The Good Shepherd

I have been struggling this week in preparation for ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ to be excited about being numbered as one of the sheep in the flock – it is not an altogether flattering description.

Before Luisa and I were married, and before we moved here to Australia, I lived in a small village on the outskirts of Oxford.  And my garden backed on to rolling countryside.  On the other side of the low wall at the bottom of the garden was a field full of sheep, and my observation of those sheep over a number of years was that they were not the brightest creatures on earth.  Being a cute little lamb is one thing, but being an old, rather dirty fairly stupid sheep is a different proposition altogether.  Is that what we are made to be and to do? Is that how God sees us?  Wandering around like sheep, doing the equivalent in our lives of eating grass and collecting mud as we go?  It is an image that I wrestle with.

According to the narratives which the writers of the Gospel of John give us in the lead up to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has been using this image of sheep to describe the whole of humanity.  In his picture language we are all like sheep in many different flocks. But the point of the metaphor is not our likeness to sheep, but rather the quality of the relationship which is possible between the sheep and the shepherd.  That is why this is ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ and not ‘Stupid Sheep Sunday’.

If we are focusing on the sheep – as I have done – then we have missed the point.  To understand what Jesus is saying we need to focus instead on what is being said about the shepherd.  There are good shepherds and there are bad shepherds.  Bad shepherds abandon their flock and run away at the first sign of danger, when the wild animal appears on the horizon.  But good shepherds protect their sheep, they act as the gate way between them and the thieves who might want to steal them.

The good shepherds know their sheep by name, and when they hear their shepherd’s voice they follow him.

This is a far cry, of course, from much of the work of a shepherd in our modern day Australia.  The shepherd nowadays does not have as one of his duties sleeping at the entrance to the sheepfold to protect the flock that are inside.  Many shepherds in Australia travel by helicopter rather than walking or using other transport, in order to cover the vast distances involved.  Modern Australian shepherding is a different world from the ideas in the minds of the writers of our Gospel, and indeed in the mind of Jesus as he uses the image.

In the time of Jesus a good shepherd did not live at a distance from his sheep. He knew each one of them, and he cared for each one of them, and they in turn knew his voice to the extent that if they were mixed up in another flock they were able to detect his call from the voice of other shepherds, and follow him.  That is why Jesus says to his questioners in today’s Gospel, “my sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”

This kind of description will, for many of us, conjure up rich images for us in our minds.  Some of us may be able to see the image of Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes holding the lamb which has gone astray, which was once above our beds as children.  The focus is not on how alike we are to sheep, but on how alike Jesus is to a good shepherd.  Jesus is the good shepherd who has come to bring his flock together, and to protect them in response to the will of his father.  He knows his flock and they can detect his voice.

If we have any doubt about the power of Jesus’ voice to change lives, we need only to remember back this Eastertide, to the Easter Day Gospel.  Just after the moment that Mary discovers that Jesus’ body is missing, after some of the other disciples have been and gone, she meets a man who she presumes in her grief is the gardener.  Through her tears she can see his outline, but does not recognise him.  And then he speaks to her: “Mary,” and instantly she knows that she is in the presence of the risen Christ.

The dramatic life change for Saul or Tarsus on the road to Damascus, from a life as a persecutor of Christians, to Paul the missionary, and author of much of our New Testament comes about through a similar experience (as we heard last Sunday) of hearing the voice of Jesus.    On that road he is stopped in his tracks, and hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“My sheep hear my voice,” says Jesus.  “I know them and they follow me.”

One of the central themes in communication studies is the idea that what we say may be heard in very different ways by different people.  The message which we transmit may be received as something quite different – like the game of chinese whispers.

Jesus has risen to prominence in the region, made famous by his miracles and signs, and by his teaching.  All of those things have taken place to point to the fact that he is the Son of God, the one whom God has empowered to bring the message of love and forgiveness to the world.  Yet some of those who have heard and seen these things have not received the message at all.  Instead they have heard the threat of change, the possibility of blasphemy, and so the need for this man to be removed from the public arena.  Jesus brings a message of love and acceptance, but it is met with a message of hostility and perhaps even hatred.

The Jewish Feast of the Dedication, the festival at which today’s encounter with Jesus takes place, is now more commonly known by Jews as Hannukkah, the festival of lights.  It is still celebrated by our Jewish neighbours today in the month of Chislev, which is somewhere near our own festival of Christmas.  I think that it is not an accident, in the minds of the Gospel writers, that Jesus has this conversation in the context of this festival.  The festival commemorates and celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple.  And the Temple, of course, was the primary symbol of the presence of God amongst the Jewish people.

Many years before Jesus’ birth, the Jews had been living under the rule of the Greek kings of Damascus.  During that period King Antiochus IV Epiphanes had ordered the Jewish people to give up their worship of God, and instead honour the Greek gods, and live by the Greek way of life.  So the Jews were forced to abandon their worship of God, their holy customs and religious laws, and their reading of the Bible.

In order to prove their allegiance to this king they were required to bow down to the Greek gods, and if they were not willing to do this they were killed. During this period, King Antiochus IV ordered that the Temple in Jerusalem must be defiled, and he himself went there to slaughter the unclean meat of pigs on the altars.  In the minds of Jewish people at the time this defiling of the Temple was akin to the loss of their relationship with God.  God could not dwell in a Temple which had been defiled.  And so, in their minds, God had left them.

A brave Jewish man named Judas Maccabeus led a rebellion against King Antiochus and his forces, and the Temple was eventually reclaimed.  Judas and his family were made kings by the Jewish people in honour of what he had done – he and his family was seen spiritually (although not literally) to be a descendent on the line of the great kings Solomon and David.  You can read the whole story in the Books of the Maccabees.

But as the Jews set about their task of re-dedicating the Temple, they found that they only had enough ritual oil for the candle in the Temple to burn for one day, and yet in order for the Temple to be purified Jewish custom said that there had to be a continuous burning of the candle for eight days.  So they lit the candle, sent out for more oil, and hoped for the best.  Jews believe that by a divine miracle that oil was still supplying the fuel for the candle eight days later when the new oil arrived.

At the Festival of the Dedication these two things are remembered together: on the one hand the faithfulness of Judas Maccabeus and those who rebelled with him against the Greeks, and on the other hand God’s faithfulness in return, keeping the candle alight in the re-dedicated Temple as a sign that his presence had once more returned to the people.

These things are the back drop for the conversations which Jesus is having in the Temple precincts on this festival day, when faithfulness to God, and the presence of God amongst his people is being celebrated.  The significance of the timing of this story would not have been lost on the Jewish hearers of this story – the authors of John’s Gospel deliberately give the story significance by placing it by where they do in the calendar.

Can you hear the irony in what is going on?

The Jews have come together to celebrate the heroism of a man who their ancestors named as king – and yet they are unable to comprehend the Lordship of Jesus.  They have come together to celebrate the presence of God amongst them in the Temple – symbolised for them by its cleansing and re-dedication, and by the miracle of the burning oil lamp – and yet they are unable to understand that God is present more powerfully with them than any of those signs in the words and the works, and the very life of Jesus.

So far so good.  We may well look back this morning and wonder why it was that people did not get the message.  We might be perplexed as to why something so obvious was missed by so many.  But if we turn from then to now, from Jerusalem to Toronto, the situation is perhaps more challenging for us all.  Because the teaching of the Church which we are confronted with again each Eastertide as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, is that we who are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection are made members of his body, heirs of his kingdom, ministers in his mission.

The effect of that for all of us, is that the images of shepherd and sheep need to be understood in the light of the resurrection, and our baptism into it.  If we are members of the body of Christ then we are members of the shepherds’ fraternity and not simply the flock of sheep.  Or to put that a different way, we are no longer simply sheep, in Christ we are shepherds as well.  Sheep in our following of Jesus, and yet shepherds with him in sharing his good news with those who live around us.  How else will the sheep of Toronto hear the shepherd’s voice, unless we amplify it for him?

The ministry team which is developing here in the Parish of Toronto is one sign of our growing into being shepherds, but the responsibility for ministry rests with all of us and not just with that group who, with Fr Ian, have been commissioned to lead us.  The good news is that God has gifted everyone of us with special gifts, so that together using the many different skills and talents of this congregation, we can be effective shepherds for those who have never been in our Church building, but who are equally loved by God.

As we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus we give thanks to God at this Eucharist that by his providence we have heard the voice of Jesus.  We pray too, for the strength to act as his shepherds, as his ministers in his mission of loving and saving the people of Toronto.

Jesus says, “my sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”

How will those of us who have heard that voice already share the good news which it brings with those who have not yet heard it?

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!