Sheep and us – not the brightest bulbs in the box!

Sacred Space reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – Gospel – John 10: 11-18

During the season of Easter, the weekday readings offer us vivid accounts of the energy and dynamism of the community that forms after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I have always loved this sense of a community that re-groups, all fuelled by the same passion and conviction – ‘the whole group of believers was united, heart and soul’. They move so quickly from being cowering, terrified people-in-hiding, fearing for their lives, to a bold and brave group, unstoppable in their witness to the resurrection.

 

One encounter – or a series of encounters – with the Risen Jesus emboldens them. Suddenly, everything makes sense. The lives they lived with Jesus, after he first called them to ‘come and see’, are reoriented. Now, they are called to ‘go and tell’ and they do. Their sharing of the good news is a call to share their experience – to call others to ‘come and experience the Risen Lord’. If an experience of Jesus were not possible, then believers would find it hard to remain believers. Witnesses to the Risen Jesus, the disciples boldly preach the Risen Lord, teaching and healing, and ‘thousands were added to their number’. It seems as though nothing could shake this energy and the accompanying sense of cohesion and unity in their purpose.

It seems.

Of course, all is not as it seems.

This past week in the readings, we have heard of the first grumblings within the community – some are overlooked in the distribution of food. At the same time, Stephen is stoned to death and bitter persecution forces most to flee to the safety of countryside.

Maybe, for us, the hints of disunity are somewhat reassuring. It allows us to feel a little less like we have failed spectacularly in our efforts to be a church of believers that is a community of believers, united by that same encounter with the Risen Lord. Everywhere we look, inside and outside the church, it can seem that distrust and division are endemic to humanity.

Maybe, too, it is why these weeks invite us to pay attention to the words of Jesus during his lifetime. Side-by-side with the accounts of the post-resurrection community of believers, we listen to Jesus teaching the crowds and the disciples (since the Octave, we have listened to John’s Gospel). From both the pre-crucifixion and post-resurrection Jesus, we meet both encouragement and challenge.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, we listen to the Good Shepherd discourse (John 10:11-18). Context matters – Jesus speaks these words in the midst of conflict with the religious authorities because he heals on the Sabbath, again, and tells a no-longer-blind man that he is looking at the Son of Man.

Today, Jesus describes himself as ‘the good shepherd’ and defines a good shepherd as ‘one who lays down his life for his sheep.’

Putting aside for a moment the idea that we are those sheep for whom Jesus lays down his life, what about real sheep? It is said that sheep need more attention and care than almost all other animals meaning the job of a shepherd is never an easy one. In Jesus’ time, people understood that reality. The job of shepherds continues to be demanding. Today’s sheep are no brighter! Left to their own devices, it is almost certain that sheep will do things they shouldn’t do and go where they shouldn’t go! Thieves and natural predators aside, there are many, almost ludicrous, dangers facing sheep. Invariably, sheep will overgraze unless they are moved on; roll onto their backs where they get stuck and die; wander away from the safety of the flock; and go where they shouldn’t go, where it makes no sense to go.

Without a good shepherd, sheep will end up in any of an array of difficulties or, worse yet, dead. Keeping sheep alive is costly for the shepherd. As it is not good to leave sheep unsupervised, shepherding is a round-the-clock endeavour. A good shepherd’s work is taxing and tiring yet shepherds know their sheep and love them.

Good shepherding is a labour of love. Earlier this month, various newspapers and online news media reported on a Scottish good shepherd and two of her lambs. Realising two lambs were missing, Marian Porter crawled twenty feet into a water-logged culvert, took hold of the lambs who had gone into the pipe and became completely stuck inside, and shuffled out backwards pulling the lambs to safety.

The video is heart-warming – see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2IoktgKc3M

When I thought of that video in the context of the Gospel this week, I tried to look at Jesus’ words from a different perspective. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, what can we say about his sheep?

In Jesus’ words, the sheep are those who ‘know me’ and who ‘listen to my voice’. I imagine that each of us likes to think that we know, and are known by, Jesus and that we do our best to listen to his voice. But, those listening sheep do not belong to one fold – there are others too who ‘hear my voice’ and are ‘not of this fold’. I imagine that each of us likes to think that we are included in what Jesus calls ‘this fold’ yet, those ‘others’, the ones we may deem outsiders, are within the care of the Good Shepherd too. Mentioning these different groups, Jesus speaks of a time when ‘There will be only one flock and one shepherd.’

We are not there yet.

We are, much like real sheep, headstrong and prone to making poor choices.

Looking at myself this week, I ask:

* What are my sheep-like tendencies?

* Where in my life do I wander away from what is good?

* What culverts am I firmly stuck in? From what stuck-ness, do I need the Shepherd to pull me free, even if kicking and screaming?

* Am I stuck in fixed thinking, unwillingness to forgive, inability to see good in another?

* Am I closed to new possibilities, unwilling to consider any type of change, dismissive of good news unless it is entirely positive or to my liking?

* Am I closing my heart and mind to perceiving glimpses of hope and of love even in the midst of so much heart-breaking injustice and war, prejudice and othering – in our world, in our country, in our church, in our community, in my heart?

* Can I accept that the Good Shepherd is shepherd to all and still allow myself to be drawn into the love that is between Jesus and the Father? If I can allow Jesus the Good Shepherd to know me and to love me, and allow him to know and love others too, maybe the time when there is one flock can come sooner.

Where do I need to allow the Good Shepherd and the good news of the Risen Lord to penetrate my sheepish heart and mind so that I listen to his voice and follow him wholeheartedly?

Maybe this week is the time to allow Jesus the Good Shepherd to herd me more and more into the relationship of love that he shares with the Father.

 

 

 

 

 

Sr Eileen O’Connell OP

 

Photo Credit: Thomas Bormans on Unsplash