I have three questions today. Firstly do you recognise yourself as a sheep that Jesus cares for with tenderness and compassion? Secondly, as we are Christ's body the church, what is it like for the church to be a good shepherd, and in fact how good are we at loving one another as Jesus commanded? Finally as those who exercise the love of the good shepherd in the world what are we doing to enable those who are not of our own fold still to hear the shepherd's voice?...
Yet this picture so central to our faith invites us to see God in Christ as the one who not only loves and protects us, but is also prepared to sacrifice himself for us- to lay down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd shows love, courage and self- sacrifice in order to bring wholeness to the sheep. This is what is meant in today's passage from Acts that speaks of how there is 'salvation in no one else '. Salvation means wholeness and it is through the tender love of Christ that we find that wholeness. God loves each and every one of us so much that we can be quite sure that in all circumstances we are being protected and nurtured and encouraged to come to wholeness. This is what it means to acknowledge the good shepherd in our lives, and that relationship is key. Again and again we need to be reminded of that love of Christ for us as individuals.
But there is more. When we are baptised we become part of the body of Christ, the church. This means that we take on the role of being good shepherds to one another and that is quite a responsibility. The church is to follow the example of Christ in all its relationships, and as our epistle puts it today we are to 'believe in Jesus Christ and love one another'. We say that quite glibly I think and do not always think through the claim that has on our lives. We are to love, protect and nurture one another, and be prepared to lay down our lives for each other . Now maybe we would find that easier in dramatic circumstances. If we saw a fellow Christian under threat perhaps we would be ready to leap to their defence- I'd like to think so. But laying down our lives every day in a myriad of small sacrifices is harder to do in some ways. Sadly sometimes in churches we do not love one another. There can be bullying. There can be entrenched opinions and a reluctance to see things from someone else's point of view. There can be cliques and a failure to welcome outsiders. There can be a failure to protect the vulnerable, and the church has had to work hard in recent times to raise its standards in this area, especially in relationship to safe ministry with children.
I hope that you are mostly sitting here thinking, 'but that's not true here, we look after each other well.' And for the most part I believe that is true. Yet in the last few weeks I know of at least two people who sadly have experienced some bullying by others in our parish, and one person who had grounds for feeling excluded during the cheerful gatherings we have over morning tea. So we can always do better. We can all be asking ourselves 'am I really doing my best to love those with whom I worship? Do I use kind and gentle words? Do I show respect to even the very youngest I our midst? Do I know their names? Or do I just stick with the people I know already? Do I do everything I can to make sure no one in our church community feels unloved, uncared for or left out? ' Of course we know that none of us is perfect. We get tired, and stressed, or perhaps we are in pain, and then it can be hard to look beyond our own needs. Yet the encouragement of our readings today is to seek to embody the good shepherd and live our lives in love and service of others. That means we are called more and more to let go of our own desires and needs for how the church should be for our own individual comfort and more and more alert to what we may need to become for the good of others. It is worth realising that the word sheep is the same singular and plural- we don't talk about sheeps do we?! As sheep we are not isolated individuals, but always part of the flock. That means we have to be willing to move over for one another - especially when others are drawn by Christ into our fold. Every new sheep that joins our flock has as much right to be here as those of us who have been here for longer- and our flock is changed by their arrival. So we are called always to welcome and make room for new arrivals.
That call extends beyond our own church community, and indeed well beyond the Christian faith. For as Jesus says the aim is that there be 'one flock' and that all may heed the divine voice. The best way that others can recognise that voice is through our words and actions. When others find themselves loved, protected and nurtured, no matter their beliefs, they start to experience the love of the good shepherd. Amen
by Penny Jones, for Easter 4, St Mark's festival, 26 April 2015