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Sermon by Stephen Linton

St Mark’s 10.30   25/04/2021

The Good Shepherd

Acts 4: 5 – 12

John 10: 11 – 18

Today we’re looking at one of the nine great ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus.   I’m sure that you can think of some of them.   They’re mostly objects to which Jesus compares himself, as a sort of word-picture:  I am the bread of life; I am the door; I am the way, the truth and the life.   Jesus uses these metaphors to describe some aspect of his person and his mission.

But only one of the nine I am sayings relates to a personal role, rather than an object, and we find it here in John ch 10.   I am the Good Shepherd.   Jesus uses this shepherd occupation that would have been very familiar to his hearers, to teach them and us about who he is.   Being a shepherd was and is still a hard life.  Lambing time is still hugely demanding of the shepherd’s time.   But in the time of Jesus it was an especially tough task, with the flock living on unfenced scrubland and the sheep wandering off looking for grass to eat.    And, too, there was the threat of wolves or other predators, as well as sheep-stealers.   The shepherd had to remain alert, never off-duty, and brave to drive off hungry predators.   And always aware of all his sheep, and alert to any who might have wandered off.

So that is the picture that Jesus uses to teach about his mission and personal qualities.   Let’s see what he has to say.   Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd.   Unlike a hired shepherd, who, Jesus says, has no personal interest in the flock and runs off when the wolf turns up, Jesus is committed to his flock.   So firstly, we read that he knows his sheep, and earlier in the chapter we are told that he calls them by name.   And we today are some of his sheep.   So if we apply this to ourselves, we learn that Jesus knows each one of us.   Those who seek to follow Jesus are not a nameless crowd but are individually known to the Good Shepherd.   He knows our needs, our personalities, our strengths, and our weaknesses.   Indeed, he knows those things that we are careful to conceal from others, and that we would prefer were not known by God.   

Yet despite that, we are known and loved by him as individuals.   He loves us, not because of what are and who we are, but simply because he loves us, even though he knows all about our failings.   I think I used this quote last time I was with you, but I profoundly believe it to be true:  that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more; and there’s nothing that we can do to make God love us less.   The Good Shepherd knows us all and we are loved by him, just as we are.

Secondly, the Good Shepherd protects his sheep.    Just as a shepherd in first century Palestine would rescue his sheep from wolves or thieves, so we can believe that we are protected by God from evil.   Now that presents us with a problem, as we all know that bad things can still happen to any of us.   Indeed, most of us at some time experience bad times, illnesses, bereavements, apparently meaningless disasters or loss.   How can we say that we are protected by this Good Shepherd?  

If we think of Psalm 23, we find a clue to this paradox.   There, we are told that the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.    And that he cares for us in green pastures and by still waters:  God is with us in the good times.   But also, that when we walk through the valley of the shadow if death, that God is still with us, to protect and comfort us.   And that in the fulness of time he will prepare a feast for us, and that we will dwell in God’s house for ever.

There is much that happens to us, that we don’t understand.   But by faith we can know that the Good Shepherd is with us in the difficult circumstances that we face.   Recently at St Peter’s we’ve been praying for a family who were part of our church family until they moved away a few years ago, but since then their 19-year-old son has been under treatment for cancer.   And as a church we’ve been praying for him and the family, as he has undergone very demanding chemotherapy and surgery.   But very sadly he has now died.   What can we say about that?   Or about the bereavements or bad times that many of you at St Mark’s will have suffered?   Evidently, we can’t say that the Good Shepherd has prevented these terrible outcomes, because he hasn’t done so.   Nor that he has brought miraculous healing.   Nor indeed that he protects us from Covid infection, such that we don’t need masks or vaccines, as some would allege.   No, all we can say is that in the times of deepest darkness, in the valley of the shadow of death, that the Good Shepherd is with us to protect and comfort us.   Even when we can see no evidence of that, we hang on to it by faith.    And one day we may understand.   As Psalm 23 ends, surely God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in his house for ever.

So we learn that the Good Shepherd knows us individually; and that he is with us in all circumstances.   And thirdly that he calls us and calls others to follow him.   In earlier verses in John ch 10 we can read that a shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them.   And in today’s reading, we find that Jesus says, ‘I have other sheep that are not of this flock and I must bring them also’.   Here we have a twofold appeal of Jesus:  to those who are already his sheep, we are called to follow him:  he calls us and leads us.   And then there are others, currently outside the flock, who he wants to join in.

In context, what Jesus must mean is that he was calling the Jews, his own people to a new way of knowing God.   But that he was also appealing to Gentiles, those from outside the Jewish nation, to also follow the Good Shepherd.   Those who are different, of different race, colour, or creed, are also to be welcomed by the Good Shepherd.   The good news of Jesus is not exclusively for the Jews, nor for the Gentiles who subsequently joined the early church.   No, the good news is for everyone.

Now I don’t think that we can infer from that that all religions are equal in God’s sight.   Jesus is still the way back to God.   I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus tells us.   And Peter in our reading from Acts ch 4 told the Sanhedrin that there was no other way back to God except through Jesus.   But nor should we limit God as to who he accepts and how he welcomes people.   Over the years various Christian sects and denominations have imagined that God exclusively approves of their nuances of faith.   But Jesus tells us that he has others, not of this flock, whom he must also bring into the fold.  

Remember that in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the wayward spendthrift rebel of a son who is welcomed to the party, rather than the dutiful one who stayed at home and apparently kept the rules.   So let’s not limit God’s love for everyone.    Are there people who are different from us who we fail to welcome?   People of a different race or class or gender or sexual orientation?   The Archbishops have called the church to be radically inclusive in our welcome of everyone.  Too often the church has been seen by others as racist, anti-Semitic, anti-women and homophobic.      But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves us, calls us by name, protects and cares for us, calls us and leads us and others who are not of this fold, to follow him.

And finally, he is the Good Shepherd who dies for us.    The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep, Jesus tells us.   He loves us that much, even though he knows our failings.   So as we come to Holy Communion this morning we do so to remember what Jesus has done for us.   We come with open hands to receive what God gives us, not trusting in our own righteousness, but in his manifold and great mercies.   And we do so with thankfulness.   And we feed on him in our hearts by faith.   And then we go out into God’s world, to love and serve the Lord.   Serving our Good Shepherd who knows us, loves us, cares for us, dies for us, and calls us to follow him.

Let’s pray.   Father God, thank you for the Good Shepherd who shows us how much you love us all.   Help us this coming week to know your care and protection despite the difficulties we may face.   Help us to welcome and show your love to those we meet.   And now as we take this communion with thankfulness, may we be inspired to go out to serve you better.   In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.