Fourth Sunday of Easter | John 10:1-10
Sheep are usually trusting creatures.
Sheep, goats, cattle, all of them recognize the people who care for them, and they recognize the ones who do not. They know the voice that they trust. Animals may have a deeper wisdom than we, an older wisdom.
My dog is wiser than I. He sleeps more often than I, and better. He enjoys his food and the sunlight and the joy of a friendly touch much more than I. And he knows my voice, though he sometimes chooses not to listen to it.
Jesus says that he is a shepherd, that his own will know his voice. He also says that he is the gate for the sheep, mixing the elements of the analogy.
Word pictures for God—John’s gospel gives us plenty of these. At different points, Jesus is described (or is portrayed describing himself) as light, bread, water, a man, the way, the gate, the shepherd, a vine, a servant, a fisherman, a king, other things. All of these images are true, of course. None of them is complete. If we take any one of these images, however beautiful and true it may be, and hold it to the exclusion of the others, we do not take away a true understanding of Jesus. The same is true of the other people in our lives. They are more, and sometimes less, than the way we think of them.
Take another example, the explanation of the crucifixion. In the gospels we hear what Jesus did, what was done to him, told in story form. Elsewhere in scripture, there are references, surprisingly brief descriptions of the crucifixion, comparing it variously to a sacrifice, or a ransom, or to a judicial penalty, among other things. Outside of scripture on the other hand, entire books have been written to explain what happened on the cross (often minimizing everything else), and Christianity has divided itself into camps based at least in part on one or another of these explanations, as though the others are untrue.
It is like trying to understand a home only by what we see on the outside, or the life of the deepest ocean by watching from the shore. Much may be learned that is true, as far as it goes, but we know that the rest remains a mystery.
It must be the same for sheep and goats. Their shepherds guide them, feed them, keep them safe, and so the animals know much about their shepherd. They know when the shepherd comes, what the shepherd does, and they know the shepherd’s voice. The rest remains unknown to them, but the sheep do not seem to dwell on it or let it displace their faith. They respect the boundaries of mystery.
If a sheep were to sit and to write a detailed explanation of the other aspects of the shepherd’s life, explaining the motives and reasons that the shepherd does what a shepherd does, it would make interesting reading. Other sheep may find themselves agreeing or disagreeing. Focusing on the explanations might even be enough to distract a sheep so that it does not hear the shepherd’s voice.
That is a problem with being immersed in religion. We become so distracted, and content, explaining God that we do not even perceive God’s presence. We exchange our faith in God for a collection of ideas about God. Christianity does not promise that we are saved by means of our understanding. The promise is that we are saved through the love of God, saved by means deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend, and saved from and to something perhaps more profound than we know.
Jesus went to the crucifixion like a sheep to slaughter. As we have said, animals have a deeper wisdom than we. Even though the sheep’s trust may be misplaced, it remains more noble and more whole for trusting than does the person who betrays it. There is a mysterious power in trust and in submission, even when proven wrong, and how much more power when the trust is fulfilled.
Perhaps this Easter season is a good time to remember one of the oldest confessions of faith in Christianity. The Nicene Creed, named for the place where early church leaders met in the fourth century, doesn’t explain much. It does assert a great deal, but by way of sharing the story and preserving the mystery. We learn as much from the way it is told as from what it contains.
The Nicene Creed ª
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
ª This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. You can find the online version here: http://www.bcponline.org