Sheep are lovely creatures, their lambs gambol in fields, their wool keeps us warm, their meat is tasty. They do, however, have something of a bad reputation – they are seen as simple, stupid creatures, who munch grass all day and are a bit dozy and clueless. They can be seen very negatively, as an unthinking herd, or as wandering off and getting caught in thickets. It is no wonder then that one of the images in this morning’s Gospel is likewise not generally seen as positive. ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mt 9:36) Jesus has compassion on them, Matthew uses a word which means to be moved deep inside, it is a gut feeling, a feeling of compassion, of love and care. Like sheep without a shepherd they can wander aimlessly. They need direction; they need help.
We could be forgiven for thinking that that such feelings belong in our past. We’ve grown up, we’ve moved beyond all that. But, if anything the events of the last few weeks tell us clearly that where there is an absence of leadership people get worried. They start to panic. They’re not sure what is going on, or how they are going to find safety and security . So the world around us is a mess, our politicians don’t seem to be much help, and we’re not sure that the Church is any better. It is a sad indictment of the age in which we live, but THERE IS HOPE. We can always, and in all things trust in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, and who lays down his life for the sheep.
After Jesus has said this He proceeds to call labourers for the Lord’s harvest. He summons the twelve apostles to share his work of proclamation and healing. They are to be sent out for the healing and reconciliation of the nations and to preach the Good News of the Kingdom. He gives them power and authority to do God’s work in the world. It is no easy task – they are to be flogged and handed over for trial. They are to face persecution in the world for doing the work of God. As co-workers with the Lord, fellow shepherds, they too will lay down their lives for their flock, and such is the lot of those called to serve God as bishops, priests and deacons.
In the book of Exodus Moses is addressed by God: ‘Indeed the whole earth is mine but you shall be for me a priestly people and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’ (Exod 19:5-6) As the church is the New Israel, bought through the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood, then these words apply to us. We are to be priestly and holy. We are to honour God and worship Him, and encourage others so to do. We do this by being close to God in our reading of Holy Scripture and our participation in the sacraments of the New Covenant – primarily Baptism and the Eucharist.
Christ has compassion on the people and gives them the shepherds that they need and want, to guide and direct them along the right path, to feed them, and lay down their lives for the sheep, as in all things they will look to Jesus as their pattern and example. His entire life and ministry points towards His Death and Resurrection, where He lays down his life in obedience to the will of the Father to reconcile humanity to God and to each other. It is this sacrifice and self-oblation which the church sees re-presented in the Eucharist, where on one hundred thousand successive Sundays the Church, through its priests and bishops has done what Jesus did on the night before He died with his apostles in the Upper Room. The Eucharist makes the holy people of God, because in it we are fed by Christ and fed with Christ, fed with the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are given here and now a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet – humanity eats the bread of Angels, pointed to by the manna in the Desert. We are called to share in the Body and Blood of Christ do that we might live in Him and He in us.
Words cannot adequately describe the wonder of this mystery, that we poor, frail, sinful humanity are called to share in the life of God, to be nourished by it, strengthened by it, to live the life of faith here and now. So to a world desperate for answers, which has given up trusting in God, and indeed in just about anything, we can say ‘Come and see’. The church can offer something that people can trust, someone whom they can follow. A true shepherd to guide them, guard them, and lead them.
So let us cast our cares aside and follow Him, let us be nourished by Him, and invite others to so that they may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and for ever.