This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 10:22-30.
My sheep hear my voice…
It’s a bit of an ambiguous image, the idea of being sheep, isn’t it? On the one hand, we rather suspect that sheep aren’t too bright, and are easily led where someone wants them to go, whether that’s a good idea or not.
On the other hand, the Biblical image of sheep and shepherds often conjures up – for me at least – the idea of lush green pastures, gently flowing little streams, and generally comfortable living in beautiful countryside. (That owes much more to an English cultural background than the middle east, but it’s where my mind goes). And there’s something quite comforting about the idea of being a well-fed, well-cared-for sheep living in peace.
The problem, I think, with both of these ideas about being sheep is that they’re rather passive. On the one hand, you’re being led by others who make all the decisions; and on the other hand, you’re being fed and watered and cared for without having to actively seek any of these things out for yourself. Comfortable, certainly; loved, maybe; but not exactly inspiring.
And not very much like real life; because in real life all of us have to think for ourselves, make decisions and take action. So if we seek to follow Jesus, in some ways we might want other images beside the one of “sheep” to help us think about what that’s about.
The icon that I have handed out with the pew sheet this morning (blog readers can see it attached) captures something of how I tend to think about what it is to be a follower of Jesus. It was painted by a French nun, and now belongs to a seminary in Jerusalem. The writing at the top says “suis moi,” the French for “Follow me.” Surrounding Jesus, with his hand raised in blessing, offering us the invitation to follow him, are a series of images representing different aspects of his life and work. The message is clear – we are all invited to follow Jesus in our lives in the world, and to continue the work which he began during his earthly life – the work of the kingdom of God.
God has created each of us, gifted each of us differently, and made space for the opportunity to come and worship and work together for the sake of his kingdom. For each of us, knowing who we are, what gifts we have been given and what desires God has stirred in the depths of our hearts, will help us to find the right way to express that in service; our own place, if you like, in the icon.
It also helps us to think about how to shape our common life together. Next Saturday the parish council have a planning day; and I asked for that planning day because I think it’s imperative that we build a shared vision of who we believe Jesus is calling us to be, and what we believe Jesus is calling us to do, in being his faithful followers in this parish.
When we have that shared vision, it can be a guide for us in thinking strategically about what how we live out that vision; what we need to continue, what needs to end with grateful thanks for the past, and what new things might need to begin. But without a vision of where we’re going, we have no shared basis for making those decisions, and that’s a recipe for conflict and trouble!
It might worry you that I mention the possibility that some things might come to an end. But the fact of the matter is that we only have a finite amount of time, energy, and money between us to put into our corporate life together; so we need to be wise and strategic in how we use those resources. Not because we want to end things which are valuable, but because we want to make sure that everything we do truly is valuable, and not something we do “just because;” and least of all “just because we’ve always done it.”
This should not surprise or alarm us. We follow a living, dynamic God. The green pastures and bubbling streams of my imagination are not an unchanging landscape; rather, being sheep who follow the good shepherd suggests that we’re on the move; that the scenery is always changing as we travel with him to new frontiers in the life of faith. If our community is static, it is dead, and the gospel is not being effective in us.
Let me be very clear about this. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this parish. But I’m saying that the voice of the good shepherd always calls us to follow him to somewhere that is a little different to where we are now. To explore new horizons. To seek out new relationships. To be bold pioneers in our own context, building bridges between what we find around us and the eternal truth, love and beauty which are so much a part of the life of heaven. In that sense, what we do is, like the sheep, dependent on Jesus; not in a passive way, where everything is done for us, but in a way which means all the resources we need are available to us only as we trust him.
Ultimately, all of us are here together because, both as individuals and as a community, we love and trust Jesus enough to try doing things his way. That’s being his sheep at its best. We are committed to him in our inmost selves, allowing who he is to reshape us in the image of God. And we are committed to him in our lives in the world, following him into all the places where we find our deepest joys in meeting the world’s deepest needs. What we do here on a Sunday morning resources and supports what we do in all the rest of lives; the preferences we have, the choices we make, the things we seek. Because love and friendship with God don’t obscure the reality that we’re also called to obedience. Later on Jesus says that his friends are those who “do what I command you.”
As we follow Jesus in obedience, we become the image of the invisible God to the world. As we hold together in Christ, we take up the work of reconciling ourselves, one another, and the world to God. Provided that we continue to follow Jesus as he leads us into greater depth of relationship with God, greater depth of community, and greater involvement with his kingdom as it breaks into the world. Provided that we truly listen to what he is telling us, and let that set the agenda for all that we do, and ultimately all that we are.