“The Lord is my shepherd.” That picture painted for us in Psalm 23 is probably one of the best known in all of the Scriptures. So when in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” (John 10:11), we may find ourselves at first in familiar territory. All those same sheep and shepherd dynamics come into play. We are invited to imagine Jesus now as the one who leads us to green pastures and beside still waters…
Upon closer reading, though, things start to get a little more confusing in John 10 than they are in the Psalm. Jesus seems to play no fewer than three different parts in this word-picture. But I’m struck by how simple one piece of this analogy remains, no matter what we do with Jesus’ multi-tasking functions – now shepherd, now gatekeeper, now gate. One thing is abundantly clear from the 10th chapter of John—we’re the sheep.
It’s almost too obvious to point out, right? Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep. Jesus is the gatekeeper, we are the sheep. Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold, we’re still the sheep. What could be simpler? But of course remembering that we are the sheep in this illustration also entails remembering what we’re not.
For instance, we are not the gatekeepers. It’s simply not up to us to decide who’s allowed in and out of the sheepfold. Not up to us to determine which sheep ‘belong’ and which are ‘other’. And it’s certainly not our job to bad-mouth those ‘other sheep’ outside our fold. The Good Shepherd assures us they belong to him too, and he’ll bring them along in due course. “I have other sheep,” he says in verse 16, “who are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
It’s hard to be certain of the original identity of those ‘other sheep’ to whom John refers here– perhaps they were Jewish Christians who believed differently than did John’s own Christian community, perhaps they were Gentiles. We may never know for sure, but the cautionary tone at the end of this passage is worth noting.
That the marvelously intimate language about the Good Shepherd’s flock, so well-loved, so well-known by him, is followed by this little note about the Shepherd having “other sheep” reminds me of a dynamic at work in the Old Testament as well. Countless affirmations there that the people of Israel are God’s special people, but then from time to time these little wake-up calls thrown in – in Amos, in Jonah, in Ruth, when God reminds them: “Oh by the way, I have other people I love too.” And here in John 10:16, “I have other sheep.”
If we’re not the gatekeepers, we are also not the gate. That role too belongs to Jesus. And thank heaven for that. For the purpose of a well-secured sheepfold is after all “safe haven in a dangerous world. It protects sheep from thieves and predators and saves them from their own foolishness.”
And clearly, we are not the Shepherd. Instead, we have one.
There’s actually a tremendous freedom that comes from the realization that we’re a bunch of sheep. For instance, it’s not our job to wrestle to the ground all those thieves and bandits we’re warned about here (whatever guise they may take in this age). That’s the Shepherd’s job. Our responsibility is to listen attentively, to make certain it is indeed the Good Shepherd’s voice we hear, and then to follow where he leads us.
It’s simple enough to understand. But like so many of the clearest lessons in the Scriptures, it can be oh-so-difficult to do.
I’ve alluded already to our inclination in the Church to fret over those ‘other sheep’ who are not of this fold. Barbara Brown Taylor wonders whether some of us might not have just as many doubts about our own place in the Good Shepherd’s flock.
“Clearly,” she begins, once this text starts talking about other sheep, it’s “not talking about us. We are …church-going, dues-paying, creed-saying Christians. . . If we are not his sheep, then who is? We hear his voice, and he knows us, and we follow him, and he gives us eternal life, and we shall never perish, and no one shall snatch us out of his hand. This is the Lord’s flock, and we do believe because we do belong to his sheep.
“Or are there some imposters in here? [Taylor wonders] Are there some . . . who go through the motions but who cannot say what it is you believe? You want to hear the Lord’s voice but you cannot quite make it out…
Whether they are founded or unfounded, “most of us [Taylor continues] have pretty firm beliefs about what it means to believe. [For instance] one common belief is that believers are never at a loss for words. They can say what they believe and why, and they speak about their faith in ways that move and convince others. They are never embarrassed to be asked what they believe or shy to answer; they are always articulate, and eloquent, and wise.
“Then there is the belief that believers are in constant touch with God, so that they understand what happens to them every day, or at least have enough faith to accept it gracefully. Consequently, believers are never doubtful or afraid. They live in total confidence that they are in God’s hands, and when they say their prayers at night, God talks back to them.
“Another popular belief is that believers invariably find worship a meaningful experience. They act on what they hear from the pulpit, mean every word of the [Apostle’s] Creed, and their hearts are strangely warmed [every time they take communion]. Believers never lose their places in the service, and they never feel bored, or cranky, or left out. They have an unfailing sense of belonging, to God and to one another.
“Have I gotten to your belief about believing yet?” Taylor asks. “What is it that you hold over your own head? What golden ring is it that you place just high enough that you can never quite reach it? Is it that you do not pray enough, or witness enough, or read enough theology? Is it that you are not knowledgeable enough, or enthusiastic enough, or sure enough about what you believe? Whatever it is, please stop it. Please stop exiling yourself from the flock because of your beliefs about what it takes to believe and see if you cannot allow yourself to belong simply because God says you do.
It comes a bit later in John 10, but this is important. Jesus "does not say that we are in or out of the flock depending on our ability to believe, but the exact opposite, in fact. He says that our ability to believe depends on whether we are in or out of the flock, and there is every reason to believe that we are in . . . if only because we are sitting right here with the flock this morning.
“If that is the case, then chances are that the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others. Since we believe in what we cannot know for sure, our belief tends to have a certain lightness to it, an openness to ambiguity and a willingness not to be sure about everything. Our belief is less like certainty than like trust or hope. We are betting our lives on something we cannot prove . . . Most of the time the best we can do is to live ‘as if’ it were all true, and when we do, it all becomes truer somehow.”
“So if sometimes you have trouble hearing the voice of your shepherd, [Taylor counsels us], be patient with yourself. . . and while you are at it, be patient with the rest of us too. You cannot follow a shepherd all by yourself, after all. You are stuck with this flock, or some flock, and everyone knows that sheep are, well, sheep. They panic easily and refuse to be pushed. They make most of their decisions based on their appetites and they tend to get into head-butting contests for no reason at all. But stick with the flock. It is where your shepherd can be found, which makes it your best bet not only for survival, but also for joy.”
The God of all creation, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ, is gatekeeper, gate, and Shepherd alike. It’s his responsibility to watch the gate, gather the flock, and tend the fold, bringing in critters a lot like us, and presumably plenty of others as well.
So we’re all a bunch of sheep. But listen to what we are promised: green pastures and cool water to restore our souls, goodness and mercy that shall follow us all the days of our (abundant) lives, and a Shepherd who would lay down his own life for our sake. As promises go, that’s not bad, my “wooly friends.”
 Richard Niell Donovan, “Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A”
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” in The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993) pp. 142-145
 Taylor, 145.
 Taylor, 145.