Sermon 7 May 2017 A – 4th Sunday After Easter

Todays readings for 4th Sunday After Easter
Acts of the Apostles 2: 14a, 42-47 
Psalm 23 
1 Peter 2: 1-10 
John 10: 1-10

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want, he makes me down to lie, in pastures green he leads me, the quiet waters by.” After all the efforts of yesterday’s Fair, the prospect of lying down in a green pasture and being fed by God is a very pleasant one, isn’t it? The psalmist goes on to describe a banquet, which is the Old Testament’s chief way of giving a picture of God’s abundant love. And come to think of it, we still mark the chief, and most important things in life with a celebratory meal, and we still gather at the great festivals for a feast, whether it’s Christmas or Easter or a birthday dinner, or Mother’s Day, which we’ll celebrate next weekend! And what about weddings? We still have wedding receptions, even if they are so often canapés these days because the bride and groom have spent so much on other aspects of the wedding! This feast, in a world of limited resources, where often people were hungry, and even the best fed were poor by our standards, represented the idea of abundant life. Food, of course, is life and we can see that clearly in our world today when millions are starving. To have, not just what you need, but abundant food, more than you are used to in both quantity and quality, is a powerful picture of God’s abundant blessing. And it is life, in abundance, that Jesus is offering his sheep, those who know him, his disciples, those who hear his voice.

This gospel passage is the continuation of the passage that we had a few weeks ago- you remember the story of the man born blind? That is a long and complex story of a sign of God’s glory (which is what John calls the miracles). Each one of these signs is followed[1] by a discourse, or teaching section. In this case the man who listens to Jesus voice and does what Jesus tells him, is healed of his blindness. Throughout the questioning that he undergoes at the hands of the Pharisees, the man’s understanding of Jesus grows and when at the end he has been expelled from the synagogue Jesus finds him and calls him into deeper relationship. Then to the audience of the disciples, Pharisees and whoever else is listening, Jesus explains that he is the Good Shepherd. The man born blind, has heard Jesus’ voice and has followed him, and he has been given sight. He has joined the ranks of the sheep.

Jesus begins by telling his audience that he is the gate, the entry point, and therefore both the means of entry, but also the means of protection. This image, seems to prefigure and explicate Jesus’ statement in John 14 that he is, “the way, the truth and the life”. Jesus is the way, he is the entry point! Now, this statement, along with many others in John’s gospel, has been used as a statement of exclusion. I think it is not about keeping out, so much as an explanation that it is through Jesus, whether we recognise him or not, whether we understand it or not, that we are able to be in relationship with God. He is the conduit, if you like. Jesus is the gate and he is simultaneously the Shepherd who calls the sheep to himself.

Now to put this in context it is important to understand how sheep and goats were kept in the world in which Jesus lived. People owned small flocks, unless they were very wealthy, and the flocks went out together to graze under the care of all the shepherds. At sundown each shepherd would call his sheep, and his own little group would go home with him, and be penned, for safety. It is important for the sheep to know the sound of their own shepherd and follow, so that they can be protected. Jesus says that the sheep will hear his voice and come to him, and enter through him. Interestingly, they will go in and out through him and be able to be fed. And that is because Jesus has come so that they, might have life and have it abundantly. In the next few verses Jesus describes the danger that the sheep face, a wolf who snatches some and scatters the rest. Jesus says that because he is the shepherd, not the hired hand, he will keep them safe because he will lay down his life for the sheep. This is, of course, referring to his death on the cross. And he likens the relationship of recognition and knowledge to the relationship that he has with the Father. The gospel of John is all about being drawn into relationship with God, which is where we find eternal life. Jesus also says that he has lots of sheep that don’t belong to this fold, that is Gentile sheep in a Jewish world, but that he lays down his life for all of them.

Some of his listeners, including the Pharisees, don’t like what he says and I guess that nothing has changed. For some people the news that we can have life abundantly because we are in relationship with God, is not exciting news! And I think, in our society when we have so much, people find it much harder to recognise that the kind of abundance that relationship with God offers is qualitatively different. If we look at ourselves as a society we see individuals who are desperately struggling for more and more of what we have already got, and even abundance doesn’t seem like enough.

The glimpse of the early church, as we see it in Acts, presents us with a different kind of picture. Abundant life for the first century disciples was centred more on what they did than on what they had. And the picture of people taking great joy in being together for teaching, for prayer and for the act of Communion seems to me to illustrate something that we humans desire but that is easy to lose sight of in our individualistic and hedonistic society. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple,” that is in public worship, “they broke bread at home and ate their food,” (back to the idea of feasting together), “with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” This sense of community, and of generosity, which brings joy, is part of living an abundant life.

And when they did this, others looked at them and wanted to join them, “and the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”. The promises of God were being lived out by this fledgling Christian community, even in the face of difficulty and persecution. They were not all wealthy, but what they had they shared. It’s a kind of utopian vision of community, isn’t it? Church in its purest form.

We are summoned by Jesus, each one of us called by name, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the body of Christ in the world. And that body of Christ is both an end in itself and also the means to the end, by which I mean that we become the body of Christ in order to care for those around us.

This promise is fulfilled in community, the sheep are gathered together, both for their protection but also for their joy. And that is because we are people made in God’s image and God is relational. That feast is hard to have on your own! We go out and come in and we are fed. For us, just as for the earliest Christians we live in a resurrection reality. We are already part of the Kingdom of God here and now, and never more so than when we meet around God’s holy table for the feast that is Communion, the feast that is Eucharist, or thanksgiving. “Our table he has furnished, in presence of our foes, our head he doth, with oil anoint, and our cup overflows. Goodness and mercy all our days, shall surely follow us and in God’s house for evermore, our dwelling place shall be”.

 

[1] Except for the one which precedes