Fourth Sunday of Easter

Service Date: 
7 March, 2017

Worship was led by the Revd. Sarah Colver who focussed on verses in John chapter 10. John writes of Jesus describing the work and role of the shepherd and describing himself as the gate, protecting but also allowing access to the wider world of fields and nourishment. How can all people be protected yet allowed to thrive? How can we ensure everyone has abundant life?

Hymns: 

Rejoice and Sing 74  Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Rejoice and Sing 552  The King of Love

Rejoice and Sing 567  Thy hand, O God, has guided

Rejoice and Sing 289  To God be the Glory

 

Sermon: 

Readings

Acts chapter 2 from verse 42 to the end of the chapter

First letter of Peter chapter 2 from verse 19 to the end of the chapter

Psalm 23

John chapter 10 verses 1 - 10

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight O God,
our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

It really good to be here this morning…I know a few of you already from other contexts
but its really good to join you here on a Sunday for worship.

To be presented with familiar passages from the Bible Is always a mixed blessing for a preacher ,especially in a new place; we all have our own thoughts and ideas about what we think they mean. Many of us will have heard countless sermons on one or more of these texts, and many of us will have our own associations with them.

My invitation to you this morning is to try to come to them afresh today, to see them as if for the first time - we need to step back for a while and try to let go of that which we think we know. To go back to the reading from Acts for a moment- those first Christians ( although they wouldn’t have called themselves that) had to explore their inherited Hebrew scriptures afresh reflecting on what they had previously been taught and had known to be true, but reading and learning from them again in the light of recent events, and their own experience of the risen Christ.

And so, let us begin again, go back to basics.. And it’s the gospel text I’d like to delve a little deeper for what is essentially a reflection this morning.

We’ve just heard the first half of what is commonly known as Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse, but this is a bit of misleading title for this first section. Here, John writes of Jesus describing the role and work of a shepherd – but its any shepherd – no one in particular - and with no moral judgement attached. He’s neither good nor bad.

Jesus describes the way in which there is a relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. He outlines the difference between the shepherd - who the gatekeeper knows and will allow to enter through the gate - and the thief and bandit, who presumably can only climb over the wall as they intend get up to no good..

When – unsurprisingly really – the disciples don’t understand what he’s getting at, he becomes more forthright in his explanation. But the first answer is not, as we might automatically or a bit lazily perhaps expect – the announcement ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. That comes later in verse 11, at the beginning of the next section; Here Jesus says, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’; and in case we don’t get the point the first time in verse 7, he says it again in verse 9: ‘I am the gate’. So there we were, being led along with the disciples thinking this was a story about a shepherd but it is actually a story about a gate. There’s a switch of roles as, as Levine says, ‘The figure who calls to the sheep becomes the one who is the means by which they are saved’…No wonder the disciples were puzzled-  this can leave us puzzled too..

I’ve read explanations that argue that shepherds sometime slept in the gateways, so were both the person and the barrier- but I’m not sure that’s intimated here- for there is also a gatekeeper mentioned too.  So what is this about? It certainly leaves us with some questions…

Ultimately this is as it says, a figure of speech, closer to a parable – open ended, perhaps with more than one meaning.

Some might wish to interpret the language of ‘being saved’ seen in this translation in a very particular way but as D Mark Davis says; While the phrase ‘will be saved’ (might) evokes notions of eternal salvation from the fires of hell, here the threats are strangers, or false shepherds who are thieves and bandits.

A gate to a sheepfold provides access to safety and protection within, but does not permanently confine; It also allows the sheep out again, access to the fields, the wider world, nourishment. Its more about being safe from harm and thus able to thrive. And so this passage ends with the powerful and compelling phrase: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 

And that, so far as a reflection, might be neat and tidy, and a good place to end; but in some peculiar twist of the lectionary system, at 8am this morning I was preaching on 1 Peter 2 verses 11-17 - and here the reading was verses 19 onwards.

The reading from the Authorised version used in the BCP service ends with the rather stark and memorable verse; Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.
As you can imagine, good feminist that I am, I wasn’t terribly ‘chuffed’ by that - but hopefully we got somewhere as it’s a verse – and translation - of its time. I was more concerned when I realised that verse 18  is missing from the beginning of our RCL reading because it’s the verse naming the particular group of people to whom this passage was addressed.  It’s hard to hear for us, but it reads:

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference,
not only those who are cruel and gentle but also those who are harsh.

In the context of the time of writing slavery was of course commonplace; they are being told to endure suffering and reminded that Christ had done so- as if that somehow makes it ok?  This is part of a whole chapter in 1 Peter advising Christians to live quietly and blamelessly as strangers and aliens in a society to which they don’t quite belong and forms part of the household code.

This is challenging stuff; we can’t begin to understand  the life experience of those by whom and for whom this was written but personally I don’t think verses should be omitted just because they are hard; if these words from 1 Peter are to have any meaning for us today it can only be through thoughtful engagement- they have to be read intelligently, with their meaning and context questioned and explored.

They also serve to demonstrate that’s it’s important that we don’t treat any scriptural passage in isolation for they are always part of a bigger picture . Going back to our gospel, Johns placing of the pastoral images here at the beginning of Ch 10 follow straight after stories where people are trying to establish who Jesus is, questions of identity; Is he a prophet? From God? The Messiah or the Son of Man who will judge the world? Some see, and believe, and others do not. And then, after our almost-parable, Jesus does finally say, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ and the immediate connections are finally made with OT imagery of God as the shepherd and leader of His people, as seen in Ezekiel 4 and of course the words of psalm 23 which we said together earlier.

What then can we take away from all of this? I think we can be led to ponder some deep questions for ourselves - What do we need to be protected from? And what do we need to feed us?
How might we receive abundant life? What might it look like?

But the whole Christian story, the narrative from Acts and the reminder found in 1 Peter should push us much further that that – to ask how might all people receive that which is necessary to thrive? What more can we do through our words and through our deeds to make this come about? For most surely, God is the shepherd and guardian of all our souls. Amen.