Sermon for Easter 4 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Sunday 15 May 2011
On this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, the Gospel readings in all cycles present excerpts from John 10. Although I’ve always liked the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd I’ve never been too smitten by the corollary that I am a sheep. I’ve always found sheep rather dull and dim creatures and the idea that I am one doesn’t really appeal. Nor have I ever felt inclined to describe you as my flock, though I know that language is sometimes used. Be that as it may the shepherd imagery is deeply rooted in Old Testament thought. God is the ultimate shepherd of the people, providing guidance, sustenance and protection. Such ideas are at the heart of the wonderful 23rd Psalm. But those under God’s authority, such as kings and political leaders were to be shepherds of their people. Israel’s hopes for the end time included a messianic figure who, like David the shepherd king, would gather in the people. The designation “good” for Jesus contrasts with the frequent designation of unfaithful leaders in Israel as “bad” because they abuse and neglect their flock. In this Easter season we have the opportunity each year to think about the way in which the Fourth Gospel understands “pastoral” ministry. John’s Gospel shows little interest in structured roles and offices and lacks any appointment of 12 Apostles found in the other gospels. The beloved disciple, not Peter, is given pride of place. Disciples are not chosen to govern or even proclaim the Gospel but to be faithful witnesses who bring people to Jesus and Jesus to them. All the pastoral care stems from Jesus, who knows and listens to the sheep.
But what is the effect, what are the fruits of Jesus’ pastoring? I believe we find the answer in the gospel for this morning which culminates with a contrast between the bad shepherds, who were in effect thieves, and Jesus who has come that the sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly”. I have always found this a very powerful and encouraging verse. To me it is life-affirming, whereas so much in religion is life-denying. One of the saddest characteristics of religion is that it is seen to dampen down rather than to ignite the human spirit. This is one of the reasons people have fought and do fight against it. One of the saddest campaigns against religion took place recently and it used a slogan, found on London busses, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I found that so sad because it says so much about the way people see religion. They see it as something to stop them enjoying life. It’s the kind of reaction vicars get when they let their hair down. “Ooh, I didn’t know vicars did that sort of thing!” Or when I walk down the street it’s why people will sometimes avert their eyes, as if they think I’m judging them just by looking at them. Or why when I call someone to find out how they are, they’ll start making excuses as to why they haven’t been to church recently. It’s a sad fact that religion is perceived as life-denying and not life-affirming. But the words of Jesus contradict that opinion and perception. So too did much in his life. After all he was known as a glutton and a wine bibber. He spent time with people who the pious of his day – of any day – avoided, notorious sinners and prostitutes. He was a story teller. He did much of his teaching at the dinner table. And so on. Jesus lived life to the full. And he brought fullness of life – abundant life to those for whom their presence on this earth was mere existence. He would have known exactly what that brilliant Christian Aid slogan, “We believe in life before death” meant.
So there are two ways in which we need to bring Jesus’ teaching and action to life. We need to accept the gift of abundant life that Jesus promises. Live life to the full. Enjoy the gift of life God has given us with all its riches. Try to appreciate every moment. Don’t be a pious puritan, a crochety finger-wagger or tut-tutter! Enjoy the beauties of nature, of art, of food and drink, of entertainment, of sport. Let your hair down. Let your light shine! Let the church bring joy, happiness and comfort, not judgement, guilt and gloom. There are so many ways to enjoy life. Get on and do it! But our enjoyment of life in its fullness need not be selfish. The second way in which we can fulfil the promise of Jesus is by helping to bring abundant life to others. Christian Aid Week is but one of many opportunities to bring it, but it’s a good one. It gives us a chance to share in the role of Jesus the good shepherd. Jesus had a fullness of life which overflowed to all around him. We are called to share that fullness, to enjoy it. But we are also called to let it overflow from us to those in need. So abundant life for us and abundant life for others too – that’s the kind of “have your cake and eat it” message which I’m glad to proclaim this Good Shepherd Sunday!
Easter 4 (Good Shepherd Sunday) | Sunday 15 May 2011