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.
The Reading from Acts
The next day their 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.’
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.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
1 John 3:16-24
‘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.’
Sermon on Sunday, Easter 4
non sibi sed aliis
The other day a seventeen-year-old boy was stabbed and killed in the next village. How could this happen in a sleepy Gloucestershire village? Why would anyone do this? That was the question everyone was asking – why indeed? It is exactly the opposite action to what we expect love to take. That love we ascribe to God and especially in the person of Jesus Christ.
As christians, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This clearly did not happen near Slimbridge the other day. That love of Christ is absolutely different to the action of the youths who took that youngster’s life.
This christian love – the agape we hold so dear – should call into question so much of our ordinary lives – and even some of the extraordinary moments in our very mundane lives, especially that random act of violence which killed that boy. We are called to account, individually and as a society, aren’t we? How often do we act in the way of love Jesus showed us? – How often are we willing to sacrifice our own selves for the sake of another person – to give that person life? The military, the police and our firemen – these emergency services all know that their vocations mean they are the people running towards danger for others as their duty, but who among us would do so? – Who would readily give up their own ambitions and hopes in order to let the other person live?
I know that I am utterly selfish, all I have ever given up is my time to prepare these little addresses to offer to you. – And yet the question remains before me: Am I willing to place my life on the line for someone else? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I have never been so challenged. Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Do I know love at all, especially that love evidenced by the ultimate sacrifice – my life for another? That love of a shepherd?”
Although my life is selfish when compared to the act of loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I have never – as far as I know – taken life away from another. I may have blighted someone’s life through ignorance or delusion, but I have never consciously stripped away a life. I have never plunged the knife in, figuratively or literally. This knife is a symbol of our contemporary selfishness, the fact that a person can wield it, rather than setting themselves as the target of the thrust instead of another. I have to say that that ultimate taking, can not be part of a christian’s life. Rather, the essence of our lives must be the giving to others, the generosity of spirit which derives from love. We may not be the heroic soldier of the cross who is a martyr for the sake of another’s life because of our love, but we, I hope, have given time and effort on behalf of others. And I hope we are still willing to offer something of our selves, despite our limited successes, for those around us.
That death in the neighbourhood has stopped me in my tracks and now the guilty verdict handed over on the former policeman, Derek Chauvin, should give everyone pause. The protests last year to say that Black Lives Matter and everything right up to this judgement should still be part of our consciousness. We should always remember that life matters and I have to ask, “Isn’t that what the Bishop’s LIFE initiative is all about? – the enabling of people to live well.”
This verdict points everyone towards the duty of care, our responsibility, for the other, whoever they are. After all, we are our brother’s keeper, aren’t we. At least that is what the story of Cain and Abel tells me. We can also see this biblical story as appropriate to today. Cain is the farmer and Abel the shepherd. They both produce sacrifices to God from their bounty. But Cain killed Abel, didn’t he? Like that stabbing across the river, we wonder, Why? Freud and the psychoanalysts would have one explanation, Levi-Strauss and the anthropologists would have another, the police and criminologists would give another set of reasons – in other words, everyone will explain it away as they reduce it to one reason or another. Perhaps they are all right. One person will kill another if there is something fundamentally wrong in the relationship, something out of kilter in their world. Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, what could they possibly have happened to sour their relationship? They were the first children in the world. What could be wrong between them?
Cain and Abel did not have the distractions of modern-day life to confuse them. The advertising and the diversion of attention from the essentials of life – which I would call the love of God and neighbour – were not part of their lives, but still something went wrong between them. The knife came out and a life was taken, just like that young life taken last week.
All of that is so completely different from the life of the shepherd. The shepherd is focussed on the other, not on him- – or her- – self. So focussed on the other that self is lost, figuratively and in fact. The shepherd will face the wild beasts in order to keep the flock safe. Do we do the same for the crowd around us?
We all know the saying from John about the shepherd. I think it is a challenging saying. The gospel of John, as a scholar of the last century says, makes uncomfortable reading for everyone. Jesus confronts the everyday self, the one where we gladly just go along with what the crowd want.
Jesus always challenges this state of affairs. He does not want us to rely on others to tell us what we want to do. We must rely on our very own selves to determine what should be done. This fundamental choice is based on being with others in that radical way of the shepherd.
Jesus has given us a model for behaviour – I would say that he speaks of the shepherd as perfect humanity. Sacrificial love for the other is the only way to live, for it gives life to others, just as Jesus promises and Bishop Rachel exhorts us in the LIFE initiative.
A shepherd would have saved that young boy had one been on that main street last week. A shepherd would have stepped in front of that knife. Sadly, I only saw all the emergency vehicles rushing by me to the incident. I was in the wrong place. I could not have shepherded all those boys, and so I feel guilty. My conscience guides me to acts of sacrifice, just as I am sure yours does.
I would have us all pray to become that person willing to give life to, and for, others, through altruism, not for our own sake but the the sake of others.