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The Good Shepherd


10 April 2005 11:00 | Fr John Cullen

NT: 1 Peter 2.19-25; Gospel: John 10.11-16 Of all the images in the Bible, the Good Shepherd is one of the most popular. It appears frequently in stained glass windows, it was a favourite subject for Victorians cards and 'holy pictures', and "The Lord's my Shepherd" is still among the 'top 20' hymns in the hymnal. More often than not the Good Shepherd is portrayed as a soft and sentimental figure of distinctly Anglo-Saxon colouring, dressed in a long flowing rove, serene, characterless, and surrounded by fluffy sheep of a breed more suited to the green pastures of England rather than the barren countryside of Judaea. The overall picture given is cosy, comfortable and reassuring - a far cry apparently from the reaction of those who first heard those words of Jesus in this morning's Gospel.

According to the Gospel writer's account, some of those listening to Jesus that day felt anything but cosy, comfortable or reassured by his words. Just a few verses beyond where our Gospel ends, we discover that the people 'were divided because of these words. Many of them said: "He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?"' And a few verses further on we are told the crowd turned violent, and took up stones to throw at Jesus!

What had upset them? Was there more in Jesus' teaching about his role as 'shepherd' than meets the eye? If we look a little more closely at this passage, we will discover that in speaking about the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not just referring to his role as pastor or protector or teacher. What he is saying has much wider application, and refers as much to the role of the sheep as to that of the shepherd, and therefore involves the relationship between the master and his followers. And that of course has implications for all of us….

First, Jesus draws a sharp distinction between his way of being a shepherd, and the way 'the hired help' exercises his responsibility. The Good Shepherd is constantly on the alert, but more than that, in the face of danger he is ready to give his life for the sake of the sheep. The hired hand has no real care for the sheep, and in the face of danger takes the easy way out, and the leaves the sheep in peril. Those who would follow the Good Shepherd are prepared to risk all, in order to fulfil their calling. Throughout their history the people of Israel had been shepherded by various weak or faithless kings and religious leaders, and Jesus words would have struck a heavy chord in the leaders of his own day whom he openly challenged and criticised.

But there's a word here for more than just those in positions of leadership. Doesn't Jesus call all who would follow him to be prepared to risk everything? "Those who would save their life will lose it, but those who are ready to lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it…" That was enough to give more than just the security conscious or faint-hearted reason for having second thoughts.

The second characteristic of the Good Shepherd likewise deserves careful pondering. Jesus tells us that as the Good Shepherd, 'knows his sheep and his sheep know him - just as the Father knows him and he knows the Father'. This relationship between shepherd and sheep is more than just recognition - it is an intimate knowing, a total acceptance of and deep involvement in the lives of his sheep. He knows us each by name, he cares for us and about us, because he sees those depths within us that others don't see. Jesus sees in us the beauty of God's image in which each one of us is made - a beauty in us that even we ourselves don't always recognise.

There are no strangers in the flock of Christ: none of us is unrecognised, none of us is unloved. On the contrary, each one of us is precious in his sight, and if we are missing, he leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one that is lost. What a contrast that is with the way so many of our communities and congregations function today where so many seem to want to preserve their anonymity and their distance.

Of course a lot has to do with a lack of trust, or even a fear of being known - but is it any wonder that people get overwhelmed by their self-imposed loneliness, living behind closed or even locked doors, because of a reluctance to get to know or be known by their neighbours? Today, so many in our society make a virtue out of independence and self-sufficiency, and they wonder why something inside them begins to shrivel up and die. But reaching out is a risky business - because in reaching out to others, we ourselves have to be prepared to be known.

And yet, this is precisely what the Good Shepherd asks of us - if we are to follow him.

Which brings us to the third characteristic of the Good Shepherd. When he invites us to know him and be known by him, he is not inviting us into an exclusive, cosy fellowship of likeminded people. For he tells us: "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice." There is always room for more, for others, for newcomers in the family of God.

If we would be followers of the Good Shepherd we will show people by our welcome that we are as open-hearted, as generous and inclusive as God is to us. But that too is a risky business - because Jesus is talking about those 'who do not belong to this fold', those who are therefore different from us. How different? This is no theoretical matter. It is the issue that is causing real difficulty within our Anglican Church at the present time. It's also a difficulty that the Roman Catholic Church will face as it comes to elect a new pope to succeed John Paul II.

The real problem is that Jesus tells us it is he who will - 'must' - bring them in! Are we ready and willing to face the consequences? Are we ready to acknowledge that those who God may bring into our midst are also children of God, made in the image of God? If we don't notice the beauty of God's image in them at first sight - then let us pray that God will open our eyes that we may see them as he sees them. Perhaps we might also pray that God will enable us to see ourselves as he in his boundless patience and outrageous generosity sees us.

Is it any wonder that those who first heard these words of Jesus found them too much to take? They were God-fearing, faithful people - but this was asking just too much. So they said he had a demon, and was out of his mind, and took up stones to throw at him.

If we are honest, we may find them difficult at first reading too, because they require us to change our ways, the ways we think and the way we act. But the more we ponder the message of Easter, we will realise that Jesus' way of living by self-giving is the way to life in all its fullness. It is what the New Testament calls 'resurrection life'. And the closer we get to that way of living, the closer we get to living resurrection life ourselves, here and now. This Easter season reminds us that we too are called to that way of living; and more than that: we are actually empowered by the Spirit of God to get on with it!
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