Apologies, forgot to post this one...
Easter 4 (2009) Year C RCL Principal
Shepherd and sheep
April has been, for me, a time of reflection and looking back at the last 6 months or so of my life and the life of these Parishes. The first Easter a minister gets to spend in his or her Parishes is a very important one, not only for the obvious reasons regarding what we all believe about Easter, but because the way we celebrate Easter reflects who and what we are as Christians in these fellowships of which we are a part.
So the celebration of Easter left me feeling tired, but very happy. Our celebrations were well attended, they were friendly and they were joyful. With the Annual Parochial Church Meetings that took place at around the same time I have had a time when I have given thanks both to God and to the many people who work so hard, and often without the thanks they deserve. to keep our Parishes not just going, but growing.
As I’ve said before, on the arrival of a new incumbent and there is some change in our Parishes and there has been over the past few months, and I have been pleased with all that we have achieved. There is so much to give thanks for, and so many good things happening in the Five Alive Mission Community. At the same time there have been hard choices to be made, and there will be more as we seek the best way in which to serve the Parishes which our Churches are placed in – and that brings me to the readings which we have for today.
Our faith should face us with some hard choices. 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.
I used to have a lecturer who said he disliked the word pastoral because he didn’t consider himself a shepherd and his congregation weren’t sheep. The fact he didn’t like the term ‘pastor’ made the fact that he taught Pastoral Studies quite confusing – but there we are. I have to say that I am happy with the idea of pastoring as it reminds me that we all have a tendency to be like sheep, and we need the guidance of a shepherd.
The teaching of the Church has been, and indeed is, that Christ is the shepherd and that we all are the sheep, but that within the Church authority is given through the orders of ministry to some to take on a little of Christ’s rôle as shepherd – namely Bishops, Priests and Deacons. This does not for one minute make any of us more important that other Christians, but recognises that, through God’s grace, leadership can be exercised within the Church. But we remember that it is Christ who is our good shepherd and all gifts and responsibilities come from him.
This leads us to our passage from the Gospel of St John which we are given for today. Jesus says very clearly that we are his sheep, and that we hear his voice. But that poses the question – how often do we hear his voice, and when he speaks do we listen.
Sheep are notably wilful and stupid creatures, I’m told. They are easily distracted and often get themselves into a fix whilst seeking out that extra juicy looking bit of grass or plant. In the time that Jesus lived he would have seen shepherds who lived with their sheep out on the hills and who devoted their whole lives to the care of these clueless animals. He reminds us that he is like that, willing to give of himself to keep us safe.
But 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. In the verses we have from John’s Gospel we see Jesus becoming impatient with those who refuse to see who he is and to believe in what he is. John’s Gospel begins with a statement that offers no doubt as to the identity of Jesus – that the is the human manifestation of the word that brought all life into being. Throughout the Gospel Jesus is constantly offering signs of his nature and power, as well as unequivocal statements about who he is – all of the I AM statements come from John’s Gospel (I am the vine, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd etc etc). Yet there are still some who refuse to believe, who refuse to see the relationship Jesus has with his Father in heaven and who refuse to listen to him.
Of course the author or authors of St John’s Gospel don’t just recount these stories as interesting events in the life of Jesus – those who are unbelievers are included in the stories in order to encourage us to be believers, not to emulate the sceptics, the awkward, the ignorant, but to be faithful and learn to listen and obey the voice of the good shepherd. These stories are here to challenge and inspire us, they demand that we make the choice – that we either accept or reject Jesus.
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, even the ones we haven’t had read to us, 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. And in that he can even bring life out of death.
Perhaps we feel that we need some of that strength and power for ourselves in our Christian lives, perhaps we feel we need it in our Churches. 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 and Psalms for today to make a choice. We are encouraged to choose Christ and to choose life.
Whatever we do, we must choose life.