Fourth Sunday of Easter

7 may 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Michael Rawson, Sub Dean & Pastor

Readings: Acts 2. 42–47; 1 Peter 2. 19–25; John 10. 1–10


Sunday nights wouldn't be the same for me without a dose of Countryfile. For those of you unfamiliar with the television programme, it's an hour of easy viewing about farming, conservation, food production and a weekly weather forecast for farmers. The presenters are an amiable bunch who might challenge our attitudes to modern food production, but manage not to annoy or send you in search of the remote control to change channel. They often follow the day to day stories of those who work the land, including shepherds (of both genders). These twenty first century shepherds are filmed careering around the countryside, often on quad bikes, together with their trusty sheepdogs. They, like the shepherds of first century Palestine, provide protection, freedom from fear for their flocks and sustenance. That's perhaps where the similarity ends.

Shepherds in Jesus' own day were outcasts and on the margins of society. Because of the nature of their work, they did not live in community and were unable to fulfil the religious demands of Judaism. Cast your minds back to Christmas and remember who were the first to arrive at the manger in Bethlehem - the shepherds, those whom polite society shunned. From his birth, Jesus is identified with the marginalized.

When Jesus describes himself as the gate and the shepherd, the people don't understand what he's talking about. And who can blame them. Perhaps they couldn’t identify with one on the margins, someone from a very different world from them. Here's a shepherd who calls the sheep by name and they hear his voice, and know his voice. Perhaps we have more than a little in common with Jesus' first hearers. How do you feel about being referred to as a sheep or belonging to a flock? It can all appear rather passive and patriarchal. As individuals we have both freedom and the ability to take responsibility for our actions. On the otherhand, the onus is on the sheep to recognize and to listen; not to be taken in by the bandit and thief for it is only Jesus who leads us to life. And in doing so he doesn’t offer empty promises, a cocoon from the blasts of daily life, or a temporary fix. It is not an escape from life but rather life lived in all abundance, here and now, transforming our relationships and our world. Today perhaps we are not so aware of bandits, but there are competing attractions for our loyalty, things which distract us from abundant life: materialism, addictions, extremist ideologies in religion and politics, and dare I say, the selfie culture. There is the temptation to make our world so small and no bigger than ourselves.

The security that Jesus offers us as the good shepherd is not a withdrawal from the world but rather freedom through following him, who is the way, the truth and the life. Although at the centre of the life of faith, as a shepherd Jesus is on the edges, just hanging on. He knows what it is to be rejected and to suffer, and even in his risen body he bears the scars of human cruelty. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd does not invite us to become passive, but rather challenges us to deepen our friendship and relationship with God. So we learn to recognize his voice through prayer, reading the scriptures, through the sacraments and particularly in the Eucharist. We see his face in those around us and we learn to follow him by seeing him in the marginalized and rejected; in laying down our lives in service by giving of our time and energy and skills for others.

It feels like an understatement to say that we live in interesting times but there’s no getting away from the fact that we do. Whether it is the instability of the world, the shift in politics in our own country, across Europe and in the United States, or the direction of travel by the church. And that’s before we add into the mix our own personal challenges and difficulties. How should we react to these times? Do we wring our hands and bemoan our fate, expecting them, others, to find a solution? Or do we seek to be part of the solution ourselves?

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls very simply how the Christian faith radically changed the outlook and practice of the early Christians and fledgling church. The people of the cross and resurrection ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayer.’ And the effect that this had on them was mind blowing. A radical new movement was planted and the early church grew at a pace and speed that leaves us gasping for breath. There was real momentum in this new movement which transformed lives and communities. This was not a bolt-on religious pastime, but something which changed people’s outlook and behaviour. For the early Christians it altered their views on property ownership, on their obligations as a community, in their care of the needy and their practice of hospitality. In and through all of this they lived lives of gratitude.

Today is our Annual Meeting when we review our life over the past year with thanksgiving and look to the future in hope. The vision of the church presented to us in the Acts of the Apostles is a real challenge to us. As a Cathedral community we seek to be ‘an inclusive Christian community, growing in orthodox faith and radical love.’ Our first reading paints a very similar picture, in which ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ We might want to reflect on this reading to see how our own life of faith in 2017 measures up and to encounter the Lord in all aspects of our individual and corporate life. May God bless and encourage us in all that we do in his name as we seek to be people of the Way in this place.