A sermon by Lay Reader, Annie Coley
The Good Shepherd and a Good Followship Sunday 26 April 2015
Day after day, year after year, he sat in the dusty streets of Jerusalem begging for alms. Born blind, there was no other way he could contribute to the family food bill. Sometimes he encountered the kindness of strangers, sometimes they abused him for blocking the path of their busy lives. He was clearly a well-known figure because when a group of friends came along, seeing him prompted them to ask their teacher, “What caused this man’s blindness? His own sin or the sin of his parents?” Their theology had led them to believe it had to be one or the other, but in answering them, Jesus, for it was him, flatly contradicted their beliefs and in front of them all restored the man’s sight. Rejoicing in his new freedom, he was sent off home to celebrate with his friends and neighbours. A huge party ensued. Even the local temple leaders came along, united in their delight at this miracle and rejoicing that here was One who would not only heal physical blindness but through his mighty words and deeds would open the eyes of the spiritually blind, too.
Except it wasn’t like that – at all.
This miracle recorded in John 9 is one of the most detailed in the Gospels with lots of parts for bit players, and this is how it was. As the man picked up his mat and his begging bowl, people began to question and quarrel about what they were seeing.
“Is he the man who has sat here for years, born blind and unable to do a day’s work in his life?”
“No, he just looks like him.”
“How come he can now see?”
“A man spat on his eyes …”
“But it’s the Sabbath! You can’t heal people on the Sabbath!”
“Well clearly he’s not a man of God.”
“So how could he do it if he wasn’t from God. He’s a prophet, I tell you!”
“They only say he was born blind. Ask his parents.”
“We confirm that he is our son and he was born blind. More than that, we’re not prepared to say. Ask him. He’s old enough.”
“I’ve told you already. Why do you keep on? Do you want to follow him too?”
“How dare you cheek us. You’re a child of the devil! Get out of here. Get out of the temple and don’t show your face here again!”
Jesus had certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons. In response to that divine act of grace and mercy, they were all over the place, like sheep without a shepherd. It is not too fanciful to suppose that in the chaos Jesus lifted his eyes to the hills beyond the city and saw an orderly line of sheep being led out by a shepherd to life-giving pastures and abundant fulfilled sheep-life. In John’s order of events, it is this incident which prompts Jesus to deliver two of his memorable I am sayings: I am the Gate and I am the Good Shepherd.
In first century Palestine the shepherd would lead his flock by day to where they could find pasture and fresh water. Going ahead of them, he would beat off any danger. At night as he let them into a makeshift stone pen he would check them in one by one, attending to each as they needed it. Then he would unroll his mat across the entrance to the pen and become the gate. The shepherd provided everything the sheep needed to be fully the creatures they were created to be. And if he wasn’t just a career shepherd but the owner of the sheep, he would go further, prepared for whatever it might take, sacrificing time and energy and even his life, to keep them safe.
The parallel with what Jesus did and does for us is clear, and there is plenty here to encourage those who exercise Christian leadership. Less obvious, perhaps, is what we can discover here about the followship. The relationship between the Shepherd and his flock as pictured here suggests four marks of the follower – all of us, actually, that should be evident within the church:
- Spiritual discernment – learning to recognise the distinct voice of Christ amidst all the clamour of voices around us
- Trust in God – that he will empower us to do what he has called us to
- Unity within the fellowship – born of a shared focus and purpose
- A heart for mission – making resources available so that others may be brought into the fold.
We’re not there yet but I think we truly believe that that is our direction of travel at St Mary’s and that the Holy Spirit is active among us, shaping us into people who are blessed and ready to be a blessing.
Currently at St Mary’s we are looking towards major development of our church plant. It’s controversial, but as we explore the proposals set before us we could use our findings in today’s reading to help us evaluate where we are in it all.
Thoughtfully and prayerfully, just as we responded to last year’s TRIO challenge, we can ask ourselves
- Do we discern the voice of Christ in this and feel that the vision is from God?
- What might be at the root of any negative feelings I have?
- In discussion, can we handle disagreements in a respectful and measured way, listening carefully and giving each other space to express honest doubts and anxieties?
- In support of this project, how generous dare I be?
The times are in many respects dark and worrying and the church needs to ‘read’ them. Even Tesco this week was a prod for us. The supermarket giant gave notice of its decline and one commentator said, “The absence of innovation was startling.” God’s church needs to be strong and a beacon of hope amidst all the pain and uncertainty. Through this morning’s passage Christ speaks to us:
“I am the Good Shepherd. I am here for you but there are other sheep I must bring in too. Keep moving forward with me. Come. Follow.”