Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sermon Easter 4 2015

Acts 4.5-12
1 John 3.16-24
John 10.11-18

The Good Shepherd is a familiar image from art and hymns but perhaps we miss its earthiness, and the startling way that Jesus uses it. So let’s try to think about it afresh.
Think of the ways Jesus could have described himself, but didn’t: The Great Leader; The Motivational Team Builder; the Inspirational Manager. Those images from our own culture have us looking up to someone on a pedestal. But the Good Shepherd has us looking down to the earth, keeping low, where the sheep are, staying close, guiding them away from ditches or dragging them out when they fall in, getting messy. As Pope Francis has reminded us, the good shepherd smells of the sheep.
And, Jesus says, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Now that is not what shepherds normally do. It seems to be a reversal of normal human values – the sheep exist for the shepherd, don’t they? They are there to give their wool, their milk, their lives for the cooking pot, so that the shepherd might live. But the Good Shepherd knows no limits, he will give all for the sheep, even his very self, so that they might live! So this is a startling reversal, not what we should be expecting. But this is God loving the world so much that he gave himself, in the Person of his Son, so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life. And he does so as a shepherd, down with the sheep in the mess.
Jesus also says that the Good Shepherd stays with the sheep. He is not like the hired hand who runs away when danger threatens or the going gets difficult. Jesus stays with the sheep even to the point of giving his life so that the sheep might live.
When he gives this teaching Jesus looks outward, beyond the boundaries of Israel to the whole world. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus says that he is the shepherd who will gather in the Gentiles too, all people, all nations, all sorts and conditions, into one flock, one redeemed people of God.
Jesus has promised that he will stay with the sheep, whatever happens, giving his life so that they might live. And by looking out to the other sheep who are not yet of this fold he extends that promise to all peoples and all times. And he sends his Church to continue his mission. The Good Shepherd is the abiding presence, the heart and living head, of his Church in every nation.
Jesus sends his Church out to all nations and all times to continue his mission. To be true to that mission the Church must be like him, like the Good Shepherd.
So the Church must stay with the sheep, and not run away. The Church is sent into all nations to be the living presence of Christ and his witnesses until the end of time. There are no exceptions or exclusions to the Church’s mission. It is, simply, world wide, world embracing. Places of violence where Christians are hated and killed are not exempt from that mission. Places where secular culture has grown cynical or indifferent to faith are not exempt. There is no culture or race or language, however different they may be from first century Palestine, where the remit of that mission does not run. There is no generation in which the Gospel is not to be proclaimed afresh.
That means that the church in every place has to be like a shepherd, rather than like a great manager on a pedestal. The Church needs to be earthy, low to the ground, humble – the word means “earthy” – close to the people whom God is calling to enter his kingdom, or they won’t hear the call! The Church must stay with the sheep, which means getting involved where the sheep are, not avoiding the mess, smelling of the sheep indeed.
Over the centuries the Church has evolved ways that are meant to help with this. The parish structure of the western church is part of that. The parish is simply a geographical area, drawn out on a map, and everyone of all faiths or none lives in one. The parish church is the church for the parish, that is for the place and everyone in it, of all sorts and conditions.
The parish is part of the way in which the Church stays with the people on the ground, imitating the Good Shepherd, not abandoning the sheep or running away.
So that is part of our mission, too, here in this local community. We the Church are to be here for the people among whom we are set. We are to be witnesses to the Good Shepherd so that all may be gathered into one fold.
We witness in practical ways, as St John says in today’s epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. At today’s Annual Meeting we will look back over the last year and reflect on some of the ways we have sought to do that, and look ahead to some of the ways we will seek to do that in the year to come.
As we do so we need to remember that practical love arises from faith. The Church is the community of faith, the disciples of Jesus Christ. “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

So that is our task as a parish church. Believe in Jesus Christ. Love one another. Love the people among whom we are set. Stay with them, especially in the rough and dangerous and messy places of life. Stay close so that all may hear of the love of God in Jesus. Stay close so that all may come to believe in Jesus Christ, who is the heart and living head of the community that reaches out to them in his name.

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