In our readings for today we are offered some wonderful images of the perfect Christian life.
In our Psalm and in our reading from St John’s gospel we are being offered the comforting image of God caring for us just as any good shepherd would care for his flock.
And in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear of that flock living out their Lord’s calling for all Christians by sharing in prayer, teaching, fellowship and the sacred meal we were given at the Last Supper.
In John’s gospel we hear the imagery of first century shepherding practice as a way of revealing Jesus’ own true identity, and the nature of the relationship he wants to have with us.
John describes Jesus’ words as a figure of speech – rather than dismissing Jesus’ words as mere fanciful word-painting, that phrase, figure of speech, invites us to fully engage with what Jesus is saying through the use of our imaginations.
At the moment, we are all having to use our memories and our imaginations a lot as we cope with the necessary restrictions that we are having to live under.
So, perhaps today’s readings provide us with a useful exercise in channelling our imaginations in the direction of true Christian commitment.
Let us think first about the imagery of that first century sheepfold.
The ideal sheepfold in those earlier times was –
- a place of safety on a rolling hillside;
- a place where several shepherds could bring their flocks for shelter and rest;
- a place that was easy to defend from wild animals and thieves.
The ideal sheepfold was a shelter – a place of safety.
But, no matter how safe the enclosure of the sheepfold, the sheep could not spend their whole lives there.
The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but they must learn to trust and follow the shepherd – to find food, to engage in healthy exercise – to live!
Jesus tells us that: When he has BROUGHT OUT all of his own, he goes ahead of them.
It is interesting to note that the Greek word used at this moment, and that is usually translated as brought out, is not as weak as this rendering suggests.
This word is used at several points in the gospel narrative, and usually when Jesus is involved in some sort of battle –
- it is used whenever he casts out a demon;
- it is used when he throws the money changers out of the Temple;
- it is used when he speaks of driving out the ‘ruler of this world’.
Every time this word is used, Jesus is pushing, pulling, throwing, driving, exorcising, casting out.
But, when we enter the imagery of the pastoral idyll, our translators turn it into something far more gentle – he simply brings his sheep out of the fold.
Of course, REAL sheep may be content to placidly follow their shepherd’s voice, but … Jesus is not talking about REAL sheep, he is talking about us.
Jesus is talking about his call to us, about speaking the word that will bring us out of our own sheepfolds – out of those places of safety and comfort that we have built around ourselves.
There is a seductive force that pulls us into our own personal sheepfolds; there is a seductive force that tells us that everything will be all right, as long as we keep quiet and stay put.
Sadly, the times we are currently living through could so easily reinforce those misguided notions.
Despite the daily call to ‘stay home’ and ‘stay safe’ we should never lose sight of Christ’s call in our lives.
We still need Jesus pushing, pulling, throwing, driving and casting us out of the places of spiritual stagnation and dormancy that surround us in our comfortable and cosy enclosures – those routines and practices that we treasure so dearly!
So, what can we do in response to Jesus’ call during these days of lockdown? The clue lies in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles …
We are called to learn more about the Christian way of life, and then to put that knowledge into practice.
How often are you reading the bible during these times of isolation?
- Is it gathering dust on your bookshelf, or are you using the time to engage with God’s word on a regular basis?
How are you engaging in Christian fellowship?
- Are you telephoning and emailing those who you know to be in need of companionship?
- If you are not in the vulnerable category, are you helping those who are?
- Are you being brave enough to tell people about your Christian faith as you follow Jesus’ call into fellowship with those around you?
Are you praying regularly?
- Every day there is a simple service of Daily Prayer on our new church website – are you using that resource?
- Or, do you already have a routine of prayer that you are continuing to follow?
- Are you taking time every single day to speak to God about your fears and your hopes, your joys and your needs?
- Or, has all that slipped into the background simply because the church building is not open?
And then there is Jesus’ call to do this in remembrance of me … Because of the closure of our churches we are not able to physically gather around the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine. But … there are two services of Holy Communion on our website each week, and the Eucharist is being celebrated for you every single day.
- Are you pausing to give thanks for the holy meal that Jesus gave us at the very point of his entering into the final stages of his Agony on earth?
- Are you taking advantage of the guidance on Spiritual Communion that has been prepared and published by the Church of England to help sustain your spiritual and physical lives during these strange times?
When you read today’s extract from the Acts of the Apostles, you read of the great things those early Christians were inspired to do because they had allowed themselves to be driven out of the comfort of their self-constructed sheepfolds.
Those early Christians knew that study, fellowship, communion and prayer were there to strengthen them in their calling to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ as far and as wide as possible, through acts of self-sacrifice and generosity. Then, as that reading says: day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
What are we doing to further the Lord’s work in our communities?
More and more people are hearing that Good News despite the lockdown.
Enormous numbers are responding to the new digital way of ‘doing church’.
Life is going on out there, and God is working his purpose out – but, are we willing to let him use us in that mission?
Of course, all of this is scary stuff, isn’t it? But, then there is our third reading – Psalm 23.
When the going gets tough, when our enthusiasm to be good Christians feels as though it is waning, when we don’t feel there is anything we can do that is of any real use to God – then is the time to read that most famous of psalms again, and to remember that he wants us to know his generosity, his refreshment, his protection, his comfort, his generosity, his grace, goodness and loving mercy.
Then he wants us to get up and carry on, in the name of our risen Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Amen.