S. Easter 4.17 “Gladiator Revisited” John 10:1-10
“And the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.” In a much beloved mini-parable on how He is the Good Shepherd, Jesus paints a lovely picture—which the disciples did not understand. At all. We have to be clear on this. We (think) we get the picture of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. We are the sheep, and He tends, nurtures, and leads us to green pastures, beside still waters. He restores our soul. Beautiful. Oodles of hymns can and have been written on this theme—as you, no doubt, have noticed, and will notice this morning. Much loved hymns.
But the disciples who first heard this did not get it. “He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” And the disciples are like “Huh? What in the world are you talking about, Jesus!” Is this a parable? We can’t be like sheep, because shepherds we know keep sheep only to lead them to slaughter, right?
And we’re like “how dumb were these guys? Were these guys really going to be pastors? I mean, if you can’t even get that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we His sheep and this is all good, like a picnic in the Lake District, green fields, cool water? That’s like Christianity 101.How can they not get this?” Well, I’m not sure they’re entirely wrong, thinking Jesus leads through a dark valley, the shadow of death and darker and more dangerous situations.
Are we sure we really get it so much better? Have we really grasped the picture Jesus is painting here? I would like to persuade you the picture Jesus paints is less like Ps. 23’s green fields, still waters, picnic by the lake, and more like, well more like the last scene in the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, where Maximus who went from general to slave to gladiator ends up dying in the Roman arena, stabbed in the back literally, a less heartwarming scene than is usually conjured this Sunday.
And you’re like “What? Pastor! It’s Good Shepherd Sunday! It’s not Gladiator Sunday! Russell Crowe films don’t come into this at all!” And that’s where I’m going to argue that your not getting how Gladiator fits so well here might be a sign you don’t get Jesus any better than the first disciples—in fact, maybe not as well, because at least the first disciples knew that they didn’t understand it, while you are quite sure you do understand. In this, you might be worser!
“OK. I like Gladiator as much as the next guy, Pastor, but I say no way you can pull this rabbit out of your hat. No way you can convince me that Jesus is leading His sheep into the arena to die heroically (and to a very moving musical score) like Russell Crowe! No way! I’m saying Ps. 23 baby. That’s the picture Jesus is leading us to. You’ve got a steep hill to climb to prove otherwise.”
And thank you for your skepticism! It only makes my job more interesting, and at the last, more satisfying when I actually produce the promised rabbit. So, hold on to your hats. We’ve got a fair bit of ground to cover and only like six and a half minutes left to cover it in…
Thieves and robbers. Let’s start there. Jesus says all who came before Him were thieves and robbers and the robber/thief “does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” Jesus says that. And means it. And that sounds more Gladiator right there, doesn’t it? Killing and destroying? “Yeah, but that’s what thieves and robbers do, not Jesus. You’re no closer to convincing me that we’re being led to the arena like Maximus in Gladiator than like a sheep to a green meadow with a quiet stream like in Psalm 23!”
OK. I get you. But you at least see there is some athleticism here that you weren’t noticing very much before. This is a start. Look at verse 4. Jesus says when the real Shepherd (and there is only one: remember, all who came before Him were thieves and robbers) when He brings out His sheep, He goes before them and the sheep follow Him. Now, simple question: where did Jesus go after He said these things? Did He go to a quiet meadow with green grass and a gently flowing stream and hang out with His disciples in a perfect pastoral scene? Uh, no; He did not. (The feeding of the 5,000 was 4 chapters before this… 🙂
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to die on a cross when He speaks these words! In fact, He’s already in Jerusalem and has just healed the man born blind and ticked off everyone by doing so. And after He finishes the Good Shepherd discourse, you know what happens? Renewed efforts to stone Jesus to death (with rocks, not Colorado’s state crop:-)! And Jesus has to hide out, but comes back to Jerusalem, raises Lazarus from the dead, rides a week or two later in on a donkey and gets nailed to a cross. That’s where Jesus is leading when He speaks these words! Reading in context. So important!
“When He brings out His sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him…” This is where Jesus is going: to death on a cross and three day’s rest in the grave. And that’s where we’ll get to—if we follow Him(!). Which actually sounds just like Maximus’ journey in Gladiator. It ends stabbed in the back, fighting with his dying breath an evil emperor, and dying there as friends and colleagues mourn. But remember that’s not the very end of this scene for Maximus? It actually ends with the gate in the wall opening, with fields of gold, reunited with wife and child, living in a much better world than he’d left. There’s your bunny!
Yes, the green fields and quiet waters are indeed in the picture. But only as the result of following Jesus to the cross and tomb. That comes first. That’s where Jesus is leading when He speaks these words and this is why the disciples are not understanding. Subconsciously, they don’t want to! Because then, they’d have to face some hard truths. Just like we do, but, in the end don’t like to, not very much…
But the 12 who were so clueless throughout the Gospels, in the book of Acts get it together. And they do follow Jesus. And they are killed—horribly most of them, beaten up first. But they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of the Name! Peter will say—as they are nailing him to his own cross—“Hey! Turn me upside down; for I am not worthy to die in exactly the same manner as my Lord!” It would be too much honor, too much glory, too much to hope for… 🙂
So, see: Peter ends up just like Maximus, only better! Dying—painfully, horribly—and yet so bravely no one can look at the sight with entirely dry eyes, because they know: Peter sees this as a great promotion. He sees the green fields that never fade, the crown of glory that never goes away…
Gladiator Revisited. Just so, we follow the Shepherd into such arenas, to such a certain death—believing the cross is a portal leading to that country we have never yet visited but recognize as our true home. See? Good Shepherd Sunday is a whole lot more like Gladiator than you thought! We’ll work on the bulletin cover for next year. And until then, we hear His Voice, and follow Jesus, all the way; till Peace, surpassing all understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.