Almighty God,whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen Christ, 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.
Merciful Father, 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.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
1 The Lord is my shepherd;
therefore can I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He shall refresh my soul
and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.
6 Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’
Sermon on Sunday, Easter 4
This is Good Shepherd Sunday. The reading from the gospel of John and our psalm give today its name. We should have had a premonition last week that the shepherd was coming, for in our gospel reading we heard about the terribly trying questions Jesus asked Peter. “Do you love me?” Of course Peter loved Jesus, just as we do. But Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. That should have got us thinking. We probably should have anticipated today’s theme and been thinking about how to feed sheep.
We have heard how the shepherd knows his flock – he knows them because they turn to him and they know him almost instinctively. Why? Why do sheep know their shepherd? How do sheep get to trust the shepherd?
This is not as daft a question as it sounds. We have all heard that shepherds in the middle east lead their sheep, haven’t we? The flock follows along in the shepherd’s footsteps. They seem to look for a leader. It is a very different sort of behaviour to the way sheep and shepherds act in the west. The BBC’s programme One Man and His Dog should give us a clue. What do we see when we watch them?
First, we have the shepherd who tells us about the help he needs and receives from the dog when dealing with his sheep. Then we are introduced to his dog, the active power which does all the work with the sheep. The dogs run out, gather up, drive and pen those poor, bleating creatures and the shepherd and the dog win their prize. It is a very clever system our shepherds have devised, isn’t it? – using a hunter to gather up the sheep instead of eating them. It is a relationship that has developed over millennia. And we are all beneficiaries of it – at the very least we have been clothed by the sheep with our wool socks, cardigans and coats.
But the shepherds’ dogs in the middle east are not like our collies, are they? They don’t herd the sheep. No, instead those dogs guard the flock. This is a very different relationship between shepherd, sheep and dog. However, it is one that is just as beneficial for all of us, but it is fundamentally different.
That is what we have to consider today. Peter was asked to “feed Jesus’ sheep”. Peter was to become the shepherd for the flock. How did he care for the sheep? How do we care for the sheep in our own care? Do we drive or lead the sheep to the safety of the sheepfold? Do we force or offer the sheep the sustenance which is best for them?
This is a crucial question – a question which, I believe, is fundamental. Our answer reveals the attitude we have towards each other. It is a question which could explain why different sheepfolds are empty today. Who wants to be driven into a place? We have to admit that there is safety there, but who wants to be forced into a place where we have no choice in the matter, where in fact we may not be willing to settle? Who wants to be told, “This is best for you, so just do it!” Our children certainly resent and rebel against us when we adults take such a high- handed approach. But then again, don’t some of us oldies also take umbrage when we are told by health and safety officers what we must do? Or when our politicians set out regulations for us to adhere to? Don’t we all react better when we are led to a solution which is best for us? When the shepherd of our flock tends us carefully, aren’t we more willing to conform?
Certainly we behave much better when we hear the voice of reason and are asked to agree with another person’s proposals. So do sheep, in my experience. When they see you have food, they are happy to oblige. I suppose they see the benefit for themselves when you ask them to come. They are particularly keen, when you are shaking a bag of food. – They hear that something, don’t they? They may only be listening to their stomachs, but there is a long-term benefit for those sheep. They will have a secure place to live their lives if they listen to the shepherd.
What do we listen to? Whose voice calls to us? Are we listening to the good shepherd or to distractions? Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do, does he? He expects us to follow his lead – whether that leads to our own Golgatha or to heaven on earth, we don’t know, but we are to listen to that still, small voice of conscience – or to quote that famous hymn, that “still, small voice of calm.” That voice does not demand or tell you what do do, does it? Once to each and every one of us comes the moment to decide for the good or evil side. Sometimes we don’t see what the difference is, but we have to choose to do what we believe is good. That good is not an immediate thing, rather the good is ultimately good. It directs everything, and, I believe, it calls to us in spite of ourselves. Eventually we will all turn to the good. Well, I certainly hope so…
If, for instance, profession of the faith is a good, won’t we allow everyone to confess their belief even at the last moment of life? The Church has never turned away a penitent. That is why we have all these stories of death-bed conversions. But shouldn’t every moment of life be lived as if it were our last? That I think is the intent of the great commandments – to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength and to love each other as we love our very selves. Such an attitude puts everything in perspective.
Every moment in our lives could be our last. Isn’t that how we feel when significant events happen? For instance, in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, at the first wedding, the bride is taking leave of everyone at the reception. She is about to go away with her husband, embarking on a brand new life. At that moment she realises just how much she loves everyone – not just because she loves her husband, but because that love expressed in the wedding has opened her eyes to all the possible love in her life. She is that child again in the wonder of everything around her – she is infinite possibility in that moment of understanding love.
Doesn’t the shepherd do the same for the sheep? Don’t the sheep understand how wondrous life is when the shepherd truly cares for them when he leads them back to the sheepfold and the sheepdog guards them from the dangers of the night? We ourselves are sheep and shepherd both at the same time, aren’t we? You care for me and I care for you. We must fulfill the great commandment just as a shepherd and the sheep do. All benefit from this relationship, it just has to be loving in a way that gives infinite possibility to each and every one of us.