Text: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
Whenever this Sunday rolls around, however, I can’t help but remember a news article I read several years ago. The story was about some shepherds in Turkey. Several families watched their sheep together. One day, they left the flock to graze as they sat down for breakfast. As they watched, a sheep walked over the edge of a cliff, falling to its death. Then, the rest of the flock followed. 1500 sheep leapt from the edge of the cliff, plummeting down to the bottom. The first sheep all died, of course, but after about the first 450, the rest survived as their fall was cushioned by the ones who hadn’t.
That sheep mentality is why we continue to use up resources at an unsustainable rate, even as we choke on the waste we create; it’s why we can’t seem to escape the tug of institutional racism; why we still haven’t solved hunger or poverty or end war. Try as we might, we continue to find ourselves following things that just keep killing us.
When Jesus says that he comes that we may have life, and have it abundantly, that is not just good news, that is life-saving news. It is the kind of news that can compel someone to sell their property and give away the proceeds, the way people did in Acts. He has come to help us escape the self-destruction upon which we are bent, to turn us back from the cliff to return to the green pastures where we may graze, and to lead us safely into the fold where we can find peace. The Church in Acts 2 experienced this abundant life, and it was so amazing that day by day their numbers grew, swelling with people who saw God’s vision for reality and recognizing it for what it was.
But the Church in Acts 2 wasn’t perfect. This is chapter 2, not chapter 20. It’s where they started. Not unlike Eden, they began where God intended, but quickly lost that as they got mired in arguments about whose job it was to feed the widows and whether Gentiles could be a part of God’s family. In short, they fell into the same trap we are always falling into: we are always more interested in serving our own interests and maintaining our own privilege than we are with following our shepherd wherever he may lead us, and so we are always liable to run headlong off a cliff.
With all the voices calling us in different directions, it can be difficult to discern which ones to listen to. It’s easy to give in to following the rest of the flock, going with the status quo, even if it means heading directly for our destruction. It’s so much easier to just keep living the way we do than it is to give up driving or stop using plastic packaging or boycotting companies that don’t treat their workers well. It’s so much more tempting to eat the food that clogs our arteries and overtaxes our resources than it is to live sustainably and harmoniously with our world. For Pete’s sake, we can’t even give up our enormous weekly worship bulletins to reduce our impact on our environment!
As all these different voices call to us, Jesus offers us a way to tell them apart. The ones that care about us, he says, come and go through the gate. Those are the things that lead us to abundant life and safety. That may seem obvious, but so often it is not. Although the gate is made for us, it leads us down a hard path. Outside the gate is the hill of Calvary. To get to the verdant pastures we seek, we cannot avoid the place of self-sacrifice and death. In our scramble to avoid these things, we are all too willing to follow the strange voices that promise us another way, an “easier” way over the back wall or through the hole in the fence.
Ironically, these strange voices’ only aim is to steal and kill and destroy. They are nothing but bandits and thieves, kidnapping God’s sheep for their own gain. The gate through which our good shepherd brings us goes through Calvary, but it continues through the empty tomb to the green pastures and still waters of God’s promised reign. The gate is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. He is the one who reveals to us the Good Shepherd who leads us to abundant life, and unmasks the beautiful but terrible enemies who would use us up and lead us over the cliff’s edge.
Leading up to this shepherd speech that Jesus makes is the story of the man who was born blind. Jesus healed his blindness, but that was only the beginning of his story. With his sight restored, he slowly began to see more and more that Jesus was the one who could offer him hope. Even though it put him at odds with his neighbors and separated him from his parents and even got him excommunicated from his synagogue, the man found family and community and security with Jesus. He was reborn of the Spirit, becoming a child of God, born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of a man, but of God. Although his parents and his community and his leaders abandoned him, he found abundant life in God’s family, a family that he will never lose.
In that story, Jesus was the gate, revealing who in the man’s life cared for him and who only cared about themselves. “I came into the world for judgement,” Jesus says, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” This is the promise of the gospel, the promise of Easter, the promise of our Good Shepherd: that he has come to pass judgement on this broken world of ours. Those who cannot see any hope in our situation, no possibility of good pasture, will see where the Shepherd is leading us, and those who do see, who look for the gaps in the fence through which we might slip to get there will be made blind, utterly dependent on the same Shepherd for guidance.
As the story of Acts continues, we see the Church beset by conflicts and torn by division, but through it all, they see the joy and the glory of God time and time again. This is the glory of Easter, the glory of the risen Christ. It is the glory that shines through the battered and broken Church to give the world a glimpse of the abundant life that God promises for all humankind, all creation. When we see that glory, we can no longer follow the voices of the idols that promise us an easier way, because that glory reveals them for what they are: thieves and bandits, bent on destruction. In the glory of God, we hear our Master’s voice, and follow where he would lead us: to abundant life.
Easter is our promise that although the path that leads from the gate is hard, it is ultimately our salvation. When we follow our own ways, when we listen to voices other than Jesus’, we will always end up like the flock of sheep that poured over the edge of that Turkish cliff. Destruction awaits us; but hey, at least we’ll enjoy the trip, right? Instead of blindly following the flock, we have a Good Shepherd who will bring us out to pasture, and who leads us home again to safety. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. Just as on that first Easter morning when he encountered Mary in the garden, he continues to call us be name, and we hear and know his voice.