Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 07 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:42-47; Ps 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; Jn 10:1-10

As some of you may know, Mother Andrea grew up on a sheep farm, whereas I grew up next door to a federal penitentiary—so, while I may have a certain amount of expertise as to thieves and bandits, I approach the topic of sheep and shepherds with trepidation. And, in fact, the last time I preached on this particular Sunday, I managed to dodge the issue altogether by preaching entirely, and perhaps somewhat predictably, on the reading from Acts. But I did at that time promise to talk about sheep in future years, so I guess I should make good on that promise now.

I don’t want to overlook the reading from Acts, though. None of you will be surprised to hear me say this, but we do need to reflect with some seriousness on the fact that almost the very first thing the members of the early church did after Pentecost was to sell off all of their private property, and redistribute resources in the community on the basis of need. This was as important in the early reality of the community as meeting for common meals, worship and prayer, as important as healing and baptizing and witnessing to the resurrection—living out a reality which was radically different in concrete ways, different in its management of resources and property and its ways of valuing being. This passage alone—though there are many others with similar themes—could stand against those who say that political and economic arrangements are no business of the church. In fact, political and economic arrangements, property and resource and value, and the task of revising very seriously how we understand these things, is entirely central to our calling. The human person is not transformed in a vacuum; human persons live in a material reality, and we need to work out where food comes from and who gets it, how our resources are distributed, what counts as value and who counts as important. These are theological questions, questions of faith.

But the values which drive that new shape of community are not only political and economic, but rooted in a deep narrative about God and humanity, about power and sacrifice and vulnerability—a narrative which finds some of its central imagery in the good shepherd passages. So perhaps, by looking at that imagery, which is more complicated than it may at first seem, we begin to see how we need to change our own imaginations.

In some parts of the gospels—though, in fact, not actually in today’s reading—Jesus identifies himself with the shepherd, the one whom the sheep trust, and who cares for them even at the cost of his own life. It is a more radical image than we readily understand; in first century Palestine, a shepherd was a vagrant, someone on the edge of proper society, living mostly in the hills with his flock, out in the cold, partly nomadic, not clean or nice or settled. The phrase “good shepherd” has in it some of the deliberately unsettling quality as “good Samaritan.” These were not the people with whom, according to common respectable wisdom, goodness was to be found. And yet, they are the people Jesus chooses to illustrate the goodness of God.

But the metaphor twists further—for Jesus is not only shepherd, but lamb himself. Shepherds, even shepherds who care well and lovingly for their sheep, are for the most part actually raising them to be killed; the ultimate end of most of the sheep on the hills around Galilee was either to become food directly, or to be a Temple sacrifice, and food thereafter. But Jesus is the shepherd who becomes himself the sacrifice, the one who offers himself defenceless to the violence of power, who gives himself to us as our bread. The shepherd is among us as one of us, poor silly sheep, destined to die; is among us in order to be the place where the violence of sacrifice ends. Perhaps the most radical statement in all of Christian faith is this one—that the shepherd has become the lamb, has identified absolutely with the weakest and the smallest, the ones most in need of care, most victimized, most subject to the violence of the world. This is where God is. The shepherd is a useful image, as a starting point, perhaps. But the final image is the slaughtered lamb around which all the glory of creation turns. The final power is no power at all, but offering.

Yet in this passage, in fact, Jesus does not call himself either shepherd or lamb; here the metaphor takes on yet another layer, for in this passage he is also the gate through which both sheep and shepherd pass. And it may be even more layered than that, because there may be two different gates we are meant to imagine, representing two different aspects of what all this means for us. The picture most immediately called up is of one of the enclosures in the fields and hills, into which the sheep were herded at night, and from which they were released to wander and feed in the morning, and the immediate point is the contrast between the legitimate relationship between sheep and shepherd, compared to the thieves for whom the sheep are property only. The gate, then, is a sort of interpretive tool—the gate is what enables the distinction to be made between a living connection between living beings, and attempts to exploit, oppress or harm. It is by means of the gate that we can see the difference; it is by means of the vision of the lamb that was slain that we can come to understand the meaning of care and love, the love which does away with the games of power. The gate or the door has traditionally been an image of understanding, of how we understand—the gates of horn and ivory through which true and false dreams come, Blake’s doors of perception—and I think that is one of the meanings of this gate here; Jesus, the Word, enables us to see the world more truly, to come and go in it more freely, to recognize the shepherd who is also the lamb.

But there’s an odd detail—that gatekeeper. A shepherd in the hills of Galilee would hardly be likely to have a specialized gatekeeper for his little enclosure. But elsewhere in John’s gospel, mention is made of one of the gates of Jerusalem known as the Sheep Gate. The gate for the sheep. The usual assumption is that this was the gate through which sheep were brought for Temple sacrifice, and for that industrial operation, there may well have been a gatekeeper. Through this gate, in the normal way of things, the sheep travelled in only one direction, and did not come back. If we are also meant to imagine this gate, then the statement that the sheep both come and go, and leave to seek pasture, becomes a great reversal. The gate of violence, the gate of death, is transformed by God’s self-offering as lamb, God’s response of love to all of power’s harms, into a gate of freedom, a gate which does not mean a one-way journey to slaughter, but a series of choices leading us further and further into life.

So this is where that radical community in Acts came from—the understanding that we are freed, changed, that we no longer need to offer sacrifices to power, no longer need to see others as competitors for status or scarce resources, threats, dangers to ourselves. That we may choose life, and not only life, but a life which can be shared freely, a life of risk perhaps, the insecurity of the wandering flock in the hills, and yet the ultimate safety of God’s embracing love. All of us, whatever we may bring or whatever we may need, valued alike and infinitely.

Now, at the same time that I say all this, I need to acknowledge that pretty much every human attempt to create this society has failed horribly, and the book of Acts will move on, quite shortly, to show Peter conducting something like a tiny Stalinist purge against Ananias and Sapphira, when they try to hold some of their property back. Because although, on the one hand, we cannot ignore economic arrangements in our vision of the human creature made new, changing the economic arrangements alone will not automatically change the human creature. We can, and often do, just take our violence and our selfishness and our competitive lusts and our confused desires into a new setting, and find new ways to hurt each other. If both the world and the creature are to be transformed, it can only happen if both are being transformed together, and it can only happen slowly, and piecemeal, and probably not entirely in this world. But we can make our beginnings. We can allow God to reshape us and remake us, let the practices of prayer and liturgy and service train us in recognizing and desiring sufficiency rather than excess, and we can do what is possible to reshape the world around us as well. It is not a transformation of the world right here and right now. It is not even the brief bright vision we see in the first days of the early church. But it is what is at hand to do; and we do what is at hand, and place our hope in the great mystery we name as God, the open gate of all our longing.