Easter 4 (2007) Year C RCL Principal
In the songs that we sing in Sunday club and in our all-age services we sing a lot about animals, and a lot about what kind of Animals we’d like to be. There’s lots to do with ‘strong as a lion’ or ‘graceful as a bird’. There’s the great chorus ‘If I were a butterfly’ which contains the wonderful line ‘if I were a fuzzy-wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord for my Fuzzy-wuzzy hair’.
Anyway, the natural world has often inspired Christians to write hymns or poems that use images of animals to describe our human characteristics. But no-one, as far as I know, has ever written a song called ‘if I were a fluffy sheep’. Sheep are not the most inspiring of creatures, in lots of ways, for most people, but they remain an enduring image in the Bible, and are particularly used to talk about the believer, the one who seeks to follow God, as a sheep follows a shepherd.
The shepherds I know, and we have a few in our Congregations, are very fond of their sheep, they know them each individually and they care about them. It is a revelation to me that sheep have personalities and are all individuals, but my experience with dogs was the same, my two dogs are very individual and have their own characteristics and ways of doing things – so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that sheep are the same, each one different.
This should be one of the reassuring things about our reading for today. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which is how he describes himself, then he knows us all individually. Christianity is a Faith within which all called to be themselves, as Christians we are not all called to be the same, to look and act and think identically. We are called to be one body, but within that body we all have our part (no pun intended). God loves who we are, and we believe that he wants us to be ourselves, not some abstract idea of a super-Christian, part of a herd of identical believers. Each one of us has our own gifts, our own purpose, our own personality which is a gift from God.
Indeed, as strong part of the Christian journey is about finding out who we are and what gifts we have. This is something that is tied up with God calling us all to be active in our Christian lives. We are not the passive recipients of faith, we are, the Bible says, to work together using the gifts God has given us in order that we may bring in God’s kingdom.
Another thing about the shepherds I know is that they are very pragmatic about caring for sheep and are willing to do jobs which are unpleasant – worming, de-lousing, trimming feet, even putting sheep down – for the sake of the whole flock and to continue their livelihood.
In the same way the Good Shepherd is the one to whom we can turn when life is difficult. There is nothing that we need be afraid to share in our prayers. Christ, the Good Shepherd, knows all that we are going through, and there is no need for embarrassment, shame or fear when we come to him in prayer. God is all in all and is with us in all that we do, if we are weighed down with troubles and doubts, then God will help us carry the load and will walk with us, even through the valley of death.
The image of the Good Shepherd is not just about the surface image that many of us have about sheep. The image of sheep, all the same, needing leadership and clear guidance. Like so many of the images and symbols of scripture there is much more to this potent image than that.
God respects and loves who we are, he knows our strengths and our weaknesses, he allows us to make our own choices, our own mistakes. One of the marks of a shepherd is that they often leave sheep alone for much of the time, allowing them to live their own lives, to get on with things themselves – yet if there is difficulty, disease or disaster the shepherd is there, protecting, guiding, helping.
Though we believe that God is always with us, he does not manipulate or forces us to live lives by his own pattern, he allows us to get on with our lives and will guide and help us if we are open to him. In our Gospel reading for today we have the wonderful saying ‘I know my own and my own know me’. We are known and loved by God, it is our task, our highest calling, to know God and to get to know God more and more.
In our busy world, so full of distractions, it can be difficult to know what is right and what is wrong, to know what is from God and what is the influence of society, or the trends or passing fads of contemporary thought. The only way to know God is in our lives of prayer, in our study of Scripture and in learning about our Christian Faith in our Churches and with other Christians – it is only in this way that we can know God and know God’s care and guidance for each one of us.
So, as with so many situations in the Christian life, we are given both comfort and a challenge. The comfort of being known and loved by God, and the challenge of growing in our knowledge and love of God.
The passage we heard about the Good Shepherd should challenge us. Jesus pulls no punches when he demands our allegiance – we are to give ourselves wholly to him. We are like sheep, we need to give ourselves over to the care of the shepherd and allow him to guide us where we need to go – or it won’t be long before we wander off and become lost – God is gracious and will rescue us, but that’s another story.
In order that we might be kept safe we have a choice to make, will we listen? Will we take heed? Or are we so concerned with what I want, with the way I want to go, that no cajoling from the shepherd is going to make us do what we should.
What are we going to do?
This willingness to obey must be at the very centre of our Christian life. Are we willing to lay aside our own self-will and embrace the rôle of a follower of Christ, a servant of God?
So we are faced with a challenge, with a demand. But we are also offered in today’s readings the other side of the Christian life – the touch of grace and God’s gentleness. Psalm 23, that wonderful well-known Psalm reminds us that the Lord is a shepherd to us, that when we do listen to him he leads us to pleasant places, he accompanies us through the worst parts of life and death, that he will bring us to a place of rejoicing and celebration. This is a reminder that obedience to God pays dividends, that we don’t indulge in this servanthood that Christ calls us to for the sake of suffering, but that through it we grow to be those who God can use, in whom the Holy Spirit can work and live and grow. We become those who in being drawn closer to God enjoy all the rewards of the life on offer from God.
And God will work in us, if we will open ourselves to him and listen to his voice. The message is clear, in order to bring about that kind of miracle we need faith, we need to pray and we need to be listening to our good shepherd.
We are encouraged in our Bible readings for today to make a choice. We are encouraged to choose Christ and to choose life.
Whatever we do, we must choose life.