+May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.
God seems to like Shepherds.
Moses, called by the God Who Is while tending his father-in-law’s sheep to be shepherd to his people and lead them from Egypt.
David, the shepherd boy who defeated the mighty Goliath with a simple sling and rose to be the head of the royal line of which even God’s own Son was considered a descendent.
Amos the Prophet, raised from amongst the shepherds of Tekoa to remind the people of Israel of the need for justice and righteousness.
The shepherds watching their flocks by night as the angels announced to them the birth of the Messiah in nearby Bethlehem.
Is it any wonder the good folk of the Yorkshire Dales and Moors call their home “God’s Own County”?
Or that New Zealanders, who are outnumbered more than 7-1 by sheep, go one further and refer to their whole nation as “God’s Own Country”, or “Godzone” for short?
It is reckoned that, other than possibly the crucifixion, the most popular image of Christ in art is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
This is not a surprise.
It is a strong image.
It is an image which legitimately helps us identify our relationship with Christ – one who looks after us, who cares for us, who seeks us when we are lost.
But it can also, nowadays, be an intriguing and possibly misleading image.
Our image of the shepherd is not what it once was.
In our mind’s eye we may see a shepherd as wearing a flat-cap, with a crook, whistling to his dogs like “One Man and His Dog”.
Or, if we are more modern in our outlook, we may imagine a guy in shorts and t-shirt ripping around the Outback or the Canterbury Plains on a quad-bike.
If we are being nostalgic, maybe our image is of young children with tea-towels on their head making their way through the school hall or down the church aisle towards a nervous pair holding a doll.
For those in the periods written about in the Bible such images would sound incredibly odd, and not simply because the quad-bike had not yet been invented.
Shepherds did not own flocks, they looked after them: just as Moses was watching Jethro’s flock.
Shepherding was dangerous: David needed to be able to use a sling because bears and lions need to be disabled at a distance.
Shepherds were outsiders: it is possible Amos’ place of origin is of note because, much like Nazareth in Galilee, nothing good ever came from there!
Shepherds were outcasts, unable to partake in all the proper rituals of the Law because they were required to be out on the hillside: Luke’s mention of the shepherds is notable for the very reason that such people were the last who would expect to be told of such news.
So, Christ the Shepherd, who cares for and looks after us, who seeks us when we are we lost.
And Christ the Shepherd, who works not for himself but does, instead, his Father’s work, whose life was put at risk in doing such work, who was an outsider and, according to the authorities, an outcast.
Having said all this the reality is that not much of it has to do directly with what we heard in this morning’s readings!
Christ’s famous statement, the one that has led to so many famous and not-so-famous paintings, drawings, sculptures and stained glass windows, that he is the Good Shepherd, comes in verse 11, the verse which follows where our Gospel reading finished this morning.
Rather, in this morning’s reading, we heard another “I am…”.
“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”
And once again we must challenge our preconceptions of what this might mean.
Some translations use the word door.
I do not believe this is helpful.
We are not talking about a solid wood or uPVC hinged obstruction that fills the gap in a wall and stops the wind and intruders from getting in.
Nor are we talking about a five-bar gate.
The word gate has much deeper, much, much deeper resonance to those of an Hebraic mindset and scriptural background.
For sure a gate is an entrance-way, a way in and out of a place, whether it be a sheep-pen, a building or an entire city.
But it was also something more.
A gate was a place of its own.
Imagine a castle.
They have large entrances, often with a portcullis at either end, a drawbridge at at least one end, possibly both, and holes above for various unpleasant and possibly deadly substances to be poured through. In the Hebraic, Old Testament mind that entire space, the entire gap in the wall, was the gate.
And certain things happened in the gate.
Things like the dispensing of justice!
And here we have another term we need to examine, a term most appropriate to this week dedicated to helping raise funds for the work of Christian Aid: justice.
In our modern frame of mind justice is often seen as being about crime and punishment.
When a person is put in jail then ‘justice has been served’.
When a company is fined then ‘justice has been served.’
When a company is felt to have been treated leniently or someone jailed for what seems like too short a time then ‘justice has failed’.
But the justice spoken of throughout the Bible, the justice sought by God for people, is not a justice of punishment but of restoration.
Justice is done when the poor are lifted up, the hungry fed, the bereaved are comforted, the oppressed liberated.
Justice is done when the people of God remember their covenant and live out their love of God through their love of neighbour and enemy alike.
Jesus does not speak in his example of what happens to those who were or are bandits and thieves, but rather of the abundance of life that is on offer to those who pass through the gate.
Seeking to offer abundance of life, seeking to offer life not just beyond death but before it, seeking to offer liberation from poverty is something that Christian Aid has at the heart of its work.
And poverty is a direct contributor to an absence of life – the Peruvian theologian, priest and pastor Gustavo Gutiérrez says in his writings “In the final analysis poverty means death: lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and education needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity, and unjust limitations placed on personal freedom in the areas of self-expression, politics, and religion.”
In the sermon notes Christian Aid provided for today, notes I incidentally did not use to prepare this sermon, preachers were encouraged, indeed warned, not to compare Christian Aid to Christ the Gate since Christ the Gate is a gate to a future kingdom rather than something in the here and now.
Well, I wish to suggest a somewhat different reading.
The statement “I am the gate” is absolutely about a future kingdom, but it is also absolutely about the here and now!
Those of us studying at Wesley House this year were privileged this Tuesday just past to attend a lecture by the eminent Scholar, Methodist Local Preacher, and former Chair of Wesley House Trustees, Professor Morna Hooker-Stacey.
The lecture was entitled “Conforming to Christ”.
It was a reminder that at the very heart of the Christian journey, at least the one marked out by Paul in his letters present in the New Testament, is a journey in which we are conformed to Christ.
We are, in Paul’s wonderful imagery, the Body of Christ.
And if we are the Body of Christ then we too are the Gate.
If Christian Aid is part of the Body of the Christ then it too is the Gate.
And if we are the Gate then what kind of gate are we?
Are we a gate that stands closed to all except those who can give us the magic words “I believe”?
Or are we a gate that is a place of liberation and justice?
In the story we heard from Acts we heard of a community transformed by its lived out faith in Christ.
And as Professor Hooker also reminded those of us there, that word ‘in’ is ambiguous – does it mean to believe certain things about, or does it mean to be in Christ as we are in this Church?
At the heart of the transformed community is the liberation of sharing their things in common so that all had what they needed, and the sharing of food together.
I am not necessarily suggesting a return to such methods, though it is worth consideration and thinking about, and we can debate whether it was an indicator or a pre-cursor of the transformative love of the Holy Spirit, but it is clear to me that the release from poverty that such a sharing brought to that early Christian community was clearly transformative in some important way.
In their sharing of resources liberation, restorative justice, abundance of life was seen and able to flow.
In our giving to Christian Aid we are able to play our part in a modern sharing of resources and help Christian Aid work with partners around the world, such as coffee co-operatives in Nicaragua, the focus of this year’s marketing material, in order that they are able to experience abundance of life rather than the death that is poverty.
“I am the gate,” said Christ.
It is a gate to a kingdom of life that is both yet to come and present right here, right now.
It is a gate that is not a barrier but a place of liberation and restoration.
It is a gate that we, too, as the Body of Christ are called to be.
Just as the shepherd does a hard, dangerous, unpopular job not for their own benefit but for someone else, so conforming ourselves to Christ is not easy.
Risking our own comfort for the liberation of others, risking the rejection of our neighbours for the betterment of others we do not know, opening ourselves to those in need, is not easy but it is the way of Christ.
If we are the Body of Christ then we are the gate of the sheepfold and through us must be offered the opportunity of life and life in abundance, not just in the future but in the here and now.
Sermon preached at St Mark’s Methodist Church, Parson Drove in the Fens Circuit
15th May 2011 – 4th Sunday of Easter and Sunday at the Start of Christian Aid Week
Acts 2.42-47; John 10.1-10