22nd April 2024

Sheep and Shepherds

A sermon preached on 21 April 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Easter, at the 10:30am Choral Eucharist

The Revd Canon Anna Macham, Precentor

Acts 4: 5-12; John 10: 11-18



Several years ago there was a series of adverts for the savings bank ING direct.  They were on TV and on billboards at train stations, so you may remember them.  The TV ones featured people at different stages of life having fun doing the simple, ordinary things that everyone does in their time: a boy riding a bike, little kids jumping in puddles, a couple of teenagers having a snowball fight with someone older who looks like one of their parents, old ladies chatting and laughing together, and so on.  The caption on the billboards read: “Sometimes it’s good to be a sheep”.  The implication was that if you follow the crowd and- like over a million other people like you across the UK- you take out this particular savings account or mortgage, all your worries about the future will be taken care of.  Everything in your life will be simple and easy to manage: like a well-tended sheep, you will feel safe and secure, and well cared for.


“Sometimes it’s good to be a sheep”.  That statement implies that normally being compared to a sheep isn’t a very positive thing.  I must admit, the frequent references to people being like sheep in the Bible have never really resonated that much with me.  Maybe it’s too many times of singing “We all like sheep” in Handel’s Messiah.  Or maybe it’s because- until moving to Salisbury 5 years ago- I’ve mostly lived in larger towns or cities, so the image doesn’t seem that relevant.  Or- more likely- it’s that usually we think of sheep as being stupid, dependent creatures, and- even if they can also be endearing- that’s not how we like to think of ourselves.  Sheep, unlike some other tougher animals, need good grazing and abundant water, and lots of human care.


Throughout the bible, God’s relationship with human beings is frequently compared with that of shepherd and sheep.  Just as sheep are weak and dependent, so the shepherd, by contrast, is proactive.  He goes after the lost, steers them to fresh grazing and water, and protects them from predators.  Forget the English idea of a shepherd standing on a gentle green hillside a short distance away from his sheep, whistling to his dog to herd the sheep into pens: the middle eastern shepherd wouldn’t have been in the background; he would have been in front of the flock, leading the way, rescuing his sheep from snakes and scorpions and other animals with his crook as he went.  He would have a particular call for each one, and he would know them by name; the sheep would recognise his voice and follow him.


It’s good to be a sheep, but our readings this morning also encourage us to be more like the shepherd.  In the Gospel, Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, in the letters of John, which were possibly written by the same person who wrote the Gospel, the author says: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”.  In this way, John exhorts the early Christian community to follow the example of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd who gives everything for the sake of those in his care.


So what does it mean to be like a shepherd?  What did it involve for Jesus, and what might it involve for us?


Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd to show the lengths to which he will go for those in his care.  Unlike the hired hand, who is ultimately more concerned about his wages and his own safety, the “good” shepherd shows his love for the sheep by risking his life for them.  The lowest of the low, and considered ritually unclean, a shepherd was the dedicated servant of his flock; he would lie across the open entrance to the sheepfold, so that no sheep could get out, nor could anyone or anything get in without passing him: he literally defended them with his life.  His concern for them is so great that even death itself is not too great a sacrifice.

And- as John is keen to tell us- the thought of his death isn’t something that overcomes Jesus or takes him by surprise.   It’s something he freely chooses out of love for his sheep.  He surrenders himself, in loving obedience to the Father.  When Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down his life in his death on the cross for us, this is an act of chosen self-giving, chosen self-sacrifice, rooted in love.


This is the way of life that John encourages us to follow.   He invites us to reflect on what Jesus has done, and then to imitate it, recognising that his love for us is the source of our love for each other.  He invites us to be those who, like the good shepherd, lay down our lives.


It’s a challenging thing, though, to live our lives in this way.  However inspired we may be to do something, to give of ourselves and make sacrifices for others- this isn’t easy: much easier to be a sheep and follow the crowd; much easier to sit back and rest for a while and let someone else take the lead.


So what does all of this have to do with us this morning?  Well, today is Vocations Sunday, a day set aside by the Church for everyone to discover what God might be calling them to, and to consider their response.  It’s a day to reflect on where we find ourselves as people who have been called, in baptism, to follow Christ; a day to ask ourselves where God might be leading us at this stage on our journey, both as individuals and as a community.  It’s a day to remind ourselves that we are not only sheep; we’re also called to be like the shepherd.


Perhaps there are ways in which the gifts you have or the work or other things you do already may be used by God- whether in church of out of it- as part of your response to God’s invitation to you?  Perhaps there is a new role you could take up on behalf of the wider Christian community, or outside it.  Perhaps you are wondering, deep down, whether God is calling you to ordained ministry.  We often think of vocations in terms of ministry within the church: to be ordained or a lay minister.  However, vocation simply means what you are called by God to be and do.  Each one of us, I am sure, will have sensed at some point in our lives, a desire to offer something more to the God who has given everything for us.


Whatever God is calling us to, our vocation, at its heart, is basically the same as that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who invites us to lay down our lives for one another.  And like him, we also have a choice.  No one will force us to respond to his invitation.  We may have doubts, we may feel unsure or confused.  If we feel called to a particular ministry or task within or beyond the church community, on our own or together with others, it may not be clear exactly what that might mean.  Sometimes it might not be what we expect.  Speaking personally, I remember being very moved as a teenager, when the vote for the ordination of women was passed, although I had no idea at the time that I would end up becoming a priest myself.  Not what I expected necessarily, but I’m sure all of us could tell similar stories of how seemingly insignificant moments or events have influenced the course of our lives.


But whatever we choose to do, whatever we decide, if we have a desire to do something, and God is really calling us, the desire to act on this call, to respond,  won’t go away.  God will go on calling us, he will go on encouraging and protecting us.  Above all, he will never stop loving us, for he is the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for the sheep.


Listening to today’s readings, it would be easy to imagine ourselves primarily as the sheep, and in an important sense that’s right.  Like sheep, we are vulnerable and we need God’s care and protection.  When we’re anxious or fearful, it’s reassuring to know we are cared for by the Good Shepherd and not by a hired hand.  Perhaps that’s especially true when so many things in the world seem uncertain.  And yet we’re also called to be like the shepherd.  As John says in his letter, we are to lay down our lives for one another.


When Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, the word doesn’t just mean good; it can also be translated beautiful.  There is something attractive, compelling even, about the image of Jesus as the good shepherd who loves his sheep and gives his yes to us, even as he lays down his life.  The question is: how will we respond to his invitation?  Will we give our yes to him?