Many flocks in one Fold
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3.16)
We are now in the Holy Month of Ramadan observed by Muslims all over the world. As we experienced in our festivals of Christmas and Easter, COVID is changing how this is experienced – from social distancing in Mosques to very limited household gatherings in the evening. This year though I’ve noticed an increase in the number of UK charities marketing themselves online to Muslims in the hope of securing zakat. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is charity and during Ramadan millions of pounds are raised for good causes. I was looking at a Muslim oriented facebook advert by WaterAid and the comments under it were really telling. One theme of the comments was “let Muslims look after Muslims and us Christians will look after Christians”.
Take a look at our scripture readings today. Is there anything in these texts that supports that comment? Sometimes I’m saddened by what others say and do in the name of our faith.
The accounts we read this morning in Acts and in the Gospel both follow on from an act of healing. The Evangelist tells us how Peter and John, in Acts 3, had healed a lame man, a beggar in Jerusalem, - healed in Jesus’s name. The Gospel reading follows on from Jesus curing a blind man on the Sabbath. Both the blind man and the lame beggar would have been outcasts. Jesus was never one to limit his love to those approved of by the authorities. And so all three put themselves at risk of persecution and even death through reaching out and helping those in need.
Yet surely this is what our Gospel reading and Epistle call us to do?
So, it looks like the actor David Suchet and I have something in common. And no, it’s not just that we can be a tad, shall we say, portly? It’s our love of John, his Gospel and Letters. I’m sure many of you will agree that John is exceptional in his writing, in his beauty and, I suggest, his theology.
In an interview for Church Times a couple of weeks ago, David Suchet says of John: “I continually read it and re-read. It is the most intimate of all the Gospels.” He talks of the different depths and layers in John’s writing. He continues: “there are great depths and great mysticism in the Bible.”
In that article David Suchet spoke of the importance not just of reading the Bible, but of reading it aloud. Indeed he says: “Never, never, never read the word silently…. Let it go into your body, absorb it. And let it come out so you continue this wonderful, wonderful relationship you have with God”.
I think that interview alone justified my Church Times subscription!
Speaking the Word aloud. For those who practice Lectio Divina, this is something familiar. And it’s true, once you speak the words you find nuances or meanings that you may not have noticed before. When I read the texts aloud, I find myself focusing on this from the Gospel reading:
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Remember last week, Fr Damian spoke of Theology as deconstructing and then building back up with a greater understanding? Well, this is where we begin to see just some of the layers of John’s theology.
We know that Jesus was addressing the Pharisees and senior Jewish leaders. And therefore they would have understood very clearly the language used – flocks, shepherds. The Old Testament is full of references to sheep, goats and shepherds. They may have been reminded of Ezekiel – the Lord will be Israel’s Shepherd. Perhaps also Zechariah 13 – awake o sword against my shepherd - and the Pharisees were left in no doubt that Jesus aligned himself clearly with those prophesies of the Messiah.
We also know that the Pharisees had a very polarised view of society – the clean and unclean, the male and the female, the Jew and the Gentile. But Jesus isn’t subscribing to that view. And here we think about John and the community he was living in when this Gospel was being written. He was living amongst Jews, Gentiles and Samaritans – perhaps the other sheep who, listening to the Shepherd, form one flock with the others. However, if, like the Pharisees, your religious life is based around the rituals that separate you from others then Jesus was maybe beyond radical, more unthinkable. Jews mixing with gentiles once the Good Shepherd had saved Israel? Jesus was speaking in inclusive terms.
And today’s readings go further. It’s not enough that we are stuck in the same flock together, we’re being asked to lay down our lives for each other! How does that make you feel? If you find your mind wandering at this point, perhaps thinking about the lamb roasting in the oven at home, that’s ok. God knows us – “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”. And maybe in our situation here in Surrey we aren’t expecting to be in a position where we would sacrifice ourselves for others. Or maybe we need to rethink what we mean by sacrifice.
In John’s letter he is very clear that words and speech aren’t enough, we must live as disciples in truth and action. If we live in Christ and Christ in us, our priorities will change, we focus less on the material and more on those in need. And this is not a call for us all to live in poverty but for us to prioritise others. And this is one of the reasons why church leaders from across different denominations called on the Government to reverse its plan to cut international aid. We have a duty to those in need regardless of who and where they are, at that commitment forms part of our sacrifice.
Scripture like this often gets me asking myself how strong would I be in the face of persecution? Would I stand up for my faith? I imagine it’s something none of us know until it happens. How about putting yourself in danger for somebody else?
That is what has been happening in Cameroon in recent years. Both Christians and Muslims have been targeted by Boko Haram as churches and mosques have been attached. So a wonderful partnership was formed as Christians stand and guard the Mosques for Friday prayers and Muslims guard the churches on Sundays. People of faith putting themselves in danger for others. And there are so many other examples of such love from around the world.
Our scripture today call us to listen to the Good Shepherd, to love our neighbours in action and truth, to lay down for them and to live in faith. But the texts give us something else too. They give us assurance of God’s love and help.
When Jesus speaks of laying down his life for others he is never alone. He is with the Father. And we too are not alone. When we reach out to others, and, importantly, when we allow others to reach out to us, we are not alone. We pray we are never in a position of danger but, as Christians, are in solidarity with those who are. They are not alone.
So friends in a few weeks time we’ll join with churches from across the UK and Ireland for Christian Aid week. This is our time to reflect on those words from John: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in needs and yet refuses help?” And yes, this has been a challenging year for many of us – many of us have seen our incomes drop and have prioritised other important aspects of life. But our brothers and sisters in the UK and across the world have experienced the same but without the support to help them through it. Other sheep from another fold in one flock. If you are in a position to help, please do so.
Finally, and no I honestly haven’t been browsing travel websites – if you visit Rome and explore the catacombs under the city you’ll see evidence of early Christian communities. You won’t find a cross, as we associate our faith with nowadays, but you will find the ichthus, that fish symbol, and you’ll also see depictions of the lamb. Early Christians took the lamb as a sign of hope in that Good Shepherd.
And our readings today finish with that remarkable song of hope – Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
I shall fear no evil, for you are with me;
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.