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Good Shepherd Sunday

Fourth Sunday of Easter: 17th April, 2016
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life" (John 10:27-28a).

Today is nick-named Good Shepherd Sunday; you can always tell at St Peter's, because there is a large woolly sheep placed in the organ loft! Each year in our three year lectionary cycle, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, we read through the tenth chapter of John's gospel, in which Jesus proclaims the fourth of seven "I am" statements: "I am the Good Shepherd."

Sheep, Good Shepherds, Bad Shepherds, the Lord's my Shepherd, lost sheep, sheep and goats, shepherds watching their flocks by night: pastoral references are scattered throughout the Bible, from Abel to Abraham, Jacob to Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, the Shepherds of Bethlehem, and of course Jesus himself. The word "shepherd" is found 118 times in the Bible, "lamb" 200 times and "sheep" 220 times. Today's gospel reading is short, the shortest I think, but it evokes most powerfully this central Biblical theme. So much so, that in the verse that follows today's Gospel, we are told that (v.31): "The Jews took up stones again to stone him."

This morning, however, I would like us to focus on just one and a half verses. A few words you might even like to memorise: "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life." In these few words we have, essentially, the whole story of Christian salvation:

  1. My sheep hear my voice
  2. I know them
  3. They follow me
  4. I give them eternal life

Firstly, "my sheep hear my voice." How do we become Christian? How do we hear the voice of our Lord. This might be as an infant, being baptised, deep in our unconscious, part of who we are thanks to the gift of parents and godparents, attending church as a child; it's just what we do on Sundays. Or our hearing God's voice may be more sudden, more Pauline, a Road-to-Damascus hearing of God's voice (Acts 9:4): "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Or perhaps a Road-to-Emmaus hearing of the voice of the Risen Christ, a voice that we don't at first recognise, but gradually opens the scriptures to us, breaks bread with us, gently draws us into faith.

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them."

However we hear the voice of the Shepherd, the next thing is that we come to the realisation that we are known, deeply known, profoundly known from the moment of our conception. Psalm 139 puts it beautifully:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it . ...

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."

We hear, we come to the realisation that we are known, and we are then impelled to act. There is a physical phenomenon called sympathetic resonance. It is how an opera singer can smash a glass with her voice, how a sitar generates its unique sound, and why we feel the pews vibrate when our organist pulls out all the stops. The harmonic frequencies generated in one place (the soprano's vocal chords; the notes played on a sitar; or the organist's pipes) create resonance elsewhere (the glass; open strings on the sitar; or even the pew we are sitting on). It is how our eardrum works too, of course.

Prayer, worship, Bible study, social service, acts of mercy and compassion: these are all ways we resonate with the divine harmonies of God's voice, and that wonderful knowledge that we are loved.

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life."

Eternal life. This is perhaps the tricky one today. Hearing God's voice; resonating with the fact that we are loved; and following Christ in response through acts of worship, prayer and loving service. That's one thing. But eternal life, life beyond death ... that is a harder pill to swallow these days. As the pop-song goes (Madonna): "you know that we are living in a material world." Fredrich Neitzsche's nineteenth-century critique of the after-life has now become almost commonplace: "Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another' or ‘better' life" (from Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p.23, W. Kaufmann transl.).

If Neitzsche was critiquing a society that was overly concerned with the after-life and not sufficiently concerned with the here-and-now, today the pendulum has swung the other way. We have developed a profoundly self-obsessed, narcissistic culture, and it is the mystical other, a concern beyond ourselves, that we desperately need. Ironically our self-obsession is preventing us from breaking global bad habits that threaten our very existence as a planet.

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life."


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