Have you ever broken into a building? Being the law-abiding lot that you are, I’m sure that you don’t make a habit of breaking and entering. But you can never be too sure… Take me, for example, a respectable, upstanding member of the clergy. Back when I was a young university student, I shared a house with other students who, I discovered, liked to go to bed quite early. I discovered this one evening after sitting in a pub until closing time and then going back to a friend’s house for coffee. I eventually got back to my student digs sometime in the small hours, to find it entirely locked up from the inside, and myself with no way at all of getting in.
No way in, that is, short of sending my friend up the drainpipe and in through my bedroom window, crashing down onto the bedroom floor and down the stairs to let me in from the inside, all the while trying to stifle our giggles just enough not to wake up the housemates. A good friend of mine has been known to use her small children to get through small windows to let everyone in when she’s forgotten her house keys. At times like this we see how important things like doors and keys are.
In the reading we’ve heard from St John’s Gospel, we heard one of seven statements which Jesus makes about himself; seven times he says ‘I am.’ I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine. It’s no accident that there are seven of these statements; in the Bible, seven is the number used to denote completion or perfection, so that each one of these seven statements about Jesus helps us to understand something of who he is, and together the seven ‘I am’ statements form a complete picture of who Jesus is for John, and who he can be for us if we allow him to be.
In this reading Jesus describes himself as the gate, or the door, for the sheep. It’s most likely that this envisages a sheepfold into which the sheep would be guided to keep them safe overnight from marauders and wolves. Later on in this same chapter, Jesus will say that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, and we hear something if that in our reading in which we hear that the shepherd leads his sheep and knows them all by name. So, to go back to my university stop-out self, Jesus is a bit like both the friend who shimmies up the drainpipe, and the door which the friend opens to let me in.
So what does it mean to say that Jesus is the gate for the sheep? The implication is that sheep need protecting. Thieves and bandits roam the countryside, and there are certain times when the sheep are vulnerable to attack. As we think of ourselves as people being like the sheep, we might bristle a bit; often, calling someone a sheep is an insult, a way of inferring that they have no get-up-and-go, no individuality, but rather that they follow the herd mindlessly. 'Don't be a sheep' we say to our young people. In the Bible, though, it seems that the opposite is true; the problem with sheep is that they don’t stick with their herd, they wander off and get into danger.
I was in rural south-west Scotland once, driving along a single track lane when all of a sudden a sheep burst through the hedge and right into the middle of the road. He’d lost his flock, and was in a blind panic, running in this direction and that. I wasn’t much help, I’m afraid, and just sat there wondering what to do until the shepherd, a short-tempered man in red truck, came along and literally threw the sheep in the back of the truck and muttering a few obscenities, drove off. Maybe one of the reasons that the writes of the New Testament make so much use of the image of the shepherd and his sheep, which of course comes from the Old Testament and other writings from the ancient world, is just this; because we can be just as liable to break free of our flock and to lose our way.
This is why our Eucharist services include our confession and the assurance of God’s absolution to us; we need to know that this is a place where the shepherd comes looking for us and welcomes us back into his flock. As for sheep not having individuality, again, if we listen carefully to John’s Gospel we hear that the shepherd knows each of them by name. Each one is distinct, each one is known and loved and cared for by him. Apparently, sheep know each other well, too; ewes distinguish between lambs’ bleats just like human mothers can pick out their baby’s cries, and it is often the ewes who will go looking for lambs that wander off. As the flock of God here, I hope that we offer each other that kind of attention and care.
There is so much in our readings today that could, and should inspire us as we think about what it means for us to have life, and to have it abundantly. That doesn’t mean that we never face any difficulties; Jesus says, a bit later on in John’s Gospel, quite clearly ‘In this world you will have trouble.’ He then goes on to say ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world.’ I suspect that part of having life in its abundance is knowing that the Jesus who has overcome the world is with us in the midst of our troubles.
I want to finish, though, by telling you the story of another break-in. Nearly four weeks ago now, a girls’ school in Borno State, Nigeria, was broken into and at least two hundred girls, aged between sixteen and eighteen who were due to sit exams, were abducted. Around thirty managed to escape; their whereabouts, and that of the girls who were abducted, is as yet still unknown. The words from this morning’s Gospel reading take on a chilling note; ‘the thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy.’
It has taken some time for this story to be heard in our news, and the ‘Bring Back our Girls’ campaign has gathered momentum on internet social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, leading to an international response and search effort. An exhaustive, full list of the names of the missing girls cannot be published, as there is still the suspicion that not all families have come forward to report their children missing. We do not know all their names, but Jesus does; he knows each one by name. The President of the Christian Association of Nigeria said this: “The Church in Nigeria is hereby called to a lamentation prayer. Every Christian home must raise a lamentation to heaven daily.”
Pray for them, pray for their safe return to their families. Pray that Jesus the good shepherd will send shepherds out to find these lost sheep. And pray for the peace and stability of our troubled world in which these things happen. May we, in our prayers and by our actions, like our Saviour, be gates by which the vulnerable ones of our world find places of refuge. Amen.