Whenever I have discussed being a Christian with young people, whether it has been in the classroom, the chaplaincy office or wherever, one of the assumptions that I often hear is that being a Christian means you have to stop enjoying yourself. Instead, you have to follow all the rules that tell you not to do this and not to do that. You can’t drink. You shouldn’t watch certain types of films. You can’t listen to Nikki Minaj. You shouldn’t say horrible things about other people on Snapchat. Watching Love Island is out. You…just…can’t…enjoy yourself!!! And young people are not the only people to hold this view – this has also come up in conversation with adults. There is a sense that following the Christian faith makes life that bit more dull and serious.
When I dug a little deeper with my students, it wasn’t simply that they were afraid they would have to stop enjoying themselves. It was (and you may have guessed it from the above examples) the fact that they couldn’t enjoy themselves if they did “bad” things. Moments that, for them, were examples of being free, living in the moment, having a good time, living on the edge and enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes with risk-taking. And not doing these things or to be seen not wanting to do them would make them very boring. And you would not be the kind of person with whom anyone would want to be friends. But going deeper again…it was also the fact that they didn’t like the idea of being told what to do. What young person does? And do any of us like being told what to do? No, we don’t. And I think, in all of this, there is a genuine fear that faith can stifle our enjoyment of life.
But their fears about our faith being primarily about do’s and don’t’s is not without foundation. Whenever I have run evangelisation programmes in churches, I have heard so many older people talk about how their experience of faith was one of fear of God or the Church rather than an experience of a loving relationship with God. And this has broken my heart. When they do have an experience of God’s love through these programmes, they can’t believe how different they feel. One lady, who was eighty-seven years old, said to me: “I can’t believe I have never felt this way about God.” She was unburdened, uplifted and set free. She was filled with life and life to the full…and she still is today.
BUT…and there is a but. Yes, our faith does require us to change our behaviour. We just can’t do whatever we want. Jesus’s first word, when he began to preach, was “Repent.” In other words, change your life. So yes, there is a need to follow rules or guidance.
However, it is all about perspective. And the perspective that can help anyone with the above assumptions was found in yesterday’s gospel. And it involves a gate. Yes, a gate…please keep reading! Yesterday’s Gospel can be found here:
In Palestine, during Jesus’ time, sheep were treated somewhat differently than they are in the UK today. Here, sheep are largely kept for killing, but in Palestine, they were kept mainly for their wool. This meant that sheep could be with their shepherd for quite a number of years. And of course, the shepherd got to know their sheep and vice-versa. Added to this, the sheep would always respond to their shepherd’s voice and would never follow a stranger.
Now, during the warm seasons in Palestine, flocks of sheep that were out on the hills rarely returned at night to the village. Instead, the shepherd would bring them together into sheepfolds on the hillside. These were often open spaces enclosed by a wall. So the sheep entered the sheepfold through an opening but there was no gate.
However, this is the important part. At night, the shepherd himself lay down across the opening and acted as the gate. No sheep could get out without crossing over him. He, literally, was the gate. And this is what Jesus is trying to say about himself in the gospel.
But why does the shepherd lie across the opening for the sheep? If we use the sentiments behind the above assumptions of the students, he is trying to “keep them in” or “not let them escape.” Quite negative assumptions. But there is another perspective. Instead, the shepherd is trying to protect his own. He is stopping them getting out because they might get lost, be killed by a fox or stolen by someone. And he is also stopping any animals getting in to attack the sheep. In other words, the sheep are safe and secure with the shepherd acting as their gate. And this shepherd leads the sheep to pasture every day – to the best areas of grass that will feed, nourish and help the sheep grow. And, as a result, they will be safe and saved.
Jesus also refers to thieves and robbers who try to steal, kill and destroy. There are so many things about our world that I love, but there are so many things we find in our world that does what these thieves will try to do. How many people have had their self-esteem stolen by the pressures to conform to the stereotypes portrayed on social media? How many people have had their lives destroyed by alcohol or drug abuse? How many people have been killed as a result of fighting, bullying, unprovoked attacks, bombings and war? How many children, women and men have been stolen and sold into slavery? How many communities have been destroyed by the political gambling and game-playing of politicians? How many have been killed in the name of religion and ethnicity? The list could go on.
My response to the young people I have encountered is that our faith is led by a shepherd who wishes to protect us from what can harm us most. This shepherd wants to decide what comes in and goes out of our lives – not to oppress us, not to stop us making our own decisions, not to stop us enjoying ourselves, but to protect us from all those things in our lives that might steal, destroy or kill. But more than that – so that we can have life and life to overflowing! And that is a good shepherd.
Maybe as we begin this week, we can take a look at our own lives. Are there things that steal a part of our identity, that regularly destroys something of us, that kills any dreams or hopes or love that is left in us? These could be situations, people, places or events. What would it be like to allow Jesus to be the gate, the one who decides who and what comes in and out of our lives? A scary thought – we might suddenly feel that old fear of not being free any more or of having to follow rules.
But we must keep in mind the image of the shepherd lying across the opening of the sheepfold – to protect his sheep so as to save their lives. This is the image of God that Jesus presents – a shepherd who is not only willing to protect us but a shepherd who is willing to give his life up for us. And if we take the risk, we will have more enjoyment in life than we could ever imagine.
You might find this song helpful in allowing you to reflect on these questions.