A Sermon from Sherborne
The Shepherd and the Gate: a sermon for the Sherborne Abbey Eucharist, recorded in the Vicarage
It’s frustrating – it really is – when the set reading for the day tells only half the story. And that happens today. In John chapter 10 Jesus makes two claims for himself: he is the door of the sheepfold, and he is the Good Shepherd. But today we’ve only heard the first part. Dig out your Bible and read the first 18 verses of chapter 10.
Now to claim that you are both the door of the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd sounds at first like a confusion of images, but it isn’t. Most of us know little enough even about sheep-farming in England today, let alone in Palestine two thousand years ago. It can still be a dangerous profession. Some years ago we had in the Abbey the funeral of a young lady shepherd from
Dorset, who had been killed on the farm when her own tractor moved forward and crushed her to death while she was opening a gate. In New Testament times the dangers were different, but no less real. They usually came either from a human source – sheep-stealers, rustlers – or from wild animals: wolves, bears and even lions still roamed those parts. And so at night the sheep were penned into the sheepfold for their own protection. But the fold was not secured by a nice high gate. Rather, the shepherd would wrap himself in his cloak and lie down across the entrance to the sheepfold. The sheep could not escape nor wild animals enter the fold without his knowing. He was the door. And a good shepherd, who knew all his sheep and called them by name, would be prepared to defend his flock with his own life, as the young boy David in the Old Testament, who became King of all Israel, did on more than one occasion, armed only with a sling and a few pebbles.
And suddenly we see how rich this image is. It speaks, first – and awesomely – to professional religious people like me and my clergy colleagues, who dare to call ourselves the shepherds of our flocks. We have a huge responsibility. If through fear or neglect we lose any of our sheep, we will have to account for that one day, when we meet the owner of the sheep face to face. I am not sure quite how we clergy will emerge from the current crisis. There is so much I would like to be doing that I am not allowed to do. Please pray for all the clergy, that we might always be good and courageous shepherds.
Then, second, the image of Jesus as the supreme shepherd, the truly Good Shepherd of all God’s flock, suggests that the only way into the fold for the sheep is through the door which is Jesus himself. Now that is not a very fashionable or politically correct thing to say today. Even very senior churchmen – much more important shepherds than I am – are rather given to saying these days that all religions lead to God and that we should never claim that one is better than another. Well, as one of the Sherborne shepherds I’m going to summon up my courage to say that I think these senior shepherds are wrong. I would never want to say that I am a better person than a Moslem or a Sikh, a Jew or an Hindu – I know that I am not – but I do believe Jesus when he says, in another ‘I am’ saying, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ That saying is four chapters on, John 14 verse 6, but the image is the same as ‘I am the door’: the only way to the Father is through the door or the way which is Jesus Christ.
Think of it this way. There is immense nobility, profound wisdom and massive holiness to be found in the other great religions of the world. But ultimately I believe they reflect, in different cultures and from different starting points, the human search for God. And because God’s signature is all over his creation, and because the Holy Spirit, like the wind, blows where he wills, those great religions (and I mean ‘great’) have discovered all sorts of truths which perhaps we Christians have yet to stumble upon ourselves. But in the end Christianity is not about our search for God. It is about God’s search for us. It is about the God who, when we were still far off, met us in his Son and brought us home. And by Christ’s claim to be the door, the way, and the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, Christianity stands or falls. By that claim alone it must be judged.
To be truly at home with God means to make the choice to follow Christ the Good Shepherd along the way which is Christ, and to enter the home that God has prepared for us through Christ who is also the door. I made that choice a long time ago, as a first year undergraduate. It’s a choice I have never regretted. I am sure that you haven’t regretted yours, either. But if there is anyone watching today who knows in his or her heart that the choice has yet to be made, then why not make it here, now, today, in your own home – to follow the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for you, and longs that you should know him as he knows you, as one of his own.