Sermon for Easter 4 – Evensong Sunday 7 May 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
God created us to know Him, to serve Him, and to be happy in His company in this world and the next. God isn’t going to change his mind about this. We design our lives; we make choices good and bad, but God never leaves us alone, any more than a shepherd leaves his sheep to fend for themselves. That’s not easy for us, because we like to get away from other people sometimes, including God; love can be interfering. The more I think about it, the more I see that our human anxieties, the unease that comes from nowhere, our unhappiness, are sometimes, not always, but sometimes, due to a personal spiritual struggle that seems to go on forever. It’s a struggle with God, and it affects everything we do. Our primary relationship is with God, from birth to death and beyond. If we don’t have that squared off, how can other relationships work?
Which was the first psalm you learnt or got to know? The chances are it was Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. That psalm describes a primary relationship with God which never falters, on either side. It’s about loving kindness and mercy and faithfulness. It’s really beautiful and simple and a child can understand it.
Our way into that relationship with God is with Jesus Christ. He describes himself in the Gospel as the door, or the gate into the sheepfold. Not an easy metaphor to grasp.
But how would you describe Jesus, if you had to draw him? What does Jesus look like? Here’s an image which might be new to you. The earliest carved images we have of Jesus are of a young shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. This shepherd appears on early Christian tombs during the times of persecution. They used the figure of a shepherd because shepherds also figure in pagan mythology. So you wouldn’t get into trouble for using that image on a tomb.
I’m glad they did that. The image takes us back to a time we’ve forgotten, the time before we made religion difficult. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In the image of that young shepherd on the tomb we see the vitality of the new Trinitarian God of the first Christians, how new it all was to them: God alive, living in the present, leading his sheep, those for whom he cares to the end – he leads them out to a new life. The sheep follow him because they trust that voice.
That’s what Jesus did at Easter. He went before us, and we hear his voice still and try to do what he did: die to self and rise to a new life, the Risen Life. Jesus says, I am the good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
This is from St John’s Gospel. This shepherd isn’t the one who leaves the flock to look for the lost sheep. This shepherd keeps all his sheep, those he knows, from danger. He’s the door, the gate; the symbols rise up in Jesus’s words. We have no choice but to ride these mixed, sometimes contradictory, metaphors of sheep, shepherd, and sheepfold; we need quick wits, a pre-Reformation lightness in our reading, to connect what we read with how we live.
Has Easter changed you and the way you live? I think that what changes, maybe slowly, is that we are no longer just observers, just watching, wondering what to do. We are led out of the sheepfold, dared to leave the familiar, into the freedom, of the Risen Life, where not knowing it all no longer matters. We take that step because we are no longer alone on our journey, we are connected to others, to the natural world, and to God. God’s sheep fold isn’t just a place where we feel safe, such as here. The world is God’s sheepfold. The world becomes a sacred place now, our relationships are sacred ground. The happiness God wants us to know is within our reach each day. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
The happiness of the Risen Life comes always as a surprise, because what we’re used to, our default position, is disconnection – the basic disconnection, which is the story of the Garden of Eden: this is what happens, the parting of ways, separation from each other, separation from the natural world, separation from God. But that can start to mend, as we wait for the Holy Spirit to come among us and transform us. The risen life becomes your real life, our authentic life. God has blessed us, so that we can bless others. That’s what’s changing in our lives. The apostles, who were as doubtful as we are, got round to living the risen life, and so can we. “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” We are healed, we find, not by our own will power, but by grace and by each other. Yesterday Fr. Michael and I, and a group from this church, joined the Society of Mary procession with a brass band from St Silas to Holy Trinity in Kentish Town, all dressed up, hats and all, which you might think is asking for trouble on Saturday at lunch time in the Chalk Farm Road but it was fine. I found myself thinking, how nice it is to be led, out of the sheep fold into the open air, to be at one with all others, in the Risen Life, blessed and blessing.
Being blessed and able to bless. That was Jesus’s life and now it’s ours. Good Shepherd Sunday is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We pray that many will discover their vocations and be called to ministry in the Church. So we pray for Philip, to be ordained priest in two weeks time. But I don’t see why that prayer can’t include the vocations for every one of us to live a blessed life with God. For that is a life we can lead, an ordinary life lived with extraordinary love, whatever age we might happen to be, as youthful, as new, as self-giving, and as responsible and as adventurous, as the life of that young shepherd carved on those tombs so long ago.