In our gospel this morning is a phrase that warms and encourages me – the words of Jesus “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
I know very little about sheep. I have ministered (in Waiapu and Taranaki) in rural parishes with sheep farmers in the congregation and as a child in suburban Wellington I happily wandered on sheep farms that were virtually on our back doorstep. Nonetheless I have only a townsman’s knowledge of sheep and am most assured when the sheep is in the form of roast lamb; but paradoxically I still feel a pang of guilt and compassion whenever I see a loaded stock truck heading for the freezing works. Yet we are a pastoral economy and in the national psyche is the legend of number 8 fencing wire and the pastoral humour of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons.
Ignorant though I am of sheep, I am very familiar with the Church’s field of imagery of sheep: the paintings, the stained glass, the poetry, the hymns and the bright coloured pious little textual images that were once given out at Sunday school. Such images have permeated our thinking: in one of Milton’s poems (Lycidas) he plays upon the biblical imagery of shepherds to attack the bishops of his day as he scathingly refers to them:
Blind mouths! That scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs! (Lycidas lls.119-121)
The ‘blind mouths’ is a scathing critique of the episcopacy of his time – they are ‘blind’ who should be instructors and teachers – they are ‘mouths’, in other words they are consumers, when they should be sources of spiritual nourishment to their flocks. Compare this to Jesus who says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
When Jesus talks about sheep and shepherds he is talking to people who, whether shepherds or not, had some familiarity with sheep and shepherding. He was also talking to a people who were pretty familiar with the Old Testament and the great tradition associated with the associated images – God being described as the ‘shepherd of Israel,’ and the promise of a new messianic shepherd who would rescue the people. So, in Jesus’ time, the references, the images, the tradition were all there to supplement the local pastoral familiarity with what shepherds were meant to be like. Jesus transforms all this when he says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
We are in that stage after Easter where the lectionary readings seem to take us into thinking about whom Jesus is and John’s gospel offers us a series of incidents and discourses that push our thinking further and harder. To make sense of the passage of the good shepherd sayings we need to look at the context that immediately precedes the sayings: Jesus has just healed a blind man; blind from birth. This man has never seen; never seen light or the world and people about him; he is brought into sight and faith and, effectively, is a new creation. The outrage of the religious authorities is that this healing has happened on the Sabbath. The fury and outrage is clearly inappropriate and misdirected; where there should be wonder and joy, there seems only fear and anger. The man who was blind now sees (literally) and not only sees but now believes. The leaders who should see now act as if they are blind – and their response to Jesus is a wilful blindness. Belief or unbelief in this context is not a reasoned or even reasonable thing but an activity, a determination, of the will. We can understand the process in ourselves. We may choose to say, I don’t understand but I choose to believe.
Running through the gospel are the ‘I am’ saying ‘ego eimi’ and going back to the Old Testament when Moses is addressed by God, God’s name is given as ‘I am’ – so these Johannine ‘ I ams’ is a crucial trace of Jesus’ identification with God.
In the shepherd sayings there are two instances: Jesus speaks of himself as the gate (of the sheepfold) – the place of entrance into safety and the place whereby the sheep are led out to find pasture. In verse 10 Jesus gloriously declares his purpose “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
So this is the key to our gospel passage this morning, this who ‘The good shepherd’ is. The ‘good’ is this life-giving wholeness and freedom that comes from God, from the deep life of God made available in Christ’. This goodness is not the sentimental loveliness of the Jesus as portrayed in some pious paintings but something more grounded and utterly real and attractive. As William Temple (1881-1944) noted on this passage:
“The Good Shepherd: The shepherd, the beautiful one. Of course this translation exaggerates. But it is important that the word for “good” here is one that represents, not the moral rectitude of goodness, nor its austerity, but it's attractiveness. We must not forget that our vocation is so to practise virtue that men are won to it; it is possible to be morally upright repulsively! In the Lord Jesus we see “the beauty of holiness” (Psalm xcvi,9). He was “good” in such manner as to draw all men to Himself (xii,32). And this beauty of goodness is supremely seen in the act by which He would so draw them, wherein He lays down his life for the sheep.”
(Readings in John’s Gospel)
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”