Fourth Sunday of Easter
Introduction and Call to Worship
Jesus our good shepherd came so that we could have life and live it to the full. Jesus was both the offerer and the offering, laying down his life for his sheep. Let us come together in worship and thanksgiving for the Lamb of God.
First Reading Acts 2:42-end
This passage explains how the Christian community was growing and what life was like among the believers. There is an emphasis on sharing and fellowship.
Second Reading 1 Peter 2:19-end
Through Christ’s suffering we have been saved. Whatever suffering comes our way – particularly if it is unjust – we should follow the example of Christ’s suffering and trust God.
Gospel John 10:1-10
Jesus is the good shepherd, and is gathering his flock together. Those who enter the sheepfold through the gate are promised a good life.
HOMILY “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and
have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Today is Vocation Sunday and therefore, up and down the country, church leaders, will be preaching about our call as Christians to hear and respond to God’s voice, as he leads, directs and equips each one of us to serve Him and His Church. There are, of course, lots of interesting ways, that we could approach the subject of vocations. For instance, we could have asked various members of our congregation to come up here and share with us their personal testimony on how they felt God was calling them to a role within the life and mission of the Church. We could have invited a member of the Diocesan Discipleship Ministry and Vocations Team to come and talk to us about this subject. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with these suggestions, for who knows, after we have all prayerfully reflected upon the subject of vocations we might feel that the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to explore these and other options. However, here at St Mary’s, we have a strong tradition of unpacking scripture for inspiration and guidance in life; and, let’s face it, what better passage could we have for the subject of vocations than today’s Gospel with its deeply symbolic picture language of a protective shepherd caring for his sheep.
The Biblical scholar, William Barclay, points out that for us to get the most out of this passage, we need to detach ourselves from the picture we may have of shepherds’ working practices here in this country. Now, both of my grandads kept sheep, so I know exactly where Barclay is coming from. In this country shepherds walk behind their flock and drive the sheep forward with the help of sheep dogs. In the Middle East, both in the time that Jesus walked the earth and still today, shepherds lead from the front and therefore there is a much greater emphasis on the need for the sheep to trust the shepherd. Now, just like our own vocations to serve God, we must not think that one style of leading/shepherding others is better or worse than the other. I am not called to be a clone of Fr Damian. God wants us to be genuine, the people he has made us to be; to be ourselves in all our diversity – as we do our best to serve him.
Another useful insight Barclay tells us about this passage, which I think applies to how we approach the subject of our vocations, is that a lot of sheep in this country are kept for their meat and therefore are only with the shepherd for a relatively short space of time. In the Middle East sheep are often reared for their wool, and thus live with the shepherd over a much longer period and develop a great bond. Clearly, having a vocation to serve God is not about waving some magic wand and quickly fixing the spiritual or emotional needs of others, rather we need to remember having a vocation to bring others into a deeper, lasting relationship with God takes time, patience and especially love when we are met with resistance. For as Barclay explains, a shepherd once had to lead a group of stubborn sheep across a river, who were reluctant and scared to follow. It was only when he placed a lamb upon his shoulder and waded in himself, that the sheep knew that they could trust and follow him.
Now, you may recall that despite being brought up in an agricultural environment, Jesus realises that his audience are struggling to grasp his metaphor that he is the gateway to Heaven. This, as Barclay remarks, could be because there are two different types of sheep fold. In the first half of this passage, Jesus is referring to a communal arrangement where villagers would put their sheep together in a safe compound controlled by a gatekeeper with a key. In the latter verses, Jesus is talking about a makeshift arrangement up on a hill, where a shepherd would try and find a wall to gather the sheep, then lie in front of them and thus become a human barrier. For me, this really captures what it means to have a vocation to bring others to God. We are not there to control who’s in and who’s out, rather we are called to be diligent and protective and put the life of others before our own.
The final useful piece of information Barclay gives us, relates to the last verse of our passage. The Greek phrase Jesus uses when he says we shall have life in all its fullness, is talking about a superabundance of joy, wonder and excitement. Surely this is why we ultimately feel called to tell others about God, because in the words of our Diocesan strapline – it transforms lives.
To conclude our reflection of shepherds and sheep this Vocation Sunday, it seems fitting to end with some wise words from Pope Francis who, in his desire to ensure the Church continues to remain relevant and accessible to everybody, remarked that the sign of a good shepherd is someone who smells of sheep; in other words, our true vocation as baptised Christians is not to spend our time standing at side-lines either admiring or commenting on others. Rather, we are all called by God to develop those unique gifts and skills which he has given us to such an extent that we learn how to walk together in solidarity towards Jesus, who as our Gospel reminds us, is the gateway to an eternal relationship with our heavenly father.