Sunday 3rd May 2020 – 4th Sunday of Easter
This Sunday’s Reflection is by Dr Jim Harris
John 10, 1-10
1 ‘Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’ 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. 7 Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
The Good Sheep
What is the life of a sheep? It seems to me that the life of the sheep is to be free.
Sheep are, for the most part, animals that can be left to their own devices. They’re pretty self sufficient and they are pretty sturdy, so they don’t always need to be too what to do or where to go. They have good instincts for food, shelter and survival. Recently, there was a tv programme that gave some insight into the lives of sheep, and the lives of their shepherds – you may have seen it: The Great Mountain Sheep Gather. It followed a flock of 500 Herdwick sheep on Scafell Pike in the Lake District. Now, these sheep who wander the fells and mountains are not constrained. They are not kept in a pen and they are not told where to go and what to do. They have the freedom of the hills and all the self-determination and dignity that goes with it.
But every spring, the shepherd goes up into those beautiful, rugged high places and calls the sheep down to be shorn. He follows them, finds them, gathers them, nudges them and leads them until, as Graeme Virtue wrote in the Guardian, the shepherd and his team of dogs and helpers arrive at, “the shared relief of navigating every animal safely through the fell gate, after which the bleak wildness gradually gave way to fields and paddocks more visibly shaped by man.” There were three things that struck me about those sheep:
• First, that it would be impossible to gather them if they weren’t willing to be gathered: the terrain is too hard and the sheep too obstinate.
• Second, that it would be impossible to gather them if they didn’t know who was calling: they would simply wander off, distracted by a clump of heather or a tussock of grass.
• And third, it would be impossible to see them home if they didn’t stick to the path after they’d set off: there are too many places to fall, too many hidden spots to get lost in.
Now, freedom, beauty and dignity notwithstanding, it’s a tough life up on that hill. The last time I saw Scafell Pike before that programme was in the autumn of 2018 when I climbed it, in bitter weather – driving rain and high winds such that I could barely stand and at one point I found myself simply crouched in the lee of a rock with two other cowering walkers. We were pretty desperate. There was visibility of about 20 yards and no obvious path. My companions had a GPS locator, but no map. I had a map but no GPS locator. At that point, I’d have followed more or less anyone who told me they knew the way.
And the temptation was simply to head downhill.
But instead, we used the coordinates from the GPS locator to find our place on the map and we saw where the right path was. It was in the opposite direction to where we thought we should be headed but we found the path, trusted the map, stuck to it and we came safely down out of the weather and off the hill.
I don’t want to labour the point about the thieves and robbers who would try to steal the sheep. We are surrounded by those who would call themselves our shepherds and we know who they are. And I don’t want to labour the point that our true shepherd is Jesus; that he is our guide to the path; that he is the gate by which we enter into the safety of the sheepfold. I just want to say something about what it means to be one of Jesus’s sheep – and to do that I’ll take three very brief lessons from the sheep of Scafell Pike themselves.
1. We are called to be obstinate in hard terrain.
• Being a sheep can sometimes be a miserable business and the sheep fold, with its shelter from the storm and the warmth of all the other sheep around is a very appealing place when you’re up on the mountain.
• But, like the sheep, we need to be discerning about who we listen to – and when the voice is the wrong one, when it suggests a path we don’t recognise or promises an easy route home, we need to stick it out, obstinately, no matter how tough the terrain, or else risk falling a very long way from a very high place.
2. We are called to listen to the shepherd and to be prepared to be led.
• It’s not just recognising Jesus voice that matters – it’s our willingness to turn round from whatever we’re doing and actually listen to him, not just as background noise but as the focus of our attention so we can really hear what he’s saying in all the wind and weather of the mountain.
3. We are called to follow the shepherd and trust that he will lead us the right way.
• It’s not just hearing Jesus voice that matters. It’s not even enough to listen to him and learn from him, as if he were a good teacher, showing us how to look after ourselves in a wild place, a bit like some sort of Bear Grylls survival guru.
• What’s vital is being prepared to leave the place we started, to take the path he shows us and actually follow him.
Because although all the paths in the wild places are hard, and none of them are obvious, it is Jesus’ path that will lead us home and it is Jesus’ path that will lead us to fullness of life. And that life, like the life of the sheep on Scafell Pike, will sometimes be tough – but it is a spacious life of freedom, beauty and dignity, no matter where we find ourselves wandering.
Dr Jim Harris