Sermon Fourth Sunday of Easter 9.30am Parish Eucharist the Barn Church Kew 25 April 2021 – by Sister Margaret Anne
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading from John in which Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd”. This title for Christ is based on this gospel passage and also the parable of the Good Shepherd in Luke’s gospel. In early Christian art, such as in the catacombs, Christ was often represented as the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. I have many times visited Holy Island, or Lindisfarne as it is more popularly called, a tidal island off the Northumberland coast renowned for its Celtic saints, notably Aidan and Cuthbert. I have often experienced a very familiar sight in such a rural setting, that of the modern shepherd on his jeep rounding up the sheep! The typical scene of sheep and shepherd as Jesus describes it in John’s gospel would have been rather different. The shepherd would have been on foot – no handy modern jeep to sit on! Also, in the Palestine of Jesus’ day the shepherd went ahead of the sheep, whereas today in our Western society the shepherd drives the sheep from behind. This may say something about differences between Western and Middle Eastern styles of leadership! But whatever model or style of leadership we might prefer, the important image or figure of speech used here by Jesus is that of the good shepherd who cares for and protects his own.
Jesus here claims that as the good shepherd he gives his life for the sheep. He is addressing the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees would have been familiar with the Old Testament scriptural background to the metaphor Jesus uses here – that striking and important chapter 34 of the prophet Ezekiel in which Israel’s incompetent leaders are described as false shepherds, who not only fail to nurture their flock, but positively drive them away. Then Ezekiel in the same chapter goes on to describe God as the true shepherd, caring for the people. God will seek out the scattered sheep, his beloved people. Immersed in the Old Testament scriptures as the Pharisees would have been, they would have realised that Jesus’ image of himself as the good shepherd implied that, in taking on this title for himself, he was aligning himself with the loving and saving purposes of God. A few verses earlier than our gospel reading for today, Jesus also claims that he is the gate for the sheep. There is a wealth of associated meaning here. The shepherd of first century Palestine would have himself literally acted as the gate for the sheep by lying down and sleeping across the opening to the sheepfold by night, ensuring that the sheep remained firmly and safely inside. And of course by day the open gate would have been the means of access for the sheep. So in spiritual terms by claiming that he is the gate for the sheep, Jesus is stating that he is both protector and also the way to abundant life. Jesus also makes it clear that his role as good shepherd is a sacrificial one, when he says, “ I lay down my life for the sheep”. There is also a prophetic hint of the resurrection, for he will lay down his life, “in order to take it up again”.
Today is also kept in the Church as Vocations Sunday. It is a day when churches are encouraged to think about the meaning of vocation, and their own in particular. The word of course literally means “calling”, from its Latin root. In centuries gone by, and even not that long ago in the first half of the twentieth century, vocation in church circles was often understood to be the privilege of the few rather than the many. Priests had a vocation to serve God in the Church, religious – monks and nuns – had a similar vocation with an emphasis on a life of prayer. Certain caring or educational professions would be referred to as vocational, such as teachers, doctors and nurses. Hopefully by now, in this relatively enlightened twenty-first century, people will be more aware that vocation – calling – is not just the privilege of the few, or even the many, but includes all.
Everyone has a vocation. First, we are called to be flourishing, joyous human beings. Secondly, we are called to grow in the knowledge and love of God. For most of us if not all of us here today that will be as Christians – people who have heard the call of Christ and who have responded and followed that call. That is why we are here in church this morning. Or maybe some of us are still seeking. In terms of church life, vocation is not about hierarchy. Sadly, it has often been understood that way in the past. Rather it is about diversity and co-operation. St Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament is helpful. In any one congregation it is as if each of us is part of a body. We all work together in our different ways as a team to help build up the kingdom of God. A time of vacancy in a parish, such as now, is always a litmus-test time to see how the local body of Christ is really working. It is a time when church members are tested and challenged in more ways than usual, and it can be unsettling. But – to quote a well-known phrase – every crisis is an opportunity. I have often thought that a parish vacancy is a great time for growth. I am not necessarily talking about numbers. I’m talking about spiritual growth and a flowering of gifts, spiritual and otherwise. A vacancy is a great opportunity for people to discover gifts that have been latent, and they had never realised they had. It is a time for willingness to lend a helping hand, rather than turning away and letting someone else get on with it.
The body of Christ can never depend simply on one person. That is not how the body works – to work well, all parts of the body need to thrive. Like any other group, church life has to be ordered. And that is why God calls people to be bishops, priests and deacons who can engage in a ministry of the Word – preaching and teaching – the sacraments and pastoral care. But of course such tasks, with the exception of certain sacramental functions, are not exclusively clerical. It is really important that lay people are engaged in these ways as well.
At one level of course in the Church of God we are all priests. This is eloquently expressed in the first letter of Peter in the New Testament: “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.
“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.
This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers acknowledges that we are all called to offer spiritual praise and worship to God. That is at the heart of what we are all about, and why we come here Sunday by Sunday.
Presumably most of us are here this morning because at some point in our lives God made us aware that God is real and that God is love. Like the saints before us, we are called to show forth that love in our daily lives. Today is also the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist. The gospel that bears his name gives powerful testimony to God’s love for us in Christ, particularly to how suffering with and for Christ is often at the heart of the Christian calling. It is Eastertide. Yes, life has many trials and struggles, and we have all been made so aware of that in the last year of the global pandemic. It has been an exceptionally hard year world-wide. There are powers at work both within and beyond this world that militate against our true vocation to flourish as human beings, as Christians, as the beloved children of God. Patient endurance is a great gift from God. Let us pray that as we journey through this Eastertide, we may grow in such patient endurance. And may we journey with joy, confident in Jesus our Good Shepherd, whose risen presence accompanies and sustains us come what may, at all times and in all places. Alleluia!