Sunday, 29 April 2012

Jesus the Good Shepherd & Christ the Paschal Lamb

Sermon at Methodist Chapel Cheddington – Easter 4 April 29th 2012


On this 4th Sunday of Easter – gospel lesson shifts from events after Jesus’ resurrection to a reflection on who and what he is.

Many pictures in Scripture. John starts gospel – grand vision of one who was before time through whom all things created came into being. Very Word of God made flesh. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Jesus himself taught disciples he was the Vine – they the branches. He said he was the bread of life. At another time – living water welling up to eternal life. Gate of the sheepfold.

Some of first images of Jesus in churches and catacombs do not portray him on cross or laid in manger, but as a gentle shepherd. One of the earliest pictures shows Jesus as a young man in a short white tunic, with a lamb draped across his shoulders. They show the importance of John 10 to the early converts to Christianity.

It’s not what the disciples wanted their master to be. Peter had already declared that Jesus was “Messiah, Son of the living God.” When Jesus told him the Messiah would have to lay down his life and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests, then be killed and eventually raised again to new life Peter protested and was himself rebuked and silenced. No – the disciples did not want a meek and mild leader – they wanted a strong, victorious one.

It’s fair to say most of us don’t have much experience of sheep and shepherds. In Jesus’ day, they were considered cowardly and dishonest – but here we are talking about a good shepherd, not a hired hand, but one who would lay down his life for his sheep.

It’s a pastoral picture of people’s lives everyone could understand. Sheep were important. Shepherds were not. Sheep provided milk. The milk also made cheese. They represented wealth to their owner. They were even sacrificed in religious rituals. Shepherds were mistrusted, cowardly and dishonest. Sheep depended on the shepherd for protection, but men depended on the sheep for food.

The first disciples would have thought it odd that Jesus portrayed himself as a shepherd. Wasn’t that God? OT Scripture is full of images of God as shepherd of his chosen people. The psalm appointed for today is psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

What is it to be a member of Christ’s flock? It means to be known to the Father and to know him. It means to enter the divine sheepfold. To go in through the gate. It means making that choice to go in, because these sheep are not herded into the pen against their will. If lost, we must allow ourselves to be found and brought home safe. Not just once, but again and again. We often go astray, yet the good shepherd is there to bring us home, if we will only allow ourselves to be found.

The good shepherd protects us from evil – the wolves who prowl around and the bandits up to no good. Eventually the forces of evil become so strong that the shepherd gives up his life for the flock. He does this willingly. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord ” he says.

It’s a wonderfully comforting picture. Who would not want to be loved and cared for by such a shepherd? Many of course go their own way and rely on themselves alone. Perhaps the majority of people do that. As I said, you cannot be rounded up against your will. There’s no rustling in the Kingdom of Heaven. You don’t have to do anything – God’s grace is enough for the shepherd to seek out the lost and bring them safely home.

Don’t be fooled though into believing this pastoral picture is the whole image. No – the way is long, the road is hard, and the gate is narrow. That’s the way the Kingdom is. The distractions of wealth and comfort are all around, as are the potent forces of evil.

And in the dark days of Holy Week, can we ever forget the switch that was made by Jesus himself? By his death Jesus the Good Shepherd becomes Christ the paschal lamb, offered up for us, who by his sacrifice has taken away the sins of the world.

By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his resurrection he has restored to us eternal life. All these images come together in the communion we are about to share together. Amen