Today, the 3rd Sunday after Easter, the church calendar gives us “Good Shepherd Sunday”, which I usually duck. I find the dominance of this metaphor difficult for three reasons:
Firstly it is a royal metaphor with a lineage back to at least the Pharaohs. Of course in the Jewish context it references King David. The metaphor is to remind the monarch that their power is not just for the benefit of themselves and their entourage, but for the good of all their subjects. They are to look after the poor and defenceless lambs. This, on the one hand, is not a bad thing. It would be good if certain political leaders, past and present, looked more to the wellbeing of their more vulnerable subjects or citizens, rather than their own or their party’s needs. On the other hand though, this is a paternalistic metaphor, there is no thought of the sheep critiquing the shepherd, or – heaven forbid - sharing power. The woolly socialist gang from the back paddock would get a one way trip to the works!
Secondly, to continue to use this metaphor (calling bishops or ministers ‘shepherds’ – or in Latin, ‘pastor’) is to bolster the dominant hierarchical patterns of both church organisation and thinking about God. Shepherd/sheep is not an empowerment metaphor where each member of the Jesus movement is encouraged to think of themselves as active participants – deciding, planning, engaging – in nurturing and sharing the love called God. Rather shepherd/sheep is a dependency metaphor, where the sheep remain all their lives dependent upon a shepherd caring for them and looking after them.
Thirdly, most of the shepherd-talk in the church draws upon John 10 as its reference point. In other words, like the shepherd references in Luke’s nativity (chapter 2) and Matthew’s end-time judgement (chapter 25), this is a creation of late first century Jesus movement, and not words of the historical Jesus. There is though one parable (Luke 15:3-6 – note v.7 is a later addition), a parable about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to look for one lost, that is likely an authentic Jesus voiceprint. But the sting in this parable is the irresponsibility of the shepherd leaving the 99! And, note well, each person in the audience is being encouraged to be this sort of shepherd. Every follower of Jesus is to be this sort of irresponsible shepherd who helps out the suffering.
As for John 10:1-10, our text for today, it is composed in a time of conflict. Who the conflicting parties are is not certain. It might reflect the tensions around Torah, circumcision, etcetera. Inter-faith, inter-church conflict is nothing new. And the language here is pretty vitriolic: ‘thieves’, ‘bandits’, ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy’. Sounds like a General Assembly theological dispute?! And theological disputes, then and now, often move away from observation and reason to tradition and authority, and who has the numbers, the power.
So, what I’m saying is that I’m sceptical of how this royal and paternal metaphor of shepherd is being injected into this late first and early second century faith dispute. It’s not being injected in order to encourage each of us to be a shepherd and care for the most vulnerable in society. It’s being injected in order to tell us which party-line to follow! The much loved v. 10 quote “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” unfortunately seems to have a rider: ‘yes you can have life abundantly, but only if you follow the leader/leadership of our version of the emerging Christian faith’.
But, regardless of context, there comes a time when we reach over and into the ancient text and pick a lovely flower like ‘life abundantly’ and put it into the basket of our 21st century spirituality. And we say, ‘yes, life abundantly, is the purpose of faith’, and we go with our basket to make ours and others lives better (particularly those most vulnerable). Joy, laughter, kindness – given and received – are spiritual gifts/flowers to be celebrated and shared.
Returning to our text for the day, you might have noticed that the ‘I am’ saying in the first 10 verses is not about a good shepherd. Rather it is ‘I am the gate’ (v.7 & 9). The word for ‘gate’ is the same as ‘door’. From chapter 9 we know the literary context of these sayings is about a blind man moving from isolation and marginalization into a caring community and abundance of life. Jesus was the door.
Some commentators have tried to join the metaphors of shepherd and gate together with the idea that the shepherd sleeps across the entrance way of the sheep pen at night; so the gate is not a metaphor by itself but an extension of the shepherd metaphor.
I prefer to think of each of the ‘I am’ sayings (they are all in this 4th gospel – I am the way, I am the light, I am the life, etcetera) as representing different ideas or streams of spiritual thought coming together in the Johannine community. Some of you will be familiar with the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault who speaks of Jesus as a Jewish mystical wisdom master – a teacher of transformation – rather than the usual understandings of Jesus as a priest or prophet or saviour. Many of these Johannine ‘I am’ sayings can be thought of in this way.
So, let us pause for a moment and consider both ‘Jesus the door’, and the inference that we too be ‘doors’. As I said in my children’s talk this week doors are entrance ways to invite us in. Doors aren’t objects of worship, or repositories of advice. Doors, as long as they are open, are not meant to be noticed – well certainly not after you’ve gone through them. Indeed once we’ve passed through they can vanish from our thinking.
I was sent an interesting sermon last week that reflected upon the well-known post-Easter parable of the Emmaus Road. You might recall it tells of two of Jesus’ disciples (after his death) walking to the town of Emmaus. A stranger joins them on this journey, talking with them about both the current context and their faith tradition. At Emmaus the stranger breaks bread with them, and in that moment of recognition, the stranger vanishes.
The sermon was called ‘the vanishing mediator’. This is a term coined by the philosopher Fredric Jameson who invites us to think of significant moments in history which move us forward into a future by bringing about their own disappearance. The vanishing mediator could be an idea, a figure, or a spiritual formation that cultivate the conditions for something new and novel to emerge even at the cost of its own disappearance. A vanishing mediator is a figure who inaugurates a transition from old to new. The preacher, Abhishek Solomon, likened Jesus in the post-Easter appearances as a vanishing mediator, inaugurating a new movement/paradigm but then disappearing.
It is not dissimilar to the idea of Jesus as a door, a doorway, a means of transition into something new – rather than Jesus being the new thing itself, or being the omni-God ruling over the new thing. I believe Jesus was showing us a way of wisdom, of transformation, of upside-down thinking, rather than setting himself up as a redeeming kingly shepherd who would always be on hand to guide us erring sheep.
Our first reading today was from the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were protesters who responded to what they saw as the Constantinian corruption of Christianity by renouncing the seduction of possessions and power and going into the desert (Egyptian or Syria) and continuing to preach and practice the alternate wisdom they believed Jesus was on about.
This story about Abba (Father) Longinus underlines that the mystery called God is what heals, not the holy man or woman or dispenser of blessings. Indeed the holy man or woman can be a distraction from that mystery of healing. At best then Longinus is a door, a pointer, to that mystery. But woman has to do the walking, stepping out in faith, herself.
Many of the desert stories have this theme of shedding our dependence on leaders, spiritual or secular, and instead walking our own path into God. Spiritual leaders, in the desert tradition, are often grouchy guides telling seekers to do the walking themselves rather than expecting a shepherding man or woman to hold their hand and lead them.
I would invite you to think this week about people who have been doors for you; people who have opened up for you new ways of thinking, being, or doing; people who do not seek adulation or attention but are content to simply point you in the right direction; people who at unexpected moments in our lives have kindly shown us a different way. Then think of times when you might have been a door for others.