In my younger days, a voice would shriek upstairs to wake me up and get me out of bed. Why! I wanted to stay in the safety and comfort of my bedroom. If I’m honest, I still have days like that. Days where I just want to hide away and let the world pass me by while I take some time out. So why does Jesus, the Shepherd, call his sheep from safety inside the gate to follow him out into the unknown? He leads the sheep to find fresh water, to find green pastures and to ensure his sheep are fully nourished and grow into healthy members of his flock. We are called from our place of comfort to follow Jesus into new territory and as we do we are protected and loved by our Shepherd. Sometimes the path may be difficult, but if we follow his voice, we will be nourished and return to the safety of life in the gate. There is a time for comfort and a time to step out.
If only avoiding strangers was so easy. What was that phrase that was drummed into my head as a child: Don’t talk to strangers! Even if they offer some of the yummiest sweets, don’t take them. It’s a crucial message that children should learn. You can’t trust everyone. Why does John see this as an important message to pass on to Christian communities? Precisely because sometimes the stranger appears with a tempting message: follow the ways of the world, money and status are important, possessions show your worth, you have to look out for number one and before you know it you’ve strayed away from the message of Jesus. Those of us in the flock know the voice of our Shepherd and we listen to him to discover what’s important: community, caring for others, sacrifice, service, and ultimately love for others.
Wait a minute Jesus… I thought you were the Shepherd? Now you’re the gate? I could imagine one of the disciples saying that. Perhaps Thomas—he always gets a bad rep. But, of course, all this is imagery, metaphor, ways of understanding who God is. So what is John trying to tell us by retelling these words? That Jesus does whatever it takes to protect those who belong to him; that—despite those who wish to lead us astray, the powers that pull us into darkness—Jesus guards the flock and ensures our safety and wellbeing.
These were the first converts. They’d heard Peter preach, responded and were baptised. If you’d just setup your first group, you’d want them to go out and preach to others—get as many in as possible. But Luke tells us their priority was simple: learning the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, Holy Communion and praying. Disciples of Christ build their communities by learning and praying, spending time together and breaking bread with each other. A community that does this radiates the love of Christ to others—there’ll be no need to convince others to join, they’ll want to join with the love and goodness they see.
There’s those in the modern church who feel we should emulate the early church. That we should strip back our theology to a romanticised understanding of the past. Yet, whenever they proclaim this, they never focus upon the strong message of sell your possessions and live in community, giving what you have to those who need it. Luke, in his gospel and Acts, does not hold any punches in retelling the teachings of Jesus about possessions and how to treat the poor. It’s a challenge I think about daily. How can I be closer to the kind of disciple Jesus called by giving all I can to those who need it. John Wesley was incredibly hard on himself, sometimes sacrificing a meal so he could save the money to help others. There’s a balance to be found. What must I do to give what I can?
In these dark times, God is with us. That’s worth reflecting upon.