Saturday, 28 April 2012

Easter 4 Good Shepherd

Jesus the Good Shepherd
John 10: 11-18, 1 John 3: 16-24

 I wonder how you feel about being likened to sheep. Because if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, surely we are the sheep. Somehow that doesn’t feel like a compliment. Having just returned from Northern Ireland, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with sheep. There are most definitely more sheep than people in the Irish countryside: and very lovely the sheep and lambs looked. But they’re not bright, are they, sheep.? As a friend of mine once heard a Yorkshire farmer put it “You see, sheep are not as clever as they like to think they are”. They are easily spooked by sudden noises, easily misled into wandering off by just following the others, difficult to keep together and safe in the pen.

 The more I see sheep, the more I think people are just like them in so many ways. And believe me, a group of ministers (which is who I was in Northern Ireland with) are as capable of behaving like daft sheep as anyone else! So we all need a good shepherd – we need rounding up, being cared for, being tended.

Jesus’ listeners knew 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. I’ve seen sheep in this country get themselves into some tangles even in this relatively safe environment. But in 1st century Palestine the sheep were 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.

 Whatever else we may do or not do as Christians – whatever we try to do as a church, or as individuals, wherever we may wander or stray, Jesus is clear. He is the Good Shepherd. If we listen for his voice, if we follow him, if we accept his love and care, no real harm can ever come to us. However silly, however scatty, however distracted we are, he will love and care for us and the whole purpose of our lives is that we must follow him.

 So we need to forget feeling insulted at being likened to sheep, and learn to rejoice in the fact that we have a Good Shepherd, and learn to listen for his voice and learn to follow him more closely. And part of following Jesus is to have a concern for one another – and not just those safe within these walls, but all the people of this world, for whom Jesus gave his life.

 Jesus 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 there are people even today who feel like outsiders in the church, who wonder whether it is for them. They may wonder if they’re good enough…

But Jesus says that they are every bit as much part of 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 writer of the first letter of John writes ‘Children, love must not be a matter of theory or talk, it must be true love which shows itself in action’. That action can mean going out of our way to invite someone to worship. It can mean getting involved with our community in different ways, to show that we care about them. It can mean being prepared to change the way we do things for the sake of others, especially those who are outsiders.

 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. Amen.

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