense?’ is in fact difficult to render into English. As the Jews have in John’s Gospel continually been presented as hostile, perhaps a better rendering would be ‘How long will you vex, trouble, annoy us in this way?’ Colloquially we might say ‘Why go on messing us about? Are you or are you not the Christ?’.

Jesus says he has already told them and in any event his works confirm his identity. In other words they already have all the evidence they need to make up their minds. The reason they do not accept him is that they are not his sheep because they do not listen to his voice.

Now comes the punch line. While the Jews who saw themselves as God’s chosen people are not his sheep, Jesus does have his own flock who do hear his voice and follow him. ‘And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’.

What John is saying to his contemporary readers some seventy years or so after the Christ event is that his flock is secure even if things look very insecure. No matter what the Jews do, they will not be able to win his followers back. Christianity is an established fact. And the Christian community’s security is assured because the Father, God himself, has ordained it. No one can snatch anyone out of the Father’s hand. What is more, and here at last the Jews do get the definitive answer for which they have been seeking, Jesus and the Father are one, something the reader of the Gospel has known from the very first chapter of the Gospel.

For the Jews such a claim is blasphemy. So John goes on to record that the Jews again took up stones to put him to death. For the Jews, Jesus had made himself God. For the reader of the Gospel and the Christian church to which John wrote, God had made himself man. ‘And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’.

What has all this to say to us to-day? First an important caveat. John is writing well after Christianity had become entirely separated from Judaism. Bitter polemical writing occurs on both sides of which John’s Gospel is a Christian example. The Jews in his Gospel are presented like baddies in a pantomime. You are meant to hiss every time they appear. But Jesus was a Jew: his followers were Jews. What you are reading is a story of an inter-Jewish dispute like the disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Alas John’s Gospel has been used to justify anti-Semitism and it should only be read with a severe health warning as the years of Jewish persecution culminating in the holocaust witness. Christianity has a lot to answer for-even in its foundation documents.

Second it is important that one reads texts as the author intended them to be understood. You most frequently think of the good shepherd when you read or sing Psalm 23 usually at funerals: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil’. But the psalm is not about death but about life. Death is here being used in a superlative sense as it is in English. She looked deathly pale. This sermon is deadly boring. Properly translated, as in the disused Revised Psalter, the psalm reassures that though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no evil whether from men or wild beasts. The good shepherd walking ahead of his flock will lead them through even the most dangerous places. In his hands we have nothing to fear but can stride out with confidence to face whatever in this life lies ahead.

In some ways our situation is now more like that of the church to whom John wrote than at any time in the history of Western Christendom. We are once again a small minority within a heathen world. Many regard us as weird if not mad. But John tells us to take heart. If we have committed ourselves to the good shepherd we have nothing to fear. What he has secured for us is unity with him and his Father for all eternity. We can never be lost.

That does not mean that we may not suffer. Identification with the good shepherd can itself be dangerous as it was for the early church until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and is still risky in many parts of the world. But that danger is only in this world’s terms. For Christians have a different perspective. As Judas Maccabeas liberated the Jews of his time, so enabling them to be one with their God, Jesus too has made atonement for us, enabling us to be at one with the Father and himself.

The effect of all this should make us look at life very differently from those not of his flock. Of course, day to day concerns will crowd in upon us. But do not let them mask the long view, the different perspective that opens up for those who have heard his voice and follow where he leads even through the darkest valley. So as in this service we take the body and blood of the good shepherd into ourselves and through him become united with the Father, we should go out from here with a new bounce in our step, a new confidence, a willingness to be him in his world, to love as he loved, for whatever lies ahead, no one can snatch us out of his hand, for his hand is also his Father’s hand. Amen

Anthony Phillips