Easter IV: The Good Shepherd

The Church’s Liturgical Year is a very good thing indeed. It divides up time and focusses our attention, allowing us the time to contemplate the mysteries of the Christian Faith. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an event which requires contemplation. We need time to let it sink in, and to explore what it means for us and our faith. It is the defining moment of our faith, which gives Christians the hope that death is not the end, that this life is not all that there is, and that because of who Christ is, namely God, and what He has done: died for us to take away our sin, and rise again to give us the hope of eternal life in Him.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ It discloses something important about Who and What He is — He is one who tends, who looks after His sheep. The Jews in the Temple for the celebration of Hanukkah in the Gospel don’t seem to have been listening. Jesus has told them clearly and they do not believe that He is the Messiah. What Christ does in the Gospels testifies to Who and What He is, the Word made flesh, God with us.

Those of us who are in the Church, through our Baptism belong to Christ, we are His. So we are to listen to what Jesus tells us, in the words of Scripture and through prayer. Jesus knows us and we know him — in word and sacrament, through the outpouring of His grace, and so we follow Christ, we do what He tells us to do, to love, to forgive each other. We are humble, we don’t think of ourselves as better than we are, we know our ned of, our dependance upon God. We put our faith into practice in our lives, so that it becomes a reality in the world.

Christ offers us eternal life, as we share in His death, so we too share in His Resurrection, and are assured of eternal life with Him, something wonderful and freely given, and a reason why we, as the Church, celebrate Easter in an extravagant and exuberant way, because it is a sign that God loves us, and saves us. We are sharing in that Eternal Life here and now, as we are nourished by Him, in Word and Sacrament, strengthened by Him, to live His risen life, here and now. 

In Revelation, as St John experiences heavenly worship he states, ‘For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 7:17 ESV). The Lamb will be our shepherd: Christ will care for us, and keep us safe. A Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep as Christ has done through His Death and Resurrection. To drink living water is to experience the fulness of life in God, filled with the Holy Spirit. Christ guides us to that in our baptism, when we are filled with the Spirit and made part of the Church. 

So we listen to Christ’s voice, in the Bible. We hear Him speak to us, and through this we listen to Him, and obey Him. That is how we know Christ and follow Him. It affects who we are and how we live, as people of love, loved by God. We are prepared here on earth for the life of heaven, for worship, and closeness to God. We have a foretaste of that closeness in Holy Communion where Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, so that we may be transformed by it, more and more into His likeness. It changes us, so that we, by the grace of God, in the power of His Holy Spirit, may become what we are: made in the image of God. That image is restored in us by Christ’s death and resurrection. Through it we come to share in the intimacy of the divine life. As Christ says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:30 ESV)  As Michael Ramsay said, ‘God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ [God, Christ & the World: A Study in Contemporary Theology, London 1969, 98] When we see Jesus, we see God, when we hear Him speak, we hear the voice of God. We can know who God is, the creator and redeemer of the universe, through His Son, Jesus Christ. God is no longer distant, or an angry man on a cloud, but a loving Father, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and a Son who loves us so much that He suffers and dies for us, to give us life in Him. This is God who goes after lost sheep, who longs to love and heal and reconcile, who can heal our wounds if we let Him.

God loves us; we can say this with the utmost confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it all proclaims the same truth: God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, but so that we might become what God is. It is what we celebrate at Easter, it lies at the heart, the core of our faith as Christians. It’s why we are what we are, and why we do what we do, to proclaim this simple truth to the world.

We can have peace through our relationship with the Trinity, the source of our peace, and joy, and love. Grounded in this relationship we need not be afraid or troubled – we are free to live lives which proclaim God’s love and victory so that the world may believe. Through God loving us, we can truly love him and each other. We experience this most clearly at the Eucharist when Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, which He as both priest and victim offers on the Altar of the Cross. That self same sacrifice which heals the world through the outpouring of God’s love feeds us here and now. We are fed so that we may be nourished and share in the divine life and the joy of heaven. We receive the free gift of God’s grace so that it may perfect our human nature, so that we may go where Our Lord is going, and share in the joy, and love, and peace of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

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Easter III: Acts 9:1-6, Rev 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

Persecution is something we are used to in the church. For nearly two thousand years since the stoning of Stephen the deacon to the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, Christians have borne witness to their faith regardless of the cost. It is something to which we are all called. Not that we should actively seek it, but our faith, and our relationship with God is so important, that nothing, not even life itself is more important. Such is the love God has for each and every one of us. We have experienced it in the Triduum, and continue so to do as we continue our celebration of the great fifty days of Easter. We are filled with joy at Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Through it we are changed, transformed, and filled with love, and empowered to change the world, so that it may be filled with God’s love.

In this morning’s first reading Saul tries to continue his persecution of the Church. Then he encounters Jesus, who doesn’t say, ‘Why are you persecuting my Church?’ but, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ We are used to understanding the Church as the Body of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles Christ identifies Himself so closely with the Church that He and it are one and the same. That is how closely we are united with Christ through the Church. The Church, born at the foot of the Cross when the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John are given to each other exists to contemplate Christ, and to love Him, and be loved by Him. Through our baptism we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are His Body, and we fed with His Body, to be transformed more and more into Him.

Thus in the vision of Heavenly worship we see this morning in Revelation we see Heaven and Earth united in the worship of Jesus Christ, who is God. As Christians we are made for worship, to be united with God in love, and we prepare for heaven here on earth. It’s why we are here, to continue our celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead.

In this morning’s gospel the Risen Lord gives an invitation to his disciples, to ‘come and have breakfast’ but they don’t have any fish. So they go out and do what Jesus tells them, and they catch fish, 153 of them. The disciples don’t recognise Jesus until they catch the fish. When they follow His commands they recognise Him. So, we too must be obedient to Christ, and listen to Him.

Then Christ feeds his disciples breakfast before asking Peter if he loves him and commanding him to feed his lambs. It’s an important moment. Christ asks Peter the same question three times, ‘Do you love me?’ something which clearly looks back to Peter’s triple denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest before His Passion and Death. His triple denial is effaced by his triple confession. Peter is clearly upset: it’s his conscience at work reminding him of his failure, which leads him to say, ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you’. Jesus does not condemn him, he simply reminds Peter, so that he may be encouraged in his task: to feed Christ’s sheep, to be a shepherd, a good Shepherd, and to lay down his life for his sheep after the example of his Lord and Master. This is how Peter is to fulfil Christ’s command, ‘Follow me’. It reminds all of us called as bishops, priests, and deacons, that we too are called to feed Christ’s flock, both with the Sacraments of the Church, but in our teaching of the faith and the example of our lives. It’s important to who we are and what we do. They are Christ’s sheep, not our own. You belong to Christ and it is our duty to care for you and feed you.

Peter is fed by the Lord before he is called to go and feed others, and to care for them. We too have come here today to be fed by the Lord, to be fed with the Lord, with His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to share in his divine life, so that we may become what he is, and have a foretaste of heaven. We are fed so that we may go out and feed others, so that we may follow the example of the apostles and not cease teaching and preaching Jesus Christ. When we do this we will give honour and worship to God no different from the heavenly worship we have seen described in this morning’s second reading. This is the heavenly glory of which we have a foretaste here on Earth. We are called to bear witness to our faith in the world, so that it may believe. We are called to be witnesses, regardless of the cost. While we may not face persecution in this country; we are more likely to be faced with indifference, a coldness of heart, which denies the fact that what we are and what we say is important or has value. Yet we are to live lives which proclaim the fact that our life and death have meaning and value through Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, and rose again so that we might have eternal life in Him. It is a gift so precious that we have to share it, we cannot keep it for ourselves. In sharing it, it becomes a greater and more wonderful gift. In sharing it we are preparing for that moment seen by St John when all of creation will sing the praise of God, filled with his love, healed and restored by him.

We are preparing for that moment here and now preparing to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, looking forward to that time when we and all creation will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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16th Sunday of Yr B (Jer 23:1-6, Eph 2:11-22, Mk 6:30-34, 53-56)

Some monks came to see Abba Poemen and said, ‘Abba, we have noticed some of the brothers falling asleep during the early morning service, should we wake them up so that they may pray more devotedly?’ He said, ‘Well I, for my part, when I notice a brother falling asleep lay his head in my lap so that he may sleep more soundly’

It is perhaps not surprising that amongst the men and women who lived in the Egyptian desert, and who developed the monastic tradition one of the most inspiring is a man whose name means ‘Shepherd’ in Greek. His name is indicative of the way he is. His care and gentleness towards his brothers is an example of how to be a Christian: gentle, non-judgmental, forgiving, and loving. It shows us that to be Christian is to be Christ-like, gentle and loving.

Living as we do here, out in the countryside, surrounded by fields, I suspect that the imagery in this morning’s readings is not completely lost on us. We are used to sheep and the shepherds who look after them. The care and devotion which a Shepherd should devote to his flock is a sign of God’s love and care for us, and to those of us who have been given any sort of pastoral responsibility in the church it serves as a reminder of who and what we are supposed to be: its cost, and the responsibility we share for the care of Christ’s flock, the burden and the joy. It is frightening to think how little our own strength and skill is compared to the task — we have to rely upon God, and his strength and not our own. 

In this morning’s first reading, we see what happens when it goes wrong (there’s advice for bishops here). The Kings of Israel are supposed to be shepherds, to care for and protect their flock. But they are not true shepherds as they exercise power selfishly, which destroys and drives away the sheep. The rulers seek power for its own sake, to make themselves feel grand and important, they become cruel and selfish. The rulers don’t care for the well-being of the people, who have scattered, gone wandering off, as the mood takes them. It’s all gone horribly wrong; and yet God, the true shepherd of our souls, does not leave his people comfortless. He promises to give them a good Shepherd, and points towards his son, the Good Shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep. The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to a future when there is a Messiah, a Good Shepherd, who is Christ, the Righteous Branch of David, who lays down his life for his sheep. This is care, this is self-giving love. This is how to rule, and care for the people of God, not in the exercising of arbitrary power. 

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see the work of the Good Shepherd and its fruits. He gives us life through his death. Through him the flock is united. Sin, that which divides, that which keeps us apart from God and each other, has been overcome by Jesus. He restores our relationship to one another and to God the Father, by laying down his life, by giving himself for us upon the cross and here in the Eucharist, where we the people of God are fed by God, are fed with God, to be built up into a holy nation, to become more like him, to have a hope of heaven, and of eternal peace and joy with him. In conquering the world and sin, Christ shows us that there is nothing God cannot do or indeed will not do for love of us. All divisions, all human sinfulness can be reconciled through Him who was sinless, who gave himself to be tortured and killed that we might be free and live forever. Paul sees the church in architectural terms: we have foundations in the teachings of the church, in the words of prophets which point to Jesus, and in teaching which comes from Jesus, through his apostles. We need to pay attention to this, as abandoning such things and preferring something modern and worldly causes this carefully constructed edifice to fall down. Buildings need foundations, and strong ones too. 

In this morning’s Gospel we see a picture of what good shepherds are like. Jesus and the apostles have been teaching the people, it’s a wonderful thing but it does take its toll. Jesus tells his disciples that it is time to have a rest, to spend some time alone, in prayer and refreshment. The people are so many; their needs are so great that the apostles have not had time to even eat. It is a recognisable picture, and it shows us how great was the people’s need for God, for God’s teaching, for his love and reconciliation. Jesus does not simply send the people away. Instead while the apostles are resting he takes pity on them because they are like sheep without a Shepherd. Jesus, who is the good Shepherd, will lay down his life for his sheep, to heal them and restore them. 

His people are hungry and in need of healing. So they will be healed by God, fed by God, and fed with God. God offers himself as food for his people and continues to do so. He will feed us here today, feed us with his body and blood, with his word, so that we may be healed and fed, so that we may be nourished, so that we may be strengthened to live our lives, that we may live lives which follow him, and that we may have the peace which passes all understanding. 

It’s a wonderful gift, which comes at a tremendous cost, which shows us how loving and generous God is towards us His people. Our response should be gratitude that we are fed in this way, that we have been reconciled to God through him. We should live lives fashioned after his example, lives which show his love and his truth to the world, lives which proclaim his victory, lives which will attract people to come inside the sheep-fold, to have new life in Jesus, to be with Jesus, to be fed by him, to be fed with him. 

It’s a difficult thing to do, to live this life, to follow His example But with God’s help, and by helping each other to do it together, we can, and thereby give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Easter IV — The Good Shepherd [Acts 4:5-12; 1John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18]

If you ask people about Wales they will probably mention Rugby Football, Singing, and Sheep. The first two we do with great passion or hwyl, and thanks to the large amount of hills and mountains there are here, it is ideal countryside for rearing sheep. As animals go, they often don’t get a good press: they are seen as simple creatures, unable to give birth without assistance, it’s hardly flattering to be compared to sheep, and yet throughout the Bible we see references to sheep and shepherds, important for a nomadic people.

Sheep are gentle creatures, they need help and protection, so that they don’t wander off, and are protected from wolves. The relationship between God and Israel is often described as like a shepherd and his sheep. They know each other, there is a close bond between them, and they need the care and protection of a shepherd. They love company, they like to be together in a flock. Their needs are simple: grass and water. They are not violent or nasty, but they need to be cared for, and loved, and helped.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (Jn 10:11 ESV) Jesus lays down His life for us. He offers it willingly, and out of love, to die, and to be crucified for us. This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus loves us, Jesus dies for us, and rises again. It is simple, profound and extraordinary. God loves us this much, that he suffers the most painful, shameful, and degrading death for us, to demonstrate love in action. 

Such love requires a response from us, and John, the beloved disciple puts his finger on it in this morning’s epistle, ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’ (1John 3:16 ESV). We lay down our lives for each other, in love and service. This is what being a Christian looks like in practice — we do the right thing, regardless of the cost. The world around us will tell us to be selfish, and self-centred, to think of ourselves before others, the ‘I’m alright Jack mentality’. It is selfish, and sinful, and wrong. We offer the world something different, sure it is costly, but it proclaims the simple truth that another way is possible, and that we march to the beat of a different tune. We can have the courage and the confidence to do this because Christ rose from the dead, and offers eternal life to those who follow Him. This life is not all that there is. We are preparing for the hope of Heaven, made possible by Christ, by living out our faith here and now. It has the power to the change the world, a soul at a time, because we ARE revolutionaries. We want people to join us, and be like Jesus. He lays down His life for us, and expects to follow His example, and lay down our lives to follow Him. It takes commitment, it isn’t just something you do in a building for an hour on a Sunday morning, it takes over your entire life. I know, for a variety of reasons. Firstly in ordination I offered my life to Jesus, for the service of his church, and secondly in last twelve months I got married, and we got a dog. Marriage and dog ownership are both lifelong commitments, and are both about learning to love, and forgive. My life is far more wonderful and richer than I could have imagined because of the commitments I have made. Yes, they are costly, but they are wonderful. To a world scared by commitment I would have to say, don’t be afraid, dive in, and have a go. You will make mistakes, but as love and forgiveness go hand in hand, through them you have the chance to change, to blossom, and become something other than you were before. This is true for the Christian faith. It offers salvation, through faith, as St Peter puts it in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, ‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’(Acts 4:12 ESV) Jesus offers what no-one else can, salvation and eternal life to those who believe in Him, and follow Him. This truly is good news, true freedom, which the world needs to hear. No-one else can save them, money in the bank, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, they may be pleasant and useful, but they can’t save you. Only Jesus, the Good Shepherd, can do that. He still offers the chance to become bart of His flock, under the One Shepherd, to have life, and life in all its fulness, eternal life, with Him, forever. Just as the apostles testified to the healing power of His name, so that same healing is offered to all who believe and trust in Him. It’s not a magic wand, but a chance to enter into a relationship which can take away our sins, heal our souls, our bodies and our lives. 

He lays down His life for us, and He gives himself here today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we can be healed by Him, and given a foretaste of heaven in His Body, and His Blood. Here today, as on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, we meet to be fed by Christ, and fed with Christ, to be healed, to know his love, love you can touch and taste. 

What more wonderful proof could we ask for than this, to feast on the Body and Blood of Him who died for us, and rose again. Who gives himself so that we might have life. Let us be filled with His Love, and His Life, let it transform us, and all the world that it may come to know Him, to trust Him, to love Him, and be fed by Him, to give praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever…

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11th Sunday of Year A (Mt 9:35-10:28)

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.

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