Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: The Jesus-shaped Gate

07 May 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Revd Jonathan Cain
Acts 2: 42-end, John 10: 1-10

When Jesus says “very truly” at the start of a passage, like he does at the start of the gospel passage we heard this morning, beware. It usually introduces a parable or figure of speech, something that is always difficult to understand.  I wish the same warning had been given to me recently before I watched the science fiction film Arrival with Rebecca and the boys …

The film in brief. Twelve identical UFOs arrive in the earth’s atmosphere at the same moment, positioned at different points around the globe.  National security forces are mobilised, together with the best linguistic and scientific minds in an attempt to make meaningful contact with the alien visitors and establish whether they are friendly or represent a threat.   At first there is a good level of international cooperation, and information from the twelve sites is combined like pieces of a jigsaw.  As news of the extra-terrestrial visitors is broken around the world, panic spreads and there are mass riots and looting.  Fear increases and, just as the contact between human and alien gets more meaningful, international cooperation gives way to national self-interest.  Each nation believes that the aliens will either give them a weapon or use a weapon against them, but there is miscommunication.  The purpose of the alien visit is to give humankind not a weapon, but a gift … no more spoilers I promise …

After watching the film I had an interesting conversation with my 13-year old Bill, who was outraged about the breakdown of international relationships. “Why can’t we cooperate with each other dad?” He said.  “Why can’t the world have one leader, a global dictator who is good?”  Why indeed?

The conversation didn’t end there. We spoke a bit about lessons from history; how things that start out well often don’t end well.  Leaders often find it difficult to cope with power; people rise up and don’t want to follow any more; things change. We spoke a bit about lessons from the Bible, starting with the example of King David.  “He was a good king,” Bill said.  It’s true, David, the shepherd boy who became king, is a hero of the Old Testament, but he had some issues; just ask Bathsheba’s first husband, Uriah the Hittite.  The kings that followed David were good and bad, Israel prospered and Israel failed.  The conclusion of my conversation with Bill is that perhaps the democratic system that we enjoy here in this country is the best we’ve managed to achieve so far … an apt way to conclude our conversation during a general election campaign.

Jesus uses images of sheep, and shepherds and sheepfolds in his parables, which will have resonated with his audience in part because of the story of the Jewish hero king David, the shepherd of Israel. David is a hero not because he is perfect, far from it; part of the power of the Old Testament narrative is its honesty – it does not skip over or erase uncomfortable details. David is a hero because he places his faith, his trust, he builds his whole life in fact on God – just read the psalms.  David is a hero not because he is gifted and powerful, but because he recognises the ultimate source of his gifts and power; he recognises that his power is limited.

Honest narrative is not limited to the Old Testament. The short passage that we heard from Acts this morning paints a wonderful and positive picture of the early church, but just a few chapters later we read that the needs of widows, the most vulnerable in the community were being neglected.  The early church had vision and charismatic leadership, but lacked order and structure; change was necessary to make sure that the church lived its vocation to care for all, and the starting point for that change was honesty.

Going back to the reading from John’s gospel, there are in fact two short parables. The first parable contrasts the man who enters the sheepfold by the gate, with the thieves and bandits who climb into the sheepfold by another way.  The second parable is about a shepherd who knows his own sheep, he calls them by name and they know and respond to his voice.

These parables, these difficult figures of speech are partly explained in the final part of the reading when Jesus reveals that he is the gate to the sheepfold. He is the gate the true shepherds go through to reach the sheep.  He is also the gate through which the sheep go in and out to find pasture.  Jesus is the gate that leads to life.

“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says. There’s a wonderful universality in this line.  There is no qualification to the word “they”.  The gift of abundant life is offered to all …

… but the meaning of the parables remains obscure, because Jesus does not reveal the identity of the gatekeeper, the thief, or the bandit. Chief suspects include Herod and the religious leaders who plundered and ravaged the community of Israel, serving their own interests and not the interests of the people.  But, Jesus leaves the identification of these characters and the meaning of the parables to his hearers to discern.

Earlier I alluded to the general election campaign. Various politicians are putting themselves forward to shepherd this country through the next few years, when there will be change.  How might we use our faith resources, including scripture, as we exercise our democratic privilege to vote for the nation’s shepherd?

Perhaps a good shepherd will offer an honest assessment of how things are. Perhaps a good shepherd will approach the electorate through a gate that looks Jesus shaped; a gate that causes us to recognise God as the ultimate source of gifts and power; a gate that is open to the weakest and most vulnerable; a gate that gives access to good pasture for all.

Maybe I’m stretching things here … I’ll leave that to you.