Penned up, led astray or guided safely ?

Reflection for 3 May 2020

Acts 2: 42 – 47: Psalm 23: John 10: 1 – 10

It’s a lovely image in John 10 – the shepherd gently summoning each sheep by name. They recognise his voice, and instinctively trust him – whereas they’d shrink back from the stranger, who is intent on stealing them, rather than caring for them.

church sheep

And when, a couple of years ago, my family first acquired sheep – as pets and natural lawnmowers, rather than livestock – I was really pleased to discover that they did respond to MY voice.
I could stand at the edge of the top field, just behind the church, and call them – and they would gallop round from the lower field to meet me.
Blissful – at least until the realisation a couple of week later, that exactly the SAME effect could be achieved simply by rattling the feed bucket: it wasn’t so much that “my sheep hear my voice” as ALL sheep like eating, and my presence had come to symbolise feeding time!
Ah well.

In this passage from St John, it’s important to note that Jesus does NOT identify with the shepherd – that saying comes a few verses later.
Here he says, “I am the gate for the sheep” – which doesn’t immediately seem that attractive – barely one step up, perhaps, from being the doormat.
But what is the gate actually for?
It is there, of course, to keep the sheep safe – to keep out any bandits or wilds animals – but, significantly, is also the safe way out of the fold.
The sheep will sometimes need to leave their enclosure, in order to find fresh, and more abundant grazing. And that brings both opportunity and potential danger, they need to be guided in the right direction – and so, the gate keeps them firmly penned in, until the shepherd arrives, and leads them “along right paths”, to the places where pasture is lush but predators scarce.
Jesus the gate then, just as much as Jesus the Good Shepherd, represents the safe and trusted way – out of confinement and out into an abundance of life.

Unsurprisingly, I found a certain resonance in that imagery with our own situation just now: here we are, mostly, locked away in safety – our own front doors providing the same barrier to keep out the unseen dangers of COVID 19.
And yet we too know that we must as some stage look beyond that barrier – and step out into the world again, if we are going to have any hint of abundant life.
And so, if we dwell on these things, we are forced to consider “who NOW do we trust?” – to lead us safely out again?
Whose judgement to we trust to release us at the right time, and in the right way?
How do we restrain ourselves from rushing out like giddy sheep, straight into the jaws of danger?
It’s not easy to know whose voice to trust – especially when it’s not clear what motivates the speakers concerned.
Worth noting perhaps, that not all those now advocating a swift relaxation of restrictions will have your or my best interests at heart.
And equally, not every hard-nosed objection to any such relaxations are necessarily well judged.
Whatever steps are taken in the coming weeks, to enable businesses and other organisations to function more normally, I hope and pray that we will not lose sight of the need to both what is best for us all, and what is necessary to protect the most vulnerable.
The sheep gate isn’t flung open just as soon as the shepherd has appeared on the horizon.
The good shepherd doesn’t just lead the strongest and most valuable sheep to safety.
Of course, regulation changes are beyond our control, but we can at least take responsibility for our own actions in the way we respond.

And while we’re pondering whose voice we think most trustworthy, perhaps we can discern similar truths about ourselves … if it’s not stretching the sheep-fold imagery too far!
If Jesus will us life in abundance – then can we begin to search for that fullness of life right here, at home?
Are there things about ourselves that we keep safely hidden inside us, in order to protect ourselves – whether from judgement or rejection by others – or from admitting to ourselves our own failings or weaknesses?
Can we now face up to those things – accepting ourselves fully and honestly – so that we can then engage MORE fully and honestly with “the world outside”, or at least with our friends and neighbours .. the rest of our “flock”?

Carved round the Font in our cathedral are words from Isaiah 43, which are often spoken at Confirmation services: Thus says the Lord: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
God already knows us – better than we know ourselves.
There is no use trying to hide from him our weaknesses or frustrations. There’s no use trying to pretend we are anything other than ourselves.
Yet Christ waits still to lead us beyond what WE already know – the new life of Easter is not just his rising from death, it is about US learning to live abundantly with whatever we have; learning to see beyond our own doubts and insecurities, and trusting that there is more to life for us; learning to see beyond our own interests, and trusting that there can indeed be abundance of life for all people, not just the confident and strong.
In the earliest days of the Church, we heard in our first reading, many were baptized, and added to the community, largely because of the quality of that shared life – of the concern shown towards those in need.
Is that the lesson Christ is now calling us to learn – outside the spiritual safety of our familiar Sunday services?
Are we being challenged to rediscover what really marks us out as Christians, and to step up to the mark?

Time will tell, but our starting point in all this is to be ready at the gate – listening for the voice of Christ – and ready to follow him, before all else.