Fourth Sunday of Easter
I suspect there will be a lot of sermons this Sunday about sheep. John 10 is the locus of a lot the New Testament’s of sheep imagery. I am basically an urban and suburban person. I’ve little direct experience of sheep. I have a lot of direct experience of sermons that aim to teach me a lot about sheep from people who have no more agricultural experience than I do. I have seen a rabbit herd sheep on YouTube. I’ve had rabbits as pets. Their brains cannot be much bigger than an olive. Instead of focusing on the habits of sheep, I think our attention might be better directed elsewhere.
The collect for this Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer focuses on Jesus as the good shepherd. The Lectionary appoints Psalm 23 for this Sunday, which certainly points us towards Jesus as shepherd, too. Our gospel reading, however, does not make this point. Yes, later in John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus is not identified as the shepherd but the door or the gate to the sheepfold.
In the first part of the passage Jesus tells his disciples that you can discern a lot about the character of someone who tries to engage the sheep by the manner in which they enter the sheep pen. A thief climbs over the wall; the shepherd enters through the gate. The shepherd is recognized by both the gatekeeper and the sheep. He is easily admitted to the sheep fold and the sheep follow him simply because they recognize his voice.
We then learn that these images baffled Jesus’ audience. In v. 7 he becomes more direct: “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus, the door, leads to abundant life. The thief brings death and destruction.
It is fairly easy to see that in times of religious turmoil and conflict a passage like this one offers Christians a tempting invitation to begin to map the world in terms of those who are in and those who are out, those who enter via the door and those who climb over the wall, sheep who find life through the door and those who do not. This is a temptation we should avoid. At no point in John 10 are believers identified as shepherds or gatekeepers. Thankfully, we are called to follow. We don’t get to decide the composition of the herd.
If you find that you are tempted in this way, I would direct you to the life and witness of Dom Christian De Cherge, OCSO. Fr. Christian was prior of the Abbey of our Lady of Atlas in Algeria. During his tenure, Islamic insurgents were seeking to purge Algeria of all foreign influences. In the light of this threat, Fr Christian and his fellow monks discerned that God wanted them to stay where they are and to continue to minister to their Muslim neighbors. Most of the monks were eventually kidnapped by the insurgents and killed. Their story is told in the film, Of Gods and Men. Recognizing that the decision to remain makes their death almost inevitable, Fr. Christian wrote a letter, a testament, to be read after his death. In it he tried both to anticipate some possible responses to his death and to shape the way the world will view their decision to remain in Algeria:
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.
Neither shepherd nor gatekeeper, Fr. Christian longs to view Muslims in the way he images that God does: “shining with all the glory of Christ,” refashioned so as to share in the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit. Like the rest of us, Fr. Christian cannot know that this is the way things are. The mysteries of salvation are in God’s hands, not ours. Rather, this is a devout expression of hope.
This hope is not designed to make Fr. Christian or us feel better about religious difference in the light of Jesus strong claims about being the only true door. Hope such as this aims to free us from having to do anything other than follow. As the film so powerfully shows, it is only in the light of this hope can the monks love each other and their neighbors in the ways that Christ calls his followers to do.
Image: Christian de Cherge, OCSO