Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The Good Shepherd
April 27, 2010, 9:01 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 25th April 2010

Our Lord was fond of the image of the shepherd, to explain his mission. David had been a shepherd before becoming king of Israel, and ancient kings, in Israel and elsewhere, were often called shepherds of their people. The prophets sometimes rebuked them as bad shepherds, who exploited and mistreated the flock that God had entrusted to them. So Jesus was tapping in to a well established stream of biblical teaching: he was presenting himself as the authentic shepherd of Israel, the one to whom the flock belonged, not just a hired servant.  Let me suggest a few important lessons from today’s short Gospel.

1. The shepherd our Lord is talking about is the man who owns the sheep. He distinguishes the shepherd from the mere hireling, the paid worker who does his job for money, but has no personal interest in the welfare of the flock. The sheep-farmer cares about his flock because his own livelihood depends on its wellbeing. In literal fact, of course, farmers keep sheep in order that there may be lamb chops. However humanely the sheep may be kept, this is the hard fact- they are reared to serve human purposes. But human beings are not animals, and the criticism of bad rulers came down to the fact that the rulers treated their people as though they were. The relationship between ruler and ruled is not supposed to be like that: the shepherd is the servant of his sheep, a very odd idea if you take it literally, because sheep and shepherds belong to different species, whereas citizens and their rulers do not.

2. When we apply this image to God’s care for us, we mean to emphasise that we really do matter to him. We should foster in ourselves a sense of belonging to God, a sense both that he has a claim on us and we have a claim on him. But the Good Shepherd is not just God the heavenly Father: it is Jesus himself, the human being who is at the same time God the Son, who is “the guardian and shepherd of our souls” (the phrase comes from St Peter). Again and again I want to emphasise our need to focus on Jesus, to read and re-read the Gospels so as to get a clear picture of him, to speak to him constantly in our prayers and to picture him in our mind’s eye as present with us at all times.  If we think of Jesus as our friend, our elder Brother, he will also become quite naturally our role-model. We will want to be like him, to do the things he would do, which will (again speaking in a human way) win his approval. He will matter to us, as we matter to him. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.”

3. We are to be good shepherds to one another. That is to say, we are to care for one another, to work for each other’s welfare. According to the ancient story, Cain the farmer killed his brother Abel the shepherd. When God asked him the whereabouts of his brother, Cain replied with the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He might have said, “Am I my brother’s shepherd?” Shepherding was Abel’s job, Cain just grew things. But the implication of the story is that we cannot evade responsibility for one another. We are the guardians and defenders and helpers of our brothers and sisters. In the world as it is, human beings are often very poor shepherds of one another. In fact, sometimes they behave more like wolves preying on the sheep, even than the hireling who runs away like a coward. When we read or hear of terrible things that human beings do to one another, we may well ask, “Where was the good shepherd? Did God care after all?” We need to hold on to our Lord’s words of reassurance: “I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no-one will ever steal them from me.”

If Jesus were himself only human, historically a Jewish teacher who was rejected and killed, these words would ring very hollow. It is only because we believe him to be more than human that we can have confidence in him in the darkest places. We belong to Jesus, and it is the heavenly Father himself, the Creator of all things, who has given us to Jesus. No one, no power, can steal us out of the hand of the Power that made the universe. “No one can steal from the Father,” says our Lord. And the most awe-inspiring words of all: “The Father and I are one.”

In the end, what Jesus is saying is that his function, as God’s Emissary and Regent on earth, is entirely for the benefit of the people, not his own. He is (as used to be said) “the Man for Others”. He has come so that we may have abundant life. He is our leader, whom we should follow; and this is for our benefit, not his. He is the “gate”, the one through whom we come in out of the dark and danger of the world to the light and safety of God’s Kingdom.

But he can only do all this if we have faith- if we trust him. If we are suspicious, if we demand “proof”, if we respond only when we see tangible benefits for ourselves: then we have missed the point. The only “sign” that we are offered is the sign that God loves us so much, that in Jesus he came among us to share the hardships and sufferings of humanity. And the only “sign” we can give to God  that we have understood this message, is that we are willing to stand by Jesus- including Jesus in our suffering neighbour- and share the burden.


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