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Bible readings:

4 Easter Year A (May 11, 2014)                                                                     St James', Peace River

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the basic building blocks of the Christian visual vocabulary. There must be an untold number of stained glass windows, statues, mosaics and so on out there of a young man holding a lamb on his shoulders. We didn’t have any of those things in the church where I grew up, but what we did have was Sunday School cards – every year, in recognition of faithful attendance, I’d get another picture of the good shepherd with my name on the back. And it turns out that this picture isn’t just in the far reaches of my own memory; it goes right back to the beginning of the church’s collective memory as well.

In the first centuries, when Christians met in the catacombs and had to use symbolic representations of Christ that wouldn’t give away what they were up to – along with the fish symbol, the shepherd was the most common. It was an image drawn from everyday life, at least at that time, but it also drew direct connections to the gospel memories of Jesus, who made plenty of references to shepherds in his parables. And despite twenty centuries of use, and the virtual disappearance of shepherding from our culture, it’s still an image that holds a lot of content and a lot of meaning – perhaps embodied most of all in the 23rd Psalm, and the weight it carries in the devotion of a billion Christians.

People know Jesus is their shepherd in the same way David spoke of the Lord as his shepherd. We experience Jesus leading us to where we need to be; finding and pointing us towards the nourishment we need, sometimes quite literally but often in more profound ways too. “He restores my soul” evokes another biblical image of the shepherd rescuing the lost sheep – another experience which resonates for us. And then the companion in times of fear, and the protector in times of danger, leading to the profession of faith at the end: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” All of this is the lived experience of generations of Christians from that day to this. It forms the basis of our personal faith; it’s what we want our children to grow up with – which explains those Sunday School cards; and it’s the raw material which we can share with people who experience the same needs and fears as we do, but don’t know where to turn – “I hear you,” we can say, “and here’s how it was for me...”

There’s one dimension of the shepherd image, though, that we find very hard to keep in focus. It’s part of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of John, and it’s certainly part of the earliest experiences of the church, but it’s a subtlety we tend to miss. Wherever there’s a shepherd, there’s a flock. We picture our shepherd so much in personal terms, and there’s nothing wrong with that – you and I, each one of us knows Jesus’ care for us in the most personal of ways. But that’s kind of the first point right there: every one of us relates to the same Jesus as our shepherd, and that creates a connection between all of us. It’s the reason we come together to worship, listen, pray and give thanks – because we all have one shepherd.

It goes deeper than that though. It’s not just for reasons of convenience or coincidence that we share this relationship with one another. It’s actually fundamental to the work of a shepherd, and to the lives of sheep – or for that matter, of human beings. I learned last year that you need at least five sheep to have a “flock” and that sheep are stressed if there are fewer of them than that. So the shepherd’s job isn’t just to make each sheep healthy individually – he or she actually can’t do that job without also caring for the flock as a whole. But think about how true that is for us human beings as well. Not in exactly the same way as sheep, but we are nevertheless social animals. Along with all our other needs for physical nourishment, intellectual stimulation, and so on, some part of us lives by virtue of our relationship and connectedness with other people. (Just not before we’ve had our morning coffee, right?)

Jesus describes his mission, in the last verse of today’s gospel reading: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It’s interesting that he then goes on to unpack that in the language of a flock – calling other sheep who are not of this fold, so that there may be “one flock, one shepherd.” That’s part of what it means for us to experience life, real life, the new kind of life that Jesus wants for us, and provides for us in his own dying and rising again. The new kind of life doesn’t just change us as individuals; it changes the nature of our relationships with one another, and for that matter with people we didn’t even have any relationship with originally.

The clearest possible illustration of that comes in the description we heard in the book of Acts, of the first days of the Christian church. Amazing things were happening: not just the dramatic healings and works of power, but the extraordinary way in which people were being drawn together – giving up their personal claim over their lives and livelihoods, sharing what they had, taking as much concern for each other as for themselves. And it was that, more than anything, which drew in “other sheep”, as people began to wonder what was going on, and then to recognize that it was something they would dearly love to be a part of. But all of it was founded on that basic relationship each person had with a living Lord, a good shepherd, on whom their life and well-being depended, whom they could trust through every experience of fear and danger. Because they all had one shepherd, they were truly one flock.

I think that picture has a lot to say to us at St James’. First of all, it says that we don’t need to be surprised, or hesitant, about having a vibrant community life in our parish: it’s what enables us to get to know each other more deeply, to mean more to each other, and to enjoy the “new kind of life” in a way which changes both us and the people who are drawn in by what they see and experience. It also says that we should expect the life we live together to be different than what you would see anywhere else, and to be something that will attract people’s attention. It says that we need to know, and remember, how that difference is founded in the relationship each of us has, and all of us together, with Jesus our good shepherd – so the more we strengthen that relationship, the stronger a community we become; and the stronger our shared life, the more each of us is encouraged in our walk with Christ.

The lifestyle of the first Christians also says something to us about the temptation we occasionally give into, to search for a particular strategy or program that will help us grow. There was no strategy in Jerusalem. Those disciples were as transparent and (dare I say it) naïve as it is possible to be. That was what made their community so appealing. They were so completely focused on Jesus, on his living presence with them and on the way he was changing their lives – that they were being transformed, right out in the open, not just in their individual lives but in their relationships with their fellow-disciples, and with people who hadn’t even joined them yet. Their total absence of strategy or plan is what accounted for their success. “Day by day the Lord added to their number,” because they were a completely transparent window through which people could come to see Jesus as their own shepherd, saviour, and Lord. I wonder what it would take to strip away our own concerns and anxieties about how the church works, to the point where that’s all people would see when they looked at us, too.

That isn’t the only challenge posed to us by the Jerusalem church. There’s something there about the depth of sharing and the ease with which it happened, which both baffles and attracts me. Could we be that open to one another? But even as I ask that question, I think of the extraordinary things I’ve seen people here do for each other, when circumstances call for it, without a second thought or even the sense that they were doing something unusual. So, it happens. When we know that we have a shepherd who walks with us even through the valley of the shadow of death, it doesn’t make sense to hold anything back. Like all Christians, even the first ones, we are still in the process of being transformed, still learning just what that means, but I can see and I can believe that God is changing us.

And that, really, is the bottom line. It’s not about the things we do, the plans we make, the neat ideas we come up with. They only mean anything because they arise out of the transforming work of Jesus in our midst. We are being changed into people who can trust the Good Shepherd for all our needs. We are being changed into people who don’t need to be afraid, who are able to risk anything, because Jesus walks with us. We are being changed into people who long to dwell in the house of the Lord, and to live as part of Christ’s flock, for ever. We are even being changed into a people who will catch the attention of others, make them say, “What is going on there? What is this new kind of life that they are experiencing?” It can be scary to contemplate that. I bet some of the apostles went to sleep at night thinking, “What have we got ourselves into?!” But Jesus had an answer for them, and he has the same answer for us: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.... I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”