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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