Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, the lectionary passages for the day include a gospel account that emphasises Jesus as the good shepherd.
The fourth Sunday in Eastertide is therefore often designated as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In both the Old and New Testaments, God is frequently identified as a faithful shepherd to his people.
Possibly one of the most well known verses in the Bible is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Part of the image is the implication that we are the sheep and we can feel safe being in the sheep fold.
A few weeks ago we had the pilgrimage to St Albans Cathedral and I was chatting with someone who does not go to church. We walked past a few pubs that had been boarded up and he was telling me about how pubs have to be quite creative in trying to welcoming new people in: sport on TVs, music, quiz nights, good food and atmosphere.
This is also what the church is seeking to do: fresh expressions is focused news ways of being church or “reaching new people in new ways.”
In a few weeks there is an initiative “Thy Kingdom Come,” that is encouraging churches to be centered on prayer. We also have Mission Action Plans that encourage us to think about how we make new disciples and plan for the future.
I have found in conversations with colleagues that sometimes this focus on new initiatives and plans can be exhausting and it is important to find a balance.
It is not just in the church as many people in conversations will describe feeling exhausted, overworked and struggling with many demands. It is the same for young people who face a challenging future and have to deal with the challenges of making a start in a competitive world.
It is not surprising that more resources are going into mental health and supporting mindfulness in schools.
I have been thinking about the importance of having safe spaces. Somewhere where you can relax and not feel threatened or even frightened. It may be a shed, the allotment, in the garden, or the pub, and possibly even the church.
These places can be where you can find the renewed energy and strength to go back and face what life brings.
Likewise, this works with people. We want to be with people with whom we feel safe.
In today’s Gospel Jesus talks about himself. He talks about who he is and what he does. He says that he’s the “good shepherd.” He will lay down his life for his sheep. The good shepherd is not produced by good sheep. The sheep are the recipients of the shepherd’s goodness and love.
There are, in the Bible, examples of bad shepherds and a good example is the book of Ezekiel.
The shepherds were the leaders of the people and had failed by neglect and to make matters worse exploiting them. These are the ones who run away when a wolf or danger comes. The hired hand is not personally invested in caring for the sheep, it’s a job.
In Ezekiel there is a reference to how God will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” (Ezek. 34:11) Later the Lord says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” Jesus is the good shepherd because he is the loving, searching seeking and self sacrificial shepherd who know the sheep by name and they know his voice.
We can very easily associate sheep with being not very intelligent and having a tendency to getting lost. I don’t know if that is a fair description. I quite admire them for their ruggedness and ability to thrive in all conditions. But I wonder if the image is more about an image of the church in which the emphasis is not on what we do and what we set out to achieve but rather a place where we recognise what God has done for us.
It says church is where Christ comes to us and loves us, bringing us into his fold, keeping us safe in his fold. If we think that church is about what we do and what we need to build and the next great idea then we will not feel comfortable with this image.
The image in John suggests church is a place where we come to receive and be refreshed. In communion there is recognition that this receiving of bread and wine is not something we do for God but rather it is something God does for us.
God gives us the sustenance we need. God gives us the guidance we require. God gives us the necessary help and encouragement to keep on the journey with God.
There are certain things that require a huge amount of effort and organisation. The development with the village shop being a very good example. The church is different in the sense that it a gift from God, and what we do in church is really responding to what God has done for us. I read something this week that put it this way: “In our service today, we give something to God: We give our gifts, our prayers, our praise, and our very lives. But, most of what we do is to receive what God has given us: God’s gifts, God’s word, God’s comfort, God’s love and care, God’s challenge and prodding.
To continue the metaphor that’s found in today’s Gospel, we are in the “fold,” in the church, because the shepherd has called us to be here, because the shepherd has put us here.”
We are most likely very aware of our own faults and failings, but being in the fold of the good shepherd is not dependent on being a good sheep. We are here because faith is a gift and church is about about God, who doesn’t wait until we get it all together. Or until we get really serious about our religion and worked hard at it.
The good shepherd searches for us and loves us before we know how to love him in return. In life, in death, in life beyond death, this is our hope.
We are here because hopefully it is a safe place where we can be refreshed and renewed.