Sunday 12 May 2019

The Good Shepherd and the sheep

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on 12th May 2019, the 4th Sunday of Easter, year 3, Good Friday Sunday.

‘My sheep hear my voice’, says Jesus, ‘I know them and they follow me’.
Now, I don’t have much experience with sheep, but one day as a child I helped my Grandfather move a flock to fresh grazing. It wasn’t easy – the sheep took every opportunity to get away through gaps and over ditches as we drove them down the public road. We got them all there in the end, but I’ve never forgotten how wilful sheep can be.

One Sunday, years ago, I was preaching about the Good Shepherd, and I remembered this experience. I expressed my surprise that in Jesus’s time shepherds could expect their sheep to follow them – surely shepherds then must have had a different relationship with their sheep than they do today, I said. After the service a wise and experienced farmer came up to me and said, ‘My sheep follow me’. I asked him how he did it, and he replied, ‘I walk in front of them with a bucket of sheep nuts – they’re intelligent animals, they recognise me, and they know very well what the bucket means’. I learned a good lesson about leadership that day.

On a previous occasion Jesus had said, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.’
Those who heard him couldn’t agree whether he was the long expected Messiah, or not. Some thought he must be mad to talk about laying down his life, but others pointed to his miraculous deeds, such as causing the blind to see, which was just the kind of thing they expected of the Messiah.

Jesus returns to this shepherd theme in today’s reading from John’s Gospel 10:22-30. He is walking in the temple, sheltering in the portico of Solomon from the winter weather, during the festival of the Dedication. This festival commemorates the re-dedication of the temple 200 years before, after the great Jewish leader John Hyrcanus had defeated the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who had desecrated it. In Hebrew the festival is called Hanukkah, and Jews still celebrate it around Christmas time – this is why some people, particularly in America, prefer to say ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than ‘Happy Christmas’.

A crowd gathers around Jesus, asking him to put an end to the debate about his identity, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus knows that many in the crowd are looking for a Messiah who is a great military leader, like John Hyrcanus, one who will liberate them from Roman oppression and re-establish the kingdom of Judah, one who will make Judea great again – but this is not the kind of Messiah that Jesus knows himself to be. He surely also knows that others in the crowd hate him, and hope he will incriminate himself as a subversive, so they can get rid of him.

So Jesus does not answer directly. Instead he says, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Jesus is pointing them to God, who he calls his Father. God works through me, says Jesus, I know those who believe in me, they listen to me and follow me. But you do not.

He continues, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.’ Jesus is saying that he gives those who follow him the eternal life which is to know God, and he will keep them safe, because God has given them to him.

‘The Father and I are one’, he finishes. This last phrase infuriates the crowd. Jesus is claiming identity with God, which pious Jews see as blasphemy. In the verses following today’s reading the crowd get ready to stone him, but Jesus makes his escape and travels away from Judea, across the Jordan. His time has not yet come.

As Christians we believe Jesus when he says, ‘The Father and I are one’.
We believe that God the Father, God the Son, who is our Saviour Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit are three persons but one God.

We should take great comfort from Jesus’s words. We are his sheep, and as our shepherd he gives us eternal life and will keep us safe – nothing and nobody can take us away from him, so long as we believe in him. As the 23rd Psalm appointed for today puts it:
‘Though I walk in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’

The truth is we are not alone. Jesus lives and Jesus is with us. And not just with you and me, here today, but with everyone who has ever believed, and will ever believe in him, from those first apostles and disciples like Peter and Tabitha we heard about in the 1st reading (Acts 9:36-43), down through the centuries to us, and forward in time to Christians yet unborn. United with them, and led by Jesus our Good Shepherd, we make up the eternal church, militant here on earth and triumphant in heaven.

We should listen to the physicists and cosmologists, I think, and look beyond the four dimensions of space and time in which we live our little lives. Because God is not constrained by space and time.

Whenever and wherever we live, we are all included in St John’s great vision of the eternal kingdom expressed in the poetry of today’s reading from his Revelation (7:9-17). We all belong to that
‘great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white’.

In the fullness of time, seen from a place outside space and time, in a higher dimension,
we stand with them ‘before the throne of God,
   and worship him day and night within his temple,
   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter us.
We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike us,
   nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd,
   and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
   and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.’

Jesus is not just our Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb who laid down his life to bring us to eternal life.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Gracious God,
you sent Jesus, the good shepherd,
to gather us together:
may we not wander from his flock,
but follow wherever he leads us
listening for his voice and staying near him,
until we are safely in your fold,
to live with you for ever;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen