Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to journey through Acts and the story of the earliest days of the Church. Events happen fast but soon after Peter proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection the community asked what they must do. Peter then told them they must repent and be baptized. Only then will they received Jesus’ forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. About three thousand were added that day. John’s Gospel describes a parable about sheep. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate is a thief. But the shepherd enters through the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate and the shepherd leads the sheep into the sheepfold. The sheep will follow the shepherd but will not follow a stranger. Jesus said this knowing the Pharisees did not recognize that they were the thieves. Jesus then claimed to be both the gate and the shepherd. The thieves came only to steal, but Jesus came “so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Sheep again? Really? Several times Jesus uses the imagery of sheep and shepherds, and it made sense at the time. At the time, while not everybody herded sheep, everyone would have known how it was done. But in the last 2,000 years we’ve lost this close connection. And while I enjoy eating lamb I know next to nothing about how they are cared for, or even what shepherds do. I’m guessing many of you are in the same boat.
Fortunately I was able to do some basic research. Sheep need to move as they are grazers and once they eat all the grass in one area, they need to find grass elsewhere. The shepherds keep the sheep together and prevent any of them from wandering off. At night the sheep need to be moved into a pen, or sheepfold. This ensures that they will not be eaten by wolves. Sheep are adorable and delicious, but they are dumb. Left to their own devices they would wander off, oblivious to the dangers they face.
As a matter of fact, it takes two humans to transfer them into the pen: the shepherd and the gatekeeper. Presumably the gatekeeper opens the gate and ensures none of them escape while the shepherd moves the stragglers in. But there is no grass in the pen. They can’t stay outside the pen overnight lest they be eaten, but they can’t stay in the pen forever because they will starve.
Now we get to the part that troubles me, and perhaps you. Jesus is pretty clear that he is both the shepherd and the gate: that makes us the sheep. I’m happily willing to admit that I live my best self as a disciple of Jesus, and that God’s foolishness is greater that our wisdom, but I get stuck on that word “dumb.” And even though Jesus does not specifically call the sheep dumb, everyone back then knew they were.
This is probably a good time to place the Gospel in some context. Previous to this reading Jesus healed the man born blind and infuriated the Pharisees. They demanded to know if Jesus accused them of being blind.
Jesus responded by calling them thieves and robbers. He explained that only the true shepherd comes through the gate and the sheep recognize him. I think we can assume that anyone who climbs into the pen means to steal the sheep (and in our day clergy who attempt to lure members away from another church to theirs are criticized and the practice is called “sheep stealing”).
But this type of sheep stealing requires that the sheep remain dumb. When Jesus says: “All who came before me are thieves and robbers” he was calling out the Pharisees. I’ve spoken of this before, but the Pharisees were the learned men and everyone else depended on them to interpret the Scriptures. And while they made rulings they didn’t really teach. As long as they had a steady supply of people in need of their wisdom, they enjoyed status and a living. They got to stay smart, and everyone else stayed dumb. As long as the sheep stayed in the pen, all was right for the Pharisees. But it also meant they needed to ensure the sheep stay in the pen, at least at night. They couldn’t steal the sheep during the day as the the sheep were protected by the shepherds. They could only do their work at night.
This is the lens through which I want us to explore the first reading from Acts. Since Easter we’ve been reading about how the earliest days of the church showed the disciples living in harmony. Today we read the very beginnings of what we now call “the cost of discipleship.” Peter spoke about the need for repentance and baptism, and the “payoff” for this comes in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
And the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives leads us, all of us, out of the pen. Many of us remember memorizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom is one of them. The opposite of dumb isn’t smart, but instead it is wise. Unwrapping the gift of wisdom doesn’t make us smart in the sense that we will win big money on the TV game show Jeopardy or unlock the mysteries of Apple’s Cloud backup. But it will give us an understanding of how we navigate a world of robbers, thieves, and wolves. There is great value in being smart, but smart has limits. Smart doesn’t give us appreciation of how to live our lives or how to interact with others. Smart isn’t a gift of the Holy Spirit because intelligence comes from learning facts. Smart may give us an understanding of how the universe works, but wisdom gives us an understanding of how the Kingdom of God works. A smart person may understand the difference between the carnivores wolves, the greedy Pharisees, and the grazing sheep, but wisdom gives us the understanding that we need to cling to the shepherd and avoid those who would lead us astray.
Jesus tells us he is both the gate and the shepherd because wisdom removes the need for a gatekeeper. It liberates us from the sheep pen and gives us the tools we need not to wander off into danger. When we speak of our journey of faith or staying on the “straight and narrow” it means that following Jesus liberates us from the danger of straying into danger.
It means we’re not dumb sheep.