SUNDAY OF EASTER: SERMON IN THE
B: Acts 4:5-12.
1 John 3:16-end.
John 10: 11-18.
weeks ago, just before Easter, a national survey published its findings in which
we were informed that at British funerals these days secular songs have
overtaken religious lyrics in popularity but that among the latter The Lord
is my shepherd continues to be the number one favourite for such occasions.
way there has always been something intriguing about the popularity of this
hymn. I don’t imagine that many of those who sing it with such misty-eyed
feeling would readily want to think of themselves as sheep. Perhaps its
enduring appeal is something to do with an unconscious longing in the human
spirit for there to be someone who will watch over us, take care of us and see
that we are all right, someone who will give us – each one of us – the
sense, the assurance, that I matter.
also that is why down the centuries the image, the symbol, of the shepherd has
appealed so persistently to the human imagination. In literature and in
art, in legend and in myth, from earliest times and cultures, the shepherd
appears again and again. Not just as a bucolic figure, tending his flocks, or
sporting with nymphs and shepherdesses. In former times in the
Jews daringly extended the metaphor to GOD himself, who was seen as the shepherd
both of the nation of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock (Ps 80:1) and
of the individual, providing sustenance, guidance and safety, even in the valley
of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4). He is described by the
prophet Isaiah as the God who will feed his flock (and) like a shepherd he
will gather the lambs in his arms (and) carry them in his bosom
and gently lead those who are with young (Is 40:11).
their history the Jewish people never forgot that two of their great heroes,
Moses and David, though separated by many centuries, had been shepherds when
they were summoned by a divine imperative to undertake a very different kind of
pastoral responsibility. It was while they were with their flocks that they
received the vocation to be shepherds of their people. Moses was charged
with the awesome task of leading the children of
was that, emerging from that tradition, Jesus was known to his friends and
followers as the good shepherd – caring for the flock, watching over them and
guarding them, sustaining them with the life-giving assurance that each
individual is known to him and named by him and ultimately defending them with
his own life.
our western tradition we have tended to romanticise the figure of the shepherd
and his way of life, often portraying him leading a happy, idyllic existence.
This has undoubtedly influenced our perception of Jesus the good shepherd. We
have sentimentalised and idealised him – just think of those Victorian stained
glass windows. Even the early Christians didn’t escape the temptation. The
earliest representations of Jesus the good shepherd (which probably derive from
pagan images of the god Apollo) depict him as a beautiful beardless youth with
masses of curly hair, wearing a rather dashingly short tunic and carrying
a sheep on his shoulders.
reality of being a shepherd is entirely something else – something other. It
is a task which requires vigilance, good judgement and in some circumstances
decisive resourcefulness and courage. Christ the good shepherd is not just
a charming lad piping down the valleys wild, inhabiting a delightful
Arcadian landscape of green pastures … and … still waters.
young David described to King Saul some of the hazards of the shepherd’s life:
how when there came a lion or a bear to take a lamb from the flock, he would
have to go after him and smite him and deliver it out of his mouth and kill him
(1 Sam 7:34).
second David – great David’s greater son – speaks similarly of
dangerous predators preying upon the flock. He speaks of the wolf coming and snatching
the sheep, scattering them and of how the shepherd has to defend them
without safeguard and at the risk of his own life. So Christ is the good
shepherd whom engages in mortal conflict with all that seeks to turn human
nature away from GOD in disbelief, despair and death. He takes on not just
lions, bears and wolves but the demonic powers of darkness and he prevails. He
is the one who is in command: he has power to lay down his life and he has
power to take it again. Christ the good shepherd is Christ the conqueror: - the
living one who is alive for evermore and who has the keys of Death and of
Hades (Rev 1:18).
to a common patristic exegesis, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine – those who have
not gone astray, the angelic hierarchies and orders – and goes after the one
which is lost – the human race – until he finds it. When he has
found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing (Luke 15:4) and
brings it home.
is salvation – that is what it is and how it is.
of Nyssa says that redeemed humanity can now at last take its rightful place
with the angels in the great dance of all created being. He speaks of the
one corps de ballet which looks to the one leader, the lord of the dance,
fanning out from him and returning to him – in a most excellent and perfect
with me the shepherd calls out exultantly as he brings home the missing
partner in the dance. In Hebrew the words rejoicing and dancing are
closely related and are almost synonymous. Rejoice with me means Come
dance with me.
is made for festivity – festivity, not vapid hilarity - for heaven’s
festivity, where there is music and dancing to celebrate the finding of
what had been lost, the return to life of what had died. For where heaven is
but once begun there alleluyas be.
The good shepherd, the risen one, returns to the Father who sent him and calling together friends and neighbours cries out in Easter triumph: Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost (Luke 15.6)