Saturday, 31 May 2014
SERMON 11 MAY 2014. EASTER 4. THE GATE, THE SHEPHERD & THE FLOCK. Robert
Acts 2 : 42 – 47 Psalm 23 John 10 : 1 – 10 Christ has truly risen from the dead, and is alive and present for evermore! Last Sunday we heard the story about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and how their shock, sadness and bewilderment were transformed when they realised – when Jesus broke the bread at their table – that He had conquered death and was truly alive and actually present with them. I try to imagine how their whole being changed as the truth dawned, filled them up to the brim with astonished joy, their whole world was transformed, their weary legs were filled with energy, and they must have practically run the 9 miles or so back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples the amazing news. Their sadness turned into unbelievable happiness; their despair at the brutality and injustice of the world changed into hope that God really was at last bringing his kingdom to reality, and that God was in their midst doing something utterly new and wonderful. Here are we, 2000 years later, and I hope our mood comes something close to theirs. It’s very easy to say the Creed, which speaks of one wonderful miracle after another, without thinking too much about it. Now is the time to reflect deeply on the miracle of the resurrection, and let it fill us with new life and hope and joy. Are we really taking it in? Christ is risen and is present with us now – just as vibrantly alive as He was on that first Easter Sunday. The knowledge that Jesus is truly alive and present in our midst changes us, changes everything. Last week Sarah spoke of how we can ask Him to walk alongside us, as he walked with those disciples on the road to Emmaus, open the scriptures to us, and accompany us through good times and bad. This week the illustration changes and gives us more to ponder in the light of Easter. Jesus is the good shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold. Urban dwellers like me actually have little idea of how sheep are managed nowadays. But listening to a radio programme recently, it seems that mostly it is a case of a farmer, a dog and a 4x4. It was very different in the Middle East in the time of Jesus, and in many ways it may have not have changed very much. We think of sheep as being driven from behind. They were accustomed to sheep being led from in front, by a shepherd whom the sheep knew and trusted, and to whose voice they responded. The sheep’s safety and survival depended on the shepherd. He must protect them from attack from wild animals. He must lead them through the dusty wilderness to pools where they could drink, and grass where they could feed. They knew the sound of his staff tapping the rock and would rally with confidence. If one got lost, the shepherd would search until he found it. And the sheepfold was a place of safety for the night. The shepherd would guard the gate and examine each sheep as it entered, checking its condition, and using a little oil to soothe wounds. I understand that the shepherd would sleep across the entrance, personally guarding his flock from dangerous attack from outside, or from sheep wandering off in the night. It was a personal, vital relationship which we need to use our imagination to bring into focus, if we are to understand what Jesus is saying. What, then, can we learn from this for our Christian lives – as John clearly intends that we should? Let’s consider three key words – the gate; the shepherd; and the flock. 1. THE GATE. The first question we have to ask is whether we belong to Christ’s flock. As he is present with us in his risen glory, do we hear and recognise his voice and become his followers? This is a very personal question which we can only answer for ourselves. When we hear the glorious announcement of the resurrection and God’s great victory over sin and death, do we – in the famous words of John Wesley – feel our hearts strangely warmed, and know that – yes – I am a believer, a follower of Jesus. I do know that I take the decision to trust him and belong to him, now and for ever. I will put my life in his hands and ask him today to ‘restore my soul’ – be my guide and protector, and bring me at last into the ‘house of the Lord for ever’. 2. THE SHEPHERD. The risen Jesus is here pictured as the ‘good shepherd’ who gives his life for the sheep. This builds on the wonderful theme Sarah was describing last Sunday. She gave us the picture of the Risen Christ walking with us along the road of life, as he did with those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The Risen Christ as the Good Shepherd not only accompanies us, but leads us out day by day, and brings us through all life’s joys and sorrows, good times and bad, health and sickness, to still pools of water where we can refresh our soul, good pasture where metaphorically we can renew our strength through prayer, through the scriptures, through sacrament and fellowship. He sustains us through everything that life may throw at us. If we follow him, we will not be led astray through the enticements of false shepherds. And lest we think (as many do) that he is so concerned with keeping us on the right path, that all fun with be sucked out of our lives, Jesus promises the reverse. He promises in verse 10 “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full” – have life abundantly, with all the wonderful pleasures that God intends for your life. And when life is hard, he tends our wounds and cares for us. As Peter says in is 1st letter (chapter 5:7) “Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you.” 3. THE FLOCK. For this we need to turn to our reading from Acts 2: 42 – 47. The isolated sheep is the one who is unlikely to survive. We belong together as a church. The early church grew fast, and that was because they were held together by deep bonds of faith and fellowship. We often refer to ourselves as a ‘friendly’ church, but that’s not enough. It’s got to go a lot deeper than that. We read here that those disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.” They shared their possessions, they ate together in their homes, and praising God, they enjoyed the favour of all the people, and the Lord added to their number day by day. Each of us who is a regular church member needs constantly to try and put ourselves in the position of a first time visitor. What can we do besides giving them a welcome and a cup of coffee? Can we use our imagination? For example, look at the notice sheet which advertises lots of events. If you were new, would you go on your own and just turn up? Not many would. It needs a personal approach and the offer to go together. The early church met in people’s homes. How about asking a newcomer home for Sunday lunch, or for a coffee morning, or to take them to an evening group? We need to find out what has brought a newcomer to church – perhaps it’s because they are going through a difficult time. We could offer to pray with them or for them, and perhaps to visit and help in some practical way. This is all a crucial part of our Mission Action Plan which the PCC is working on, because we notice that many people come once or twice and then disappear. That may be because we have given them a friendly welcome, offered them a cup of coffee and sent them on their way. It’s not enough. They will go away spiritually hungry and without a real incentive to come back. We need also to ask whether it is really obvious and awesome, week by week, that the Lord really is here – his Spirit is with us? We need to pray always that God will send down his Holy Spirit to transform our worship and lift our hearts. That is what will draw people back as they witness the worship and the prayer we offer. I don’t intend this as criticism so much as an incentive to get our minds and prayers into imaginative and pro-active action. Under the leadership of the Good Shepherd, are we an attractive and inspiring enough flock to make others want to join us? We look out on a world of ruthless competition, unloving and often uncaring; full of brutality, hatred and needless suffering. The Risen Christ announcing God’s Kingdom is the world’s true hope – a Kingdom of love and peace and justice. How much the world needs beacons of light and hope. A Church that goes through the motions will slowly decline. We need to be a prayerful, hopeful, attractive beacon of light to a needy world. That is our task and our challenge. That is the message of our Easter faith. Discussion 1.Share experiences of finding the Risen Christ alongside you, or leading you through times of trouble and difficulty. How can we share these with others in the church, especially newcomers? 2.Share ideas of how we might add another dimension to our church welcome to those who come for the first (or second) time. Would you be willing to invite people into your home – or to a meeting? 3.What do you understand by Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold? Share experiences and ideas. 4.What do you understand by Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Share experiences and ideas.