Sermon given on 4th Sunday of Easter – 25th April 2021 for Sherborne Abbey by the Revd. Christopher Huitson.
I was walking down Cheap Street in Sherborne the other day and saw a hiker. How did I know? Well, he had a bright red anorak on, a heavy knapsack, bright red thick long woollen socks and sturdy leather boots. What’s more, with a look of determination, he was pouring over a map. He definitely was a hiker! And it was easy to recognise him as such.
Much of our lives involves recognition. The baby looks around to establish recognisable clues to his world. First, no doubt, his mother’s face, but after that a myriad of colours, shapes and sounds begin to be recognised, ordered and assimilated. No wonder babies need so much sleep.
And people specialise in recognising different parts of our world as they develop various areas of expertise. If you pass a school playground it may contain a mass of children unknown to you. And yet the teachers know the children by name and are aware of all that they excel at.
We are heading, surprisingly, in the direction of sheep, the subject of our gospel reading today – and most of all we are concerned with recognition. To us one sheep looks much like another. If you have watched “one man and his dog” you will know that shepherds in this country are very skilful. But their skill is in a different area to that of Palestinian shepherds. Those who first heard the words of Jesus about the Good shepherd would have a particular image in mind. In Palestine the shepherd led his sheep, spent long periods of time with them, knew them as individuals, kept them safe from the attack of wild animals, stopped them from straying into danger and sought out the best pasture for them.
In the few verses before the passage set as today’s gospel Jesus also says that he is the door of the sheepfold. In the open country a sheepfold would be a rough collection of stones forming four walls or an approximate circle with a gap which would be the entrance. The shepherd would sleep in that gap and so would indeed be the door protecting the sheep from theft or attack. Looking after the sheep involved a huge commitment – it was a 7 day a week task and even today in the lambing season the shepherd might be needed to assist day and night. Not surprisingly we can find in the Old Testament some of the important characters who spent some of their early years looking after the flocks notably Jacob and, of course, David who became king. So the Good Shepherd was a tremendous picture of Jesus and his care and attitude of devoted self-sacrificing. Jesus took the risk of injury and even death for us, just as a shepherd might risk the same to protect his flock.
You might be forgiven for sitting back and putting yourselves in the position of the sheep – but that is only half right. Certainly, we need to be like sheep in following Christ and relying on him for forgiveness and support. We want Jesus to recognise us and know us by name as a shepherd knows his sheep as individuals. But you will recall the conversation that Jesus has with Simon Peter towards the end of the St. John’s gospel where he calls for Peter to commit his life to Jesus and commands him to “feed my lambs” and to “tend my sheep”. Peter is to take on Jesus’ role as the Good shepherd as Jesus prepared the disciples for an end to his resurrection appearances. That vocation is ours too.
We are to be like the shepherd, to imitate Christ so that we care for one another as well as to love our neighbours as we do ourselves with the sort of care and devotion that Jesus manifested. Such a task is not to be underestimated and perhaps we need a life time of trying and failing and trying yet again to put such principles into practice.
Christians should stand out, should be recognizable as if they wore special clothes like my hiker. But it is not the clothes we wear but the way we act and the things we say which is to make us stand out. Our love and care for others should be unmistakeable. Then we will be recognised as the sheep of Christ and we will be known by him just as Christ is known by his heavenly father, because of what he was, the things he said and the way he acted. We are in some senses the sheep and in others the shepherd.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”