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John: 10, 1-10
10 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.
5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.
6 This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.
7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.
8 All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.
9 I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.
10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
When did you last see a shepherd? A real old fashioned shepherd? Probably quite a long time ago, if at all. Modern technology, mechanisation and computerisation has meant that the ancient role has completely changed, if not disappeared, on the farms and hillsides of today. The image of the shepherd conjures up a rustic romantic image which is a far cry from the image Jesus' words would have conjured up in 1st century Palestine.
And yet the image of the shepherd and of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the gate to the sheepfold is a powerful and an enduring image, which appears often in Christian art and tomb sculpture.
The Scottish biblical scholar Sir George Adam Smith (1856-1942) was once travelling the Holy Land with a guide when he came upon an Arab shepherd with his flock. As they began to talk, the man showed him the fold where the sheep were kept at night. It was an enclosure open to the sky with four walls and one way in. 'When the sheep are in here,' said the shepherd, 'they are perfectly safe'. Sir George was surprised: 'But there is no door,' he said, 'I am the door,' replied the shepherd. 'When the light is gone, and the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space. No sheep can ever go out without crossing my body, and if a wolf tries to come in, my body blocks his path; I am the door.' Sir George's surprise turned to amazement: this Arab peasant was not a Christian, yet in describing his shepherd-role, he echoed the words Jesus spoke in declaring himself to be the good shepherd, two thousand years before. Jesus, both the Good Shepherd and the door to the sheep fold.
A very powerful image then. But like all images it can be taken in a number of ways, and I want to suggest that there are negative as well as positive ways of reading the Good Shepherd image. The negatives are to do with control and authoritarianism, leadership with fear, and certainty about who's in, who's out. On this reading human beings are fickle, unreliable, easily led - just like sheep. They need to be told what to think, that there are the saved and the damned, those destined to be in the sheepfold with God and those destined to be left outside. There is a strong strand of Christian theology and practice which wants to draw a clear dividing line between the saved and the unsaved, the believers and the heathen, and that unless you say the right words there is no hope for you.
I want to reject this either/or, in/out version of the Christian faith which doesn't really seem to fit with how Jesus treated the people whom he met in his ministry, and instead embrace the positive aspects of the Good Shepherd imagery, which down the ages has given us comfort, confidence and consolation.
Comfort, because the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures, draws, gives us living water, which - drinking - we will never thirst again. Confidence, because the Good Shepherd makes us safe in the world, safe from robbers and hired hands who might use and abuse us, slaughter and devour us for their own ends. Confidence, because the Good Shepherd will not flee but lay down His life to protect us from mortal danger. Consolation, because however far we stray, the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek and to save the lost. The Good Shepherd carved on Christian tombs proclaims the Good News that nothing - not even the worst that can befall us - can snatch us out of His hands or separate us from the love of God.
The Christian faith is rooted and grounded in the conviction that each individual person matters supremely and uniquely. Nobody is too twisted or too insignificant or too hopeless to be classified as utterly lost. Nobody is too far away. Nobody is worthless. Instead there is utter value in every, individual because, if nobody else had ever been born in the whole history of the universe, Jesus Christ would still have come and been incarnate alongside them, would have died and risen for them.
That is true for each of us, true for Ava and Stella baptised today. The Lord is our shepherd, my shepherd - therefore can I lack nothing. Amen.