Sunday 25 April – 4th Sunday of Easter
The service is now live-streamed and can be found on the church Facebook page.
faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.
The Jewish rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
Jesus said to the Pharisees: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Post Communion Prayer
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In art and poetry and also through those well-loved children’s stories, shepherds are portrayed as kindly, compassionate characters. I suppose they have, what in modern parlance, is called the ‘feel-good’ factor. I don’t know if you remember the TV series One Man And His Dog, …the shepherds featured were all wise old sages with flat caps and weatherbeaten faces – although I know this is perhaps rather stereotypical. And so the image we sometimes have of shepherds maybe one of ruggedness and reliability and also kindly benevolence. Yet in the time when this morning’s gospel reading was written, shepherds were none of the above! They were ranked just above robbers and tax collectors in the social acceptability stakes and they were regarded as completely untrustworthy, more likely to steal from a master than faithfully perform the task of caring for the sheep.
Many people’s view of shepherds was formed when the shepherds came in to the towns after being away for several days and they were seen as drunken troublemakers. Frequently shepherds were ostracized from their communities – they were the outsiders.
Yet let’s consider for a moment what the shepherd in ancient times actually did for their flock and the hardships they endured for their very survival. Life was far from easy. When the shepherd had taken the flock far from home to feed in a good pasture, it was not possible to return home every night. So a rough sheepfold of stone or perhaps a thicket of thorn bushes was built in a safe location near the good pasture. There the shepherd gathered the flock for the night and then lay down at the gate so that no wild beasts or thieves could enter. As gatekeeper, the shepherd provided the necessary security. In the morning, he would lead the flock back to pasture calling each one by name. The walls of the sheepfold were not so high that a hungry wolf couldn’t leap over them. In so doing, however, the intruder would cause panic among the sheep as they ran from danger. The danger to the shepherd was equally great. A shepherd who had been hired, but did not own the sheep would probably have greater interest in assuring his own safety than the safety of the flock (vss 12-13).
Yet Jesus is portrayed in our Gospel account as being a different sort of Shepherd. The Gospel writer tells us that “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. I’d like to suggest that this can be seen in wider terms than simply in Jesus death and resurrection, yes they are the key part, but surely his pre-resurrection and post-resurrection life and ministry was in fact lived for others. And so laying down one’s life can be seen in the broader context of a life lived for others.
And this seems to be an invitation to each of us. We are each called to lay down our life for the flock. We are called to live our lives with care and concern and nurture for each other and in so doing our lives become God-centred. As the shepherds in ancient Israel were outsiders so the message we convey in a postmodern world is one which is countercultural and may well make us outsiders too. Yet, just like the shepherds in ancient Israel we need, as Church to continue to engage with the world – to be a part of it – while proclaiming a countercultural message. And it is countercultural because it offers an alternative to the message the world sometimes proclaims – of uncaring and harshness and materialism and superficiality. Sometimes, like the shepherds of ancient Israel we have to become marginalized and oppressed in order to learn how to proclaim the Gospel message. A message of love and inclusivity to those whom the world marginalizes and oppresses. Like the shepherds in ancient Israel we may be called to journey far from our places of safety, if we are to proclaim the Gospel authentically.
We’ve probably seen many pictures of the Good Shepherd from our childhood upwards. So often they are cosy pictures of a tranquil, idyllic rural scene. But actually, I think the Good Shepherd is much more robust than that. We are all God’s priestly people – each of us has the example of the Good Shepherd as the pattern of our calling. It is not an easy calling for us – the path may be hard and it often is and being shepherds ourselves is one of the toughest, if not the toughest job there is.
Yet if we continue to lay down our lives caring and encouraging one another we’ll be authentic to our baptismal vocation, which this Easter season so powerfully reminds us of, to take our part in building the kingdom of God.