Caring for the sheep John 10: 11-18 1John 3: 16-24
What are sheep like?
Last week I was lucky enough to spend a day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It was a fantastic sunny day and I walked around the harbour, past the Castle and the Gertude Jekyll garden, along part of the coast, and back along the footpath called the Crooked Lodden… but nearly everywhere I went I had to walk through fields of sheep.
Most of them had lambs with them and I soon learned that the best way was to walk steadily and quietly if I was going to get past the sheep without disturbing them too much. Occasionally another walker would be less considerate, or would have a dog with them on a lead, and the sheep would run in wild-eyed panic, scattering in all directions, often ewes and lambs would be separated and great duets of baa-ing would break out until the sheep found each other and settled down again.
It occurred to me that if there was a real danger, if a wolf attacked for example, the sheep would certainly need help and protection – sheep are not good in a crisis.
Jesus’ listeners know how dependent the sheep of their day were on the shepherd – even more so than in ours. Their sheep were not fenced off in lush green fields like ours – they were out in the wilderness where crops couldn’t be grown, dependent on the shepherd to help them find food and water as well as to keep them safe from the many hungry wild animals.
So when Jesus calls himself ‘The Good Shepherd’ he is painting a picture of himself as the one who will care for and protect the sheep, leading them with his voice, and knowing each one by name. Unlike the hired hand, who doesn’t really care about the sheep and who will run away in the face of danger, Jesus is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.
Who are the sheep?
So far Jesus is painting a very positive, comforting picture of the care he is offering. But to whom is he offering his loving care?
Those listening to Jesus, his followers, are his sheep. Later on in this same chapter (10: 24) Jesus is asked by Pharisees ‘are you the Messiah?’ and he says to them ‘My deeds done in my father’s name are my credentials, but because you are not sheep of my flock you do not believe’. It may be that the Pharisees, who should be leading the people of God into a loving relationship with God, but who are failing the people, are the ‘hired hands’ Jesus talks about.
So Jesus is aware that not everyone to whom he speaks will follow him. But he also makes it clear that ‘There are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold’ – that there are other people to whom Jesus has come offering loving care, who at the moment are considered outsiders. The first examples of these outsiders in the early church were the Gentiles, non-Jews: originally that would have meant all of us.
But as we read this passage today I wonder how we feel?
We are now the insiders, we are safely in the fold, we can be assured that the love of the Good Shepherd is always there for us.
But does everyone feel like this?
Care for the outsider.
Or are there people even today who feel like outsiders in the church, who wonder whether it is for them? They are every bit as much the flock of Jesus as we are, even though they have yet to be brought into the fold.
How can we make those who feel like outsiders in the church feel welcomed and a part of the love of Jesus which we share?
The challenge for the church.
We may need to be ready to do things differently here, out of love for those who think differently to us.
I think this is part of what the first letter of John is talking about when he writes ‘Children, love must not be a matter of theory or talk, it must be true love which shows itself in action’ and ‘Christ gave his life for us. And we in our turn must give our lives for our fellow Christians.’
What does ‘giving our lives’ mean if it doesn’t mean literal martyrdom (which is unlikely to be demanded of us today)?
It can mean being prepared to change the way we do things for the sake of others, especially those who are outsiders, or who feel marginalised.
This may mean offering chances for prayer and worship other than on a Sunday morning; singing hymns or songs we don’t like ourselves, but recognising that someone else loves it!; putting up with a service that isn’t our ‘cup of tea’ for the sake of those who like that sort of thing; being always ready to be challenged by the Spirit to risk something different.
And if all that sounds a bit scary, don’t be like silly frightened sheep: listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling you by your name, reassuring you that God loves you and will always care for you. Come what may, we are safe in the arms of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And may all that we are and become as a church be to his praise & glory.