Sunday 25 May 2014

Looking forward to Ascension & Pentecost

Address given at St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick on 25th May - the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A - for Sung Matins, rite 1

1. For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Joc Sanders, and I come from Nenagh.
·         It is a very great privilege for me to be invited to lead you in worship here today in this magnificent ancient cathedral. I love the traditional language of rite 1 - for me, and for many of you I’m sure, it takes me back to childhood – it has a deep resonance. And how wonderfully the singing of the choir and the organ accompaniment enhances our worship – we are blessed by it, and on your behalf I thank them for it! It is all part of the rich heritage of our Church which gives us so much to be grateful for.
·         Another part of this rich heritage is the church calendar and lectionary, which we have inherited from the undivided Catholic church of ancient times. It leads us through the year in an unending cycle, to reflect on the story of our salvation. This is the 6th and last Sunday of Easter. We continue to celebrate the central event of our faith, the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
·         But today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 14:15-21) leads us to look forward, to peek over the horizon so to speak, toward the great events of the Ascension - which we will celebrate on Thursday - and Pentecost in 2 weeks time - when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit which Jesus promised us.
·         The reading is just a small part of Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples. John sets the scene as after the last supper. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet to teach them his example of service. He knows how things will play out. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray him to the authorities, who will arrest and execute him. Time is short for Jesus to prepare his followers for what must come, so his words are dense with meaning. Let me reflect on what they mean to me.

2.       ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you’, says Jesus.
·         Even as Jesus endures Judas’s betrayal and waits to be taken to his death, he puts aside his own distress to comfort his disciples. He loves them. He will not desert them. And he promises he will continue to be present for them, whatever befalls.
·          ‘In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me’, he says. The Gospels tell us the risen Christ appeared to the disciples between the Resurrection and his Ascension, when he returned to his Father - they experienced his presence physically. But I do not think this is what Jesus means here. Jesus is looking beyond the day of Ascension, up to our own time and beyond. Throughout the ages Christians continue to experience Jesus’s reassuring presence, as friend and brother, saviour and redeemer. As Matthew (28:20) tells us, Jesus said, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. Jesus is alive for us.
·         ‘Because I live, you also will live’, says Jesus. We live – we can be fully human as God wants us to be – because we know, as Jesus tells us, ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’.

3.       ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.
·           Jesus promises his disciples they will receive the gift of another Advocate - ‘the Spirit of truth’, the Holy Spirit - to teach and support them as a mentor. As we read in Acts, they did indeed receive the Spirit, on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit led them to go out boldly, declaring their belief in Christ, to make disciples of others. The disciples they made in turn received the Spirit and did the same, and so on - down through the years, the centuries, the millennia. Christians continue to be inspired by the Spirit to this day. The result is the Church we know, in all the glorious variety of our traditions. The Spirit will be with us for ever, Jesus promises, helping us to discern the truth.
·           Notice, Jesus asks the Father to send the Spirit. He does not ask him to send scripture – not the Gospels, not the letters of Paul, nor any other scripture. The primary gift Jesus asks for us from the Father is the Spirit, the Spirit of truth. Scripture is secondary – while we believe it is divinely inspired, we must also believe that we need the Spirit of truth to help us interpret it and come to discern the truth.
·         The disciples recognised the Spirit when they felt it working in them and saw its effects in others. So can we. ‘You know (the Spirit)’, says Jesus, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’.

4.        ‘If you love me’, says Jesus, ‘you will keep my commandments’.
·         We need to take these words very seriously, I think. Jesus loves his disciples, but not in any soppy, sentimental way. His love demands obedience from his disciples. Just as loving parents demand obedience of small children, so that they do not run in front of cars, or burn or electrocute themselves.
·         ‘Those who love me will be loved by my Father’, continues Jesus, ‘and I will love and reveal myself to them’. We cannot expect to feel the loving presence of Jesus, nor the love of God the Father, unless we are obedient.
·         But just what are these commandments of Jesus? We surely need the continuing help of the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to enlighten us. But scripture is pretty clear on the bones of it, I think.
o           Matthew (22:36-40) tells us that when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
o           And John (13:34) tells us that Jesus says shortly before today’s reading, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.
·         If we follow these 3 commandments, I don’t think we can go too far wrong. But we need the help of the Spirit to do so. And when we fail, as we surely will from time to time, we need to seek the forgiveness that God freely offers to those who are truly penitent.

5.       So to finish, I hope you will take 3 things away from my words today:
·         1st, as we celebrate Ascension Day on Thursday, let us give thanks for the continuing reassuring presence of Jesus, our friend and brother, our saviour and redeemer.
·         2nd, as we look forward to Pentecost in 2 weeks time, let us give thanks that the Spirit ,which the Father gave us at Jesus’s request, will continue to lead us to discern his truth.

·         And 3rd, let us pray that the Spirit may guide us to keep Jesus’s commandments: to love God, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to love one another as he loves us, so that we may know the loving presence of Jesus and the love of his Father.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Sheep & Shepherds

‘The sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice’,
… says Jesus, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (John 10:1-10).

I don't know about you, but these words always used to puzzle me. It just didn’t chime with my own experience.

I used help move sheep on my Grandfather’s farm as a child. Those sheep certainly didn’t recognise anyone’s voice, let alone mine aged 12! You couldn’t lead them. In fact it was the divil’s own job to stop them charging off the wrong way. We stood in gaps, we waved our hands and we hunted them as best we could to their new field of fresh grass, but they just wouldn’t follow! Surely, I thought, shepherds in Jesus’s time must have had a very different relationship with their sheep to us.

But then some years ago a wise farmer explained it to me. He was amused by my difficulty moving sheep. ‘I never have any difficulty getting my sheep to follow me’, he said. ‘I just carry a bag of meal with me, and they come running.’

There’s more than one way for a shepherd to lead his sheep - the sheep follow the shepherd they know will feed them!

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing’.
So begins the 23rd Psalm we read earlier. We all love it, don’t we?. It is such a favourite because it is so filled with comforting images of God caring for us and keeping us safe.

This metaphor of the shepherd runs right through Hebrew scripture – our Old Testament - hardly surprising, because the Israelites were a pastoral people.

God is often likened to a shepherd in the scriptures, as in Psalm 23, or as Isaiah put it beautifully (Isaiah 40:11): “(The Lord God)  will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

But Ezekiel 34:2 applies the metaphor to the leaders of Israel, in a great indictment for their bad leadership and corruption: “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”  They are bad shepherds. The same indictment might be made of some of the great and powerful of our society!

Jesus chooses to use the same metaphor in today’s reading.
It is the first part of a longer parable about his relationship with his disciples. In the very next verse, which the lectionary keeps for another day, Jesus continues “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is lovely and familiar, isn’t it? We have all seen the pictures of the strong self-reliant country man keeping his little flock safe from harm, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock on his shoulders.

In the rugged Judean countryside sheep had to be kept in a sheepfold at night to prevent them straying into the crops, and to protect them from wild animals and rustlers. In the two halves of the passage we have just heard, Jesus is probably talking about two different kinds of sheepfolds.

The first kind is a large communal fold near a village, surrounded by fences with a gate. The village would employ a gatekeeper to protect the sheep in the communal fold. In the morning the gatekeeper would open the gate to the shepherd who would call his own flock out. The other flocks wouldn’t recognise his call and would stay behind until their own shepherd came.

The second kind of sheepfold would be up in the hills, far from the village, and much smaller. It would be used in summer when a single shepherd would stay out with the sheep for days or weeks on end. To protect the flock at night, the shepherd would lead them into a small enclosure, perhaps just a dry-stone wall he had built. Instead of a gate, he would lie down to sleep in the entrance where any movement in or out would wake him up. I’ve found similar structures up in the Burren hills which may have been used in the same way. When Jesus said “I am the gate”, he meant it quite literally!

In the parable of the sheepfolds, and by calling himself the good shepherd, I think Jesus is quite deliberately doing two things:

Firstly he is promising his disciples - those who recognise his voice - that he will care for them. He will keep them safe and feed them. “Whoever enters by me will be saved”, he says.  They “will come in and go out and find pasture”. It is also a promise to us, today.

But secondly Jesus is implicitly accusing the leaders of his own day – the Pharisees he was talking to - of being bad shepherds, just as Ezekiel had done centuries before. “All who came before me are thieves and bandits;” he says, “but the sheep did not listen to them”. Today we must still be alert for thieves and bandits who try to mislead people, as much as in Jesus’s time.

Jesus’s disciples still need leadership today.
Jesus will always be our Good Shepherd, of course. We should hold on to that comforting, familiar image, and listen to his words as he leads us to find good pasture. After all he has told us “Remember, I am with you always.”

But Jesus has handed on a shepherd’s mantle to others too, starting with the apostles. John (21:15-17) tells us that Jesus said to Peter “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”. Bishops from that day to this have inherited the shepherd’s mantle.

Bishop Trevor will be retiring in July. When he leaves we will miss the wise and loving Christian leadership which it is a bishop’s job to give us. There are many challenges his successor must lead us to face. As a Christian flock we face schism in our Anglican communion. As a nation we struggle to build a just society as we emerge from the economic crisis. As a species we wrestle with resource depletion and global warming. The thieves and bandits are still about us.

Let us pray for those with the heavy responsibility of choosing his successor, that the Holy Spirit may guide them to find us a wise and loving Bishop, to lead us to pastures green beside quiet waters.