- Published: Saturday, 02 May 2020 09:14
The red numbers on my bedside radio told me it was 4.42am. I was woken by a sound coming from downstairs. As I listened more closely, it proved not to be the threatening sound of a burglar's footsteps, but simply 'Wesley' whimpering. Like a light-sleeping parent, I was soon alert, attuned to his voice, and his needs.
This 4th Sunday of the Easter season is known as 'Good Shepherd Sunday' because of the Gospel reading for the day. In Chapter 10 of John's Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as 'The Good Shepherd' (vs 11); and Jesus uses the images of shepherd, sheep and sheepfold to show his love and concern for us. One of the earliest Christian carvings is of Jesus as Shepherd. Many of us will recall from Sunday School days a framed picture: a blond Jesus immaculate in white, with piercing blue eyes and trimmed beard, a lamb resting on his shoulder. This romantic image is a world away from the reality that Jesus knew. It does not include living on the edges of society, the vulnerability and dangers of living outdoors, the odours, the loneliness and challenges of living with sheep rather than humans. The shepherd had no prominent place in their society at the time of Jesus. Because of the nature of their work, they were unable to fulfil their responsibilties to worship, and were regarded as unreliable witnesses. How remarkable, then, that it was first to some shepherds watching over their flocks that the birth of Christ was announced.
We are familiar with sheep in our locality, and there are many lambs in our fields at present. In Beaulieu, Jenny Dolbear commented that her sheep definitely have a leader of the pack; they tend to follow the same paths within a field, and find the best grass; they instictively know how to look after their lambs, and when confronted by predators they can be fiercely protective. She has a pet sheep, who knows its name and responds just like a dog.
Those observing and listening to Jesus were filled with questions: 'Who is this? Is he God's prophet? Could this Rabbi be God's chosen Messiah or not?' In the Bible, the ideal king is pictured as a shepherd, modelled on David, the former shepherd-boy. Facing the problems of keeping a nation together, he came to see that it was not that different from his task of tending sheep. The prophet Ezekiel has a striking account or careless shepherds neglecting their sheep (Ezek. 34.1-10), criticizing the priests and prophets of his time who neglected their duties. Some of Jesus' most stinging criticisms were aimed at the religious leaders, and those who thought they were religious, but whose preoccupations were with being noticed, and feathering their own nests.
Jesus warns against those who have no real commitment to those in their charge, seeking only to take advantage of them, and exploit them. Recently, our institutions, including the Church, have been forced to confront their failure to protect and safeguard those in their care. With more robust measures in place, and greater transparency, please God,we are more aware of our awesome responsibilities as pastors and church communities.
It is worth noting that when Jesus was speaking about the Shepherd, he standing in the Temple. The sheep around him were not skipping playfully around the Galilean countryside, but being prepared for slaughter; integral to the worship of the Temple. As they will be offered up in sacrifice on the altar, so will Christ be offered as a sacrifice. In his selfless offering, Jesus the takes the place of the victim, literally laying down his life for the sheep; the Good Shepherd has become the lamb. Jesus personifies tenderness, toughness and self-sacrifice, and his leadership involves physical involvement and self-sacrificial love. The life of this Good Shepherd matters less than that of his sheep. 'Paschal Lamb, thine offering, finished once for all when thou wast slain, in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain.' George Bourne (1840-1925).
The Ordination Service draws on the image of the shepherd as the ordaining bishop outlines the extensive pastoral profile to the congregation. To new parish priest is to be committed and trustworthy, and willing to search out those who are lost, guiding them through confusion. 'Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ's own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross....Serve them with joy, build them up in faith..'
The 4th Sunday of Easter is set aside in the Church's calendar to encourage all of us to think about Vocations. For some, this is a specific calling to authorised ministry - ordained or licensed. For others, it could mean serving God through faithful discipleship in everyday life. Everyone has a vocation, and by virtue of our baptism we are called to be faithful witnesses to Christ. As Archbishop Welby has said, 'Our first calling is to live life in all its fullness and to represent Christ in the world'. Each of us has gifts that we can use in his service. God never calls us to be something or someone we are not. Whatever stage we are in life, God is always calling us deeper into his life and work; inviting us to help build his kingdom of love and joy and justice.
Last week, I spoke of two faithful women who helped nuture my vocation when I was a teenager. They would never have described it in those terms, but their prayerfulness, and ability to come alongside me at an impressionable time in my life, made a difference. As did those other faithful souls, among them remarkable priests who had taken to heart their Lord's commission. Over these many years, the congregations committed to my charge have moulded me into the parish priest I have become. Thank God for you all.
On this Vocations Sunday, think about what God might be calling you to do for him, his Church, his world. Give thanks to God for all that he has done in your life, and continues to do. As St Irenaeus once said, 'The glory of God is a human being full alive.'
Philip Baxter – Director of Music
Philip has announced his retirement and it will take effect from the end of July. We were fortunate to secure him, and we shall miss his musicianship and leadership. Within twelve months of Philip's return from a decade in France, his sinus and breathing problems re-started. He has decided that a move to a drier climate would be beneficial. He is hoping to relocate to Spain, an area he knows, where he has family contacts, and where there is a flourishing Anglican church. At present we do not know when our church services will resume, but we shall hope to make a proper and public presentation to Philip at some stage.