The Fourth Sunday of Easter E. Bevan Stanley
May 3, 2020
1 Peter 2:19-25
From the Twenty-third Psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
We certainly are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed that is a very good description. It is not exactly the valley of death into which the light brigade charged. It is not death itself that is getting to most of us. Rather it is the shadow of death. It isn’t that bullets and canon shot are killing people on the right and the left. It is more insidious than that. Instead, we are hiding in our homes to avoid a virus, a tiny life form that none of us can see and that might be anywhere. We are avoiding our friends and family out of fear of disease and out of a desire to be good citizens and neighbors. We are sapped of energy by an unrelenting yet vague anxiety. We long for human contact. We want to go out of our homes, and want to let others into them.
The Psalmist find his or her hope in the fact that the Lord, that is, God is our Shepherd. God watches over us and protects us. God desires our highest good.
Although this is called Good Shepherd Sunday, it isn’t this year. The well-known saying of Jesus that he is the Good Shepherd is the very next verse after today’s reading from the Gospel ends. In fact, it is appointed for next year. Nevertheless, Jesus is talking about being the Shepherd and being the Gate.
This short passage is confusing because Jesus is using two different metaphors at the same time. First, he makes a comment about the difference between the legitimate shepherd of the sheep, who is known to the gatekeeper and uses the gate to enter the sheepfold, and the thief who climbs over the wall knowing that the gatekeeper would refuse him entrance. In the second part, Jesus changes the metaphor to saying he is the gate, and any sheep that wants to be save must go in and out through him. Then he returns to the first metaphor to say that unlike the thief, who comes to kill and destroy, he, Jesus, comes to provide abundant life. So, is Jesus the shepherd or the gate? Let’s rearrange the verses so that the parts about Jesus being the gate are together and the other parts are together.
Let’s take the shorter part, the part about the gate first. Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” We are the sheep. Through Jesus, we enter the sheepfold in the evening where we can rest and be safe. Through Jesus we leave the sheepfold in the morning to go to the pasture where we can be fed and nourished. Through Jesus we thrive. During this time in the valley of the shadow of death, we want to go in and go out. We do so through our gate, Jesus. Our nourishment and safety depend on him.
When we remove the two sentences about the gate we are left with: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” . . . All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. . . The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The clear implication is that Jesus is the true shepherd. The true shepherd has only the welfare of the sheep in his heart. The thief only wants to use and abuse the sheep for his own benefit. And how do we know which is which. This is a question of discernment. When there are so many voices, how do we know which is Jesus’ voice? We are called and invited by the voices of our own desires, of the surrounding culture’s values and norms, but our values, by our fears, by politicians, by advertisers, by our families, spouses, and friends. And we are called by Jesus. He calls us by name. Jesus knows us to the bottom of our hearts. He knows us better than we know ourselves. In many cultures to know a person’s true name is to have power over them. In such cultures, one’s true name is not shared except with people that are totally trustworthy. (This is true in the world of cats as described in T. S. Eliot’s fantasy and the Broadway musical.)
Jesus also says that sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. This points to difference in shepherding techniques between middle-eastern shepherds and the shepherds of Britain. In the middle-east the shepherd goes in front of the sheep and the sheep follow out of love and a faith that their good depends on the shepherd. In Wales and Scotland, the shepherd drives the sheep from behind with sheepdogs nipping at their heels. The sheep move out of fear.
How do we come to know the voice of Jesus? When we pick up the phone, and haven’t checked the caller ID, sometimes we recognize the voice and sometimes we don’t. We will recognize the voice of people to whom we have spoken a lot. People we know well. And we have gotten to know them well, by interacting with them over a period of time. So it is with Jesus. We come to recognize his voice by reading the Gospel stories about him and by talking to him in prayer. Then, when we hear a voice speak in our hearts, we can say either, “Yeah, that sounds like the Jesus I know,” or “Nah, I don’t think so.”
In this valley of the shadow of death, we find our safety and nourishment in Jesus. We go out into the world and return to hour homes through Jesus as our gate. And we follow the voice that sounds like Jesus. We learn that voice through reading the Gospels and through talking to Jesus ourselves. And don’t be surprised if in following that voice we find ourselves sharing our resources with our neighbors breaking bread with glad and generous hearts, and praising God.