We turn a bit of a corner today. We’re still in the middle of the Easter season, but the focus of our attention shifts a bit.
The last few weeks, we’ve heard stories about various appearances that the risen Lord made to his disciples after his resurrection. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Thomas’s encounter with Jesus, and we heard Jesus’ words, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet who have come to believe.” Last week, we heard about two disciples who had an encounter with Jesus while travelling on the road to Emmaus. The point of these stories is to help clarify what the early church was trying to say about the resurrection of Jesus. The message of these stories is that, yes, he was raised from the dead, and, yes, we have seen him, and, yes, we know it’s hard to believe but here are the facts.
Today we get something a little different. We don’t hear another account of Jesus appearing to his disciples. Instead, we hear words from Jesus that the gospel of John portrays him as having said long before he was crucified, let alone raised from the dead. So the question we’re faced with is, “why are we hearing this story on this day?” What does the image of Jesus as a shepherd have to do with our continuing celebration of his resurrection?
Well, like I said, we’re turning a bit of a corner: our focus begins to shift away from the bare facticity of the resurrection to the meaning of the resurrection. In other words, we’re less concerned at this point with the question of “who” and “what.” We are instead creeping up on the question of “why.” What does the resurrection mean? What does it signify? Why did God choose to work in this particular way? What does the resurrection tell us, not just about what happened to Jesus, but about what God intends for us and for the world? John’s description of Jesus as a shepherd gives us a place to start in our attempt to answer these questions.
The first thing we should notice here is that Jesus offers us not just one image, but two. He compares himself to a shepherd, the one who enters the sheepfold by the gate and leads his sheep by the sound of his voice; “when the shepherd has brought out his own, he goes ahead of them and they follow him because they know his voice.” But then he changes the image a bit and compares himself to the gate of the sheepfold: “whoever enters through me will be saved, and he will come in and go out and find pasture.” Two different images, both of which have something to say to us about the resurrection.
In order to understand the images Jesus presents, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the way shepherds worked during the time of Jesus. Shepherds often did not own the flocks they tended;the owner of the flock would hire the shepherd to take care of the daily needs of the sheep. When the sheep weren’t out in the fields, they would be kept in common pens; not every owner could afford the luxury of a private sheepfold, so it wouldn’t have been unusual to have two or three or more flocks kept together in a common, public pen. The person who watched over the pen and guarded the gate was also usually a hired hand.
So when it came time to take the sheep to pasture, the hired shepherd would come to the common pen and the hired guard would let him in through the gate. The sheep in the pen would all be milling about, so the shepherd would use a distinctive sound or a call to gather the particular sheep for which he was responsible, and then he would lead them out of the pen and out to pasture. The trick was to have the same number of sheep when you came back to the pen as you had when you left the pen.
Now, this was not glamorous work. Tending sheep is at best dirty and difficult, and it could be dangerous. Sheep are notoriously stupid; they are smelly and obstinate and are forever getting themselves into trouble, either by wandering off to someplace they shouldn’t be or by eating something they shouldn’t eat. They often resist being herded and require the kind of encouragement that can only be provided by a sheepdog or a sharply wielded stick. Furthermore, there are several other animals who happen to find sheep quite tasty, and there are usually other shepherds who are not above borrowing a few sheep from someone else’s flock in order to build up their own.
So the shepherd rarely has the luxury of being able to do his job from a distance. He has to be willing and able to muck around in the dirt and to go to those dangerous places where the sheep are liable to get themselves into trouble. Sometimes the shepherd has to wrestle with the sheep themselves. Being a shepherd wasn’t exactly an exciting career prospect, and it wasn’t considered a attractive or even a fully honorable profession in first century Palestine.
But it’s precisely this messiness, this gritty earthiness that gives us a place to start when we think about what these images might have to say to us about the resurrection of Jesus. Despite the prospect of a less-than-glamorous vocation, despite the stupidity and recalcitrance of his sheep, despite the very real risk of danger, God does not abandon his flock. He does not stand at some remote distance and try to fix things from “over there somewhere,” shouting directions in the hopes that the sheep would obey. He doesn’t wait for the flock to find him; he goes and gets them. He doesn’t hire someone else to do it; he does the work himself, because nobody cares for his flock the way he does. The resurrection of Jesus bears witness to God’s unswerving dedication to humanity and to the world.
And we can say even more than this. Jesus said, “The shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out. When the shepherd has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.” Because Jesus has been raised, so too will we be raised. Early Christians were fond of saying “God became like us in order that we might become like God.” That’s another way of saying what I think John’s gospel is after when it describes Jesus as the shepherd; where he has led, we can follow.
God loves the world too much to leave it where it is; in Christ, he comes, not just to identify with the world or commiserate with the world or to demonstrate his sympathy for the world, but to redeem the world, to open the way for the power of the divine life to be activated in the world. This is another important aspect of the meaning of the resurrection: by raising Jesus from the dead, God not only vindicated his chosen messiah, he also set loose in the world a power capable of restoring the whole creation.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul put it this way: “I pray that you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and the immeasurable greatness of his power for all who believe in him. God put this power to work in Jesus when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand…far above all earthly rule and authority.”
And that brings us to one final thing today’s gospel has to say about the meaning of the resurrection. Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. … I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The promise of the resurrection is about more than just what will happen to us after we die. The promise of the resurrection is at least as much about what can happen to us here and now, in this life.
In his book Surprised by Hope, the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N.T. Wright explores the meaning of the resurrection in our daily lives. Wright argues repeatedly that the meaning of the resurrection is a lot bigger than most Christians expect. The resurrection is not just about something that happened to Jesus two thousand years ago, although it is obviously to some degree about that. The resurrection is not just about what God has promised to do for all those who are in Christ at the end of time, although it is also obviously to some degree about that as well. The resurrection is also about what God promises to do in the day-to-day lives of those who are in Christ. It’s about seeing that immeasurably great power Paul described to the Ephesians set loose in your life. It’s about living the kind of life that Jesus describes as “abundant life,” not just “barely making it” life or “dazed and confused” life, not even “secure and comfortable” life, but “abundant” life, powerful life, transfigured life. The second-century bishop and theologian Irenaeus of Lyons said it this way: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
We turn a bit of a corner today, and by turning that corner we’re being invited to make our continuing celebration of the Easter season about something more than just the recollection of a memory, the commemoration of a past event. We’re being invited to get on with the business of resurrection now, today, in our lives, in this place and this time.
So consider this an invitation; we’re being invited to allow the same power that God put to work in Jesus when he raised him from the dead to be put to work in our lives, and when I say “our lives” I mean both our lives as individuals and our common life as a community of faith. When we do that, make no mistake, we will see our lives transformed. It will not always be pleasant or even comfortable. But we will find as we put to death our old lives that God’s Spirit will be able to work in us in new and powerful ways.
When that happens, the words “Christ is risen” will take on a whole new meaning for you. You will find yourself in the same position as did the first disciples, who found themselves shocked and initially disoriented but also empowered in a new and unexpected way. Nobody ever came away from an encounter with the risen Christ thinking, “Well, that was nice.” A meeting with the risen Christ invariably has the same effect; people’s lives are changed, and the word goes forth, the promise of hope: “Alleluia, Christ is risen.” May it be so in our lives this day and every day, to the glory of God. Amen.