Scripture Readings: Acts 2:42–47 | Psalm 23 | 1 Peter 2:19–25 | John 10:1–10
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:24-25)
As some of you know, when I was growing up my family had a bit of a hobby farm: over the years we had chickens, rabbits, ducks, as well as some sheep and goats, and as a youth, part of my chores were to help take care of them. I wouldn’t say this was my favourite job in the world… in fact, it was often pretty frustrating. Especially when they would get themselves or each other into trouble. But now, many years later, whenever I think of shepherds, I feel like I have at least a bit more empathy, and insight into how hard is must be to devote one’s days to making sure your sheep have what they need to keep the whole flock healthy, and safe from harm.
One thing that stands out when I think about the challenges of caring for sheep and goats would be their basic selfishness. They would tend to fight over their food, pushing each other, even their own kids, out of the way to get at their manger, even though there was plenty of food for all… driven by the desire to fill their own stomachs, or maybe the fear of missing out on the meal, and not getting what they needed.
Now normally, these tendencies would not be too much of a concern. Eventually, every sheep or goat would get their share, and that would be that. But there was one time when this drive to take whatever they could get led to tragedy. Our first pair of sheep had a lamb when the weather was still wintery, and so we moved the mother and lamb to an alternate, and warmer place in the barn, separate from the ram. Unfortunately, the mother sheep then got into some grain, and gorged herself on it… overeating to the point of making herself sick, and dying a short time later… leaving the lamb alone.
Thankfully, we were able to care for the lamb, and it grew up to live for many years. But this memory has always stuck with me as a sad reminder that what seems good in the moment might actually lead to death… and leave others to suffer.
Now I don’t blame those sheep for acting the way they did. They were just doing what came naturally to them, living by their instincts, and trying to make the most out of life. But it’s clear to me now that to survive and thrive, they would need a lot of help.
In so many ways, sheep need their shepherd to lead them into life. And if we think about it, we aren’t all that different, are we?
Left to ourselves, we too can be easily driven by our own desires, or by our fears, in ways that end up hurting, not only those around us, but ourselves too.
Often our instincts are to just fend for ourselves, or those closest to us… to grasp and go after what we need, not knowing when to stop.
In the Holy Scriptures, God often speaks of His chosen people as sheep… as a flock that is under His special protection and care… but which also frequently forgets the One who is with them, wandering away, and falling prey to their fears and to their selfish desires. But these same Scriptures teach us to turn and look to to God in hope, trusting that He will be faithful to His wayward flock, and give us the guidance and care that we all really need.
As you may know, this Sunday is often called Good Shepherd Sunday, and our readings today call us to reflect a bit more on this image and what it means for us: how Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, our Good Shepherd, has come to lead you and I… to lead us all into abundant life.
Our Gospel reading today from John chapter 10 has Jesus evoking this image: likening Himself and His mission to that of a shepherd, leading His flock by their trust in His familiar voice. John 10:1-5,
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
This image drives home the point that the shepherd is trusted by the sheep, and is trustworthy, seeking to keep the sheep safe, unlike all the others that seek to sneak in and selfishly steal them away.
Christ is here calling God’s people to trust Him, to listen to His voice, comparing His care and concern for them… for us, with others claiming to be faithful guides, yet who were far from God’s heart.
Sadly, we know that there are many today… even inside of the Church… who also claim to be trustworthy guides… able to provide the guidance and care that we all need, and yet they’re just bandits and thieves… selfishly using the people who trust them, to get what they want: influence, power, money… whatever. And when we consider how many conflicting voices we are confronted with every day… each promising us security, fulfilment, peace, if we’ll just follow after them, it’s clear Christ’s warning is just as relevant today as when it was first spoken two thousand years ago.
So how do we avoid being led astray? We have to do everything we can to get to know Jesus our Shepherd’s voice!
A few years back, before COVID, our Diocese encouraged us all to read a book called Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost. It’s a great book with lots of important things for us to put into practice both as individuals and as a community of believers. But one of the things Frost challenges his readers to do is to “Learn Jesus”… to regularly set aside time to devote ourselves to being steeped in Christ’s story… what He has said, what He has done… so that we become so familiar with Him that His story shapes our own.
If we want to know how to recognize Christ’s voice, and follow Him instead of all the imposters out there, the first step is to draw near to Jesus… to pray to Him, to read and re-read the Gospels, to study His story together… making it a priority in our lives to hear and follow the voice of our Good Shepherd… who alone leads us to life.
John 10:7-10, “So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Jesus our Good Shepherd came to lead us to abundant life. But He knew from the start how hard this would be, and all that saving us would require. In John 10:11, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Which is of course exactly what He did for us all at the cross. As St. Peter said in our second reading:
“ ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. [That is, God.] He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:22-25)
Christ Jesus laid down His life to give God’s life to us… to bring us forgiveness, and freedom, and to transform our old selfish selves into His image, learning to live like Him.
Reflecting on Christ’s suffering for our sake, St. Peter could see that this was now our calling too: that Jesus had given us a clear example to follow… that we too might have to endure suffering, mistreatment, and hardships, and that like Jesus, we should do so by not lashing out and at those who hurt us, but peacefully, in the confidence that the Living God has got our back. That the Lord will guide and protect us, and that, even if we must suffer like Jesus and lay down our lives, God is still with us, and will uphold us, and raise us up to share in His life, which is something no human cruelty, injustice, or even death can ever take away.
What this means is that by laying down His life for us, Jesus was not really sparing us from having to face suffering. Jesus was bearing our suffering for us on the cross out of God’s own self-giving love, and making it possible for us to have this same longsuffering, self-giving love begin to shape us too. Filling us. Forming us. Guiding us. Making us more and more like Him.
As Jesus Himself will say later on in St. John’s Gospel: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13).
God’s holy love is what guided Jesus every step of the way. And this same love is what Jesus laid down His life to give to us… poured into our hearts by His Holy Spirit. This self-giving love now at work in those who trust and follow Him is the heart of the abundant life that Christ died to bring to us, and to the world. Drawing together His scattered people to share this love with one another.
This is what we see going on in our first reading today from Acts Chapter 2: the new community of Christians learning to live together by God’s holy love.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47).
What do we see here? Not some new social program, or idealistic dream, but a whole new community putting God’s holy love into practice together. Everyone had what they needed because, rather than being driven by fear or selfishness, they were led by God’s self-giving love… laying down their own lives for one another in practical ways… and finding themselves filled up with joy and generosity.
And where did this self-giving love come from? Not from their old ways of life… but from their connection to Christ’s life… to Christ’s story… and Christ’s Spirit at work in them.
We’re told after St. Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost thousands of people responded to the Gospel, and that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” about Jesus, helping them to learn to hear His voice… and they were devoted to “fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42).
Learning the story of Jesus, prayer, fellowship, breaking of bread… these practices have been at the core of the Christian faith since the very beginning, drawing us near, and helping us stay near to our great Shepherd and to each other.
But we’re not simply being given a technique to follow, or a set of practices to pick up, as important as they may be. This passage shows us that the abundant life that Jesus our Good Shepherd laid down His life to lead us into starts here and now in the lives of His people, being transformed together by God’s love.
The Gospel of Jesus calls us to live differently. To love differently. To not simply keep wandering through life, chasing after our desires, or running away from our fears… but to be drawn together by our Good Shepherd and learn together from Him how to truly live. And with His Spirit at work in us, putting it into practice.
What do we think it looks like to follow Jesus into God’s abundant life here in Gondola Point? What might it look like for us to put His self-giving love into practice?
How would it change our time together?
How would it change how we interact with our neighbours?
How might the self-giving love of God at work in us change everything?
It’s easy for us to turn back to our old ways of doing things. To let ourselves be led away from the things that scare us… or towards the things that excite and entice us… even if they only end up leading us to tragedy.
But our Saviour Jesus, our Good Shepherd is calling us to draw closer to Him and to one another… to share in His abundant life.
Let us then listen closely to His voice… letting His faithful, self-giving love take shape in our lives… and in the power of the Holy Spirit, let us put it into practice… first of all with our fellow believers, our brothers and sisters… our fellow sheep… so that together we can welcome others into Christ’s flock, and to draw near with them to the One Good Shepherd: our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School