St Bride's: Sermons

All we, like sheep

John 10: 22-30

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22 And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.

24 Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.

25 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me.

26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.

30 I and my Father are one.

All we, like sheep

Sheeple

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I have a problem with today's Gospel reading. It's the sheep thing. Jesus says 'My sheep hear my voice: I know them and they follow me.' Jesus is the shepherd - his followers are the sheep. Sheep and shepherds appear a lot in the Bible - over 500 references to them. Not surprising as they were the chief wealth of the time. Jesus naturally used the imagery of sheep and shepherds which he had inherited from the Old Testament. 'The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want' Psalm 23. And he applies this imagery to himself, as the Good Shepherd who saves and sustains all who come to him. And he takes this imagery even further by saying that the Good Shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep.

The image of the Shepherd is a very powerful one - because a shepherd is a leader, strong, dependable, brave, caring. It's a good image. No it's the sheep image that I think we find difficult today. Because, let's face it, sheep haven't got a very good image. If you look in the Dictionary of Quotations, under sheep, the commonest adjective applied to them is 'silly'. Sheep, as we know, are pretty dumb. They don't make plans for the future. They run around following whoever is nearest in a completely disorganised way. They are easily panicked. So to call someone sheep-like or sheepish is unflattering: it's a critical term.

We have someone from the military present and I reckon if, in your officer training, you were asked to model yourself on a shepherd - it would evoke all sorts of positive images. If though, you were asked for a corresponding image for the troops you were leading and you suggested 'sheep', that wouldn't be either popular or desirable. Sheep don't have minds of their own, they are rather stupid, and easily panicked - not what you want from your troops in battle, nor, I would suggest, for 21st century followers of Jesus Christ.

It's where I think the Shepherd/Sheep imagery breaks down. Jesus the Good Shepherd is still a very positive and helpful image, so what are we going to do about the sheep bit? Do we really see ourselves as sheep today?

The sheep image was used frequently by the Old Testament prophets about the people of Israel - because they were wayward. Jesus took over this image because he was speaking to 1st century Jewish people, the heirs of the children of Israel. But we are not 1st century people - we are Post-Easter Resurrection Christians, heirs of those whom Jesus commissioned to carry on his work on earth: and he didn't commission sheep: He used another powerful image which I suggest is much more appropriate. He tells his followers just before his death 'I no longer call you servants: I call you friends.' (John 15:15) Jesus invited them, and he invites us, into friendship with him. To share our lives, our struggles and our joys with him: able to stand before him in weakness or in strength, because he trusts us to be his hands and feet and voice in building his kingdom in the world today. Not sheep, mindless and silly, but friends, using our gifts of mind and hand and heart to help complete the work Jesus began on earth.
Yes, the words of the 23rd Psalm, are still helpful and valid. The Lord is my Shepherd. But He trusts us as his friends, with all the dignity and security that friendship brings.

John Newton in the 18th century brought these images and others together in his famous hymn 'How sweet the name of Jesus sounds' the fourth verse goes:-

'Jesus, my shepherd, brother, friend

My prophet, priest and King.

My Lord, my life, my way, my end,

Accept the praise I bring.'


Amen.

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