Here’s the sermon I preached at High Mass this morning.
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week I was down in the Sunday School with the children telling them the Godly Play story of the twelve apostles using a painting of the Last Supper. Truth be told, it’s a narrative which pretty much just recounts the gruesome ways most of them died. It makes for fabulous stories, but tales of kind shepherds and abundant life, they most certainly are not.
Swords, spears, saws, stones. Those who felt threatened by the gospel message the apostles proclaimed can’t be faulted for a lack of creativity in how they tried to stop the growth of the early church. In the wondering time after the story, the children wanted to know more about how the men died, whether it hurt, why they didn’t try to escape.
And there were more difficult questions too: ‘Why didn’t God protect the people who were telling others about Jesus?’ ‘Why do bad things happen to Christians today?’ ‘Why doesn’t God keep everyone who loves him safe?’ ‘Why does God allow people to do evil things?’
(I’ve often joked that if the Scottish Episcopal Church should introduce an exam for its ordinands, it should be written by children. The questions I was fielding last Sunday were far more complicated than any essay I was set during my training.)
Jesus says in John’s gospel, ‘The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.… I come that they may have life and have it abundantly’.
The psalmist sings, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want.’
The first letter of Peter rejoices that we, having gone astray like lost sheep, have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
But where does Jesus, the good shepherd, lead his sheep? This side of Holy Week, we know that the journey we traveled with him led not to a green pasture but to a hill called ‘The Skull’. Jesus, the gate through whom all must enter to have abundant life, opens not onto still waters, but the turbulent water of our baptism.
Whatever metaphor Jesus employs, that of shepherd or gate, a life with him as leader or entrance is not going to be an easy life. It is to be the painful living of Good Friday and Easter over and over and over again, falling and rising, death and birth, pain and awe, loneliness and fellowship, hardship and generosity. If we need any further proof, we need only return to the lives — and deaths — of his apostles.
It’s no wonder those listening to him didn’t understand what he was talking about. There are days when I think that we must be pretty stupid and sheep-like to actually follow him.
But this, the way of the Shepherd, the way through the Gate, is the way of love. This is the way the apostles walked, straight through that Gate, following their Shepherd out into a world of fear and hostility, following their Shepherd right to their deaths, along the way bravely or blindly proclaiming the Good News to all who would stop to hear them, telling the stories of the one who by sharing bread and wine, by performing miracles and signs, by forgiving and accepting and welcoming the unforgivable and the unacceptable and the unwelcomable, showed them how to love and live with abundance.
At the end of John’s gospel, after being betrayed, denied, abandoned and killed, after showing his disciples that the story didn’t end on that hillside, Jesus returns to all this talk about sheep. ‘Peter’, he asks, ‘do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord, I love you’, Peter replies. ‘Feed my sheep’, Jesus commands.
This is Peter, the rock on whom Jesus once said he would build his church, Peter the apostle who denied him three times, Peter, the one who will go on to die on a cross like his Lord, only upside down, is the one given charge over the flock. Fickle, vulnerable, scared, unreliable, utterly human Peter. Fallen and risen, heartbroken and healed, in pain and in awe, Peter hears the voice of his Shepherd call his name once more.
So then, are we sheep or have we, through the post-resurrection commissioning of Peter, become shepherds ourselves? Are we the lost? Or are we the leaders? Perhaps a mixed metaphor is an apt response to the one Jesus offers to us concerning himself. Perhaps we are both. Perhaps, we, confused and lacking understanding are not so unlike those who first heard Jesus, unsure of quite what we believe.
Because as the American priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says:
‘We are not, at heart, believers in an institution or ideology but in a relationship that changes from day to day and year to year. Just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means that we believe we know who will be with us when it does. Some days we are as firm in our faith as apostles and somedays we are like lost sheep, which means that we belong to the flock not because we are certain of God but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God’s hand.’ (The Preaching Life)
Named and known, called to follow, sent to lead, we gather here for teaching and fellowship, for the breaking of bread and prayer. And then we receive our own commission to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, the command to walk through the gate which is the crucified and risen Christ, opening up onto a suffering world.
The dangers we face are different from those of the first apostles. The chances of someone coming after us with stones or a saw are, after all, relatively slim. But now at the start of Christian Aid week — or anytime we listen to the news, really — we are reminded that there are Christians elsewhere whose work and worship are threatened daily by persecution. And we need only look around to see that fear, hunger, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression and violence are for too many people more of a reality than abundant life.
‘Do you love me?’ the Shepherd asks as we walk through the Gate. ‘Then tend my flock’.