Sermon April 22
The Loving Shepherd
Today’s readings are all about love. The disciples offered healing in Jesus’ name because of love. Jesus loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. Jesus is a Good Shepherd who loves us like a shepherd loves his flock. But hang on, you may ask. The reading talks about hired hands who run away when danger approaches, because they don’t love the sheep. In New Zealand our way of looking after sheep is very different from that of first century Palestine. Instead of 20 or so sheep that we know from birth, and tend to personally, sheep are farmed in huge stations, spread on top of high mountains and vast paddocks, and only see people a few times a year when they need to be dealt with. We certainly wouldn’t expect a hired worker to abandon their job because danger is near.
And how about wolves? We don’t have those here threatening our sheep. Much of what Jesus says is in the form of a metaphor, a parallel. Jesus is saying that we are his, just like the sheep belong to the shepherd, that he cares for us deeply, closely, and knows all our trials. He knows when we are facing danger, because wolves can come in many forms in our lives. We can tell Jesus about our dangers and fears – we can tell him when we are scared and lonely, when we are being bullied or ignored, or when we have had bad news or a health scare. Because Jesus cares so deeply for us, he will listen to our concerns. Jesus says that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him – do you know Jesus? Can you trust him? It comes with practice. Jesus lays down his life for his sheep. He is like a parent who doesn’t hesitate to push a child out of the way of a car, not caring for their own safety. When you love, you would die for someone.
But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story, as we can all remember from our readings on Easter Day! Jesus has beaten death, so he can continue loving us and caring for us, and for all people, until he returns to the earth. Did you notice the sentence about other sheep in our reading?
‘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.’
Many people have argued about what this verse means. Certainly, it goes beyond the Jewish people surrounding Jesus in the beginning of the church. It goes to the Gentiles, which means anyone else. Maybe it means people who follow other religions – back in Jesus’ day, Gentiles certainly had their own religions.
I wonder if Jesus is referring to Muslims, and Hindus, and Pastafarians who worship the flying Spaghetti monster. Maybe Jesus is even referring to those who deny his very existence! Maybe some of those sheep are atheists, perhaps people who argue vehemently against the existence of God, or those who don’t give it any thought and just continue on their life journey without any awareness of the spiritual. There are many of these people aren’t there? Many, if not all, of us have family members we could describe like that, and they can be the hardest to reach with the Gospel, because they haven’t even considered that there is a lack in their lives, a God-sized hole in their hearts.
In the paper the other day there was a photo of the Pope, giving a hug to a little boy. The boy’s atheist father had died, and the child was anxious to know whether he had gone to heaven. “He was a very good man” he told the Pope, through his tears. Instead of arguing theology about who is in and who is out, the Pope reached out in love and hugged him, giving comfort. I don’t know what the Pope said to this lad, but I wonder if he thought of this scripture -’I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.’
Loving is that simple really – we don’t need to argue and convince people, just love them. We don’t need to condemn or judge other people’s behaviour or weird habits or how they dress or who they share their lives with. Just love. It’s enough.
Our reading from John’s letter tells us:‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’
Loving in action is hard sometimes. It can be uncomfortable. A Good Shepherd has to love their flock in action – they chase them around with dogs and horses and quad bikes, they dip and drench them, shear them and send them out into the cold. But loving them needs these things to happen to keep them well. If they let the sheep run free they would soon be taken over by worms and parasites and would get sick and die. If they weren’t shorn, they would end up looking like Shrek the sheep – many years’ growth of long merino wool. It’s not just looking odd that’s the problem here -if a sheep with too much wool falls over, it can struggle to get up, especially if it is wet. A sheep left like that will die. Yes, the sheep need their Shepherd too.
We need our shepherd as well. We might not see a person swinging a shepherd’s crook, or a quad bike chasing us, but we have the part of God called the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit can whisper to us the way that we need to go, and if we are listening, that guidance is there for us. Whenever we are scared and lonely, or unsure, as we get used to listening to the Shepherd’s voice, we know that we are not abandoned.
Does Jesus dip us in drench and worm us? Yes he does, in a manner of speaking. By taking part in church life and listening to teaching, by worshipping together and reading our Bibles, God shows us those areas of our life to change, and helps us do it. Does God shear off our wool? Maybe we can say yes to that too. If the wool is the crop from the sheep, it could be like the fruit of our actions. As the crop is gathered, it can go to do good in our world. We can trust God for guidance as to how to use our resources to grow God’s kingdom on earth. Our wool is our blessing to the world.
Today, may you feel wild and woolly, ready to listen to your shepherd, to hear his voice, and to love everyone you meet in truth and action, because that is what he wants us to do.