Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 30 April 2023.
• First Reading: Acts 2: 42-47 (Many wonders and signs. Believers together and had everything in common. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved)
• Epistle: 1 Peter 2: 19-24 (Unjust suffering for doing good. The example of Jesus’ innocent but patient suffering. By His wounds you have been healed)
• Gospel: John 10: 1-10 (I am the gate for the sheep. The thief comes to steal, kill, destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full)
It is interesting how much time in the synods of the church – and my knowledge is of our diocesan synod – is spent on worthy matters.
They include equality in its many forms, the environment, justice in its many forms, and so on. Most of these reflect the current issues in society and the media. Not too much time is spent on investment in national infrastructure, the defence of the realm, trading relations or ensuring that our sustainable power supply matches the predicted needs of it that will follow our abandonment of all forms of fossil fuel. Very little on how to build more houses.
We spend plenty of time on liturgy and the governance of the church. Not so much on the gospel of salvation. That is more difficult and people’s perspectives may vary.
But it all points to the life of the church as an institution – and as such its structures, committees and finances. All good stuff to excite those not really interested the gospel of salvation, and for whom it is an embarrassment, even a distraction.
I am labouring this point because it is something that Jesus was pointing to in our gospel lesson. The sheepfold is there – it is His by right and He is the sole point of access to it. Anyone who is legitimately interested in the sheep in the sheepfold will be happy to access them through Jesus and Him alone.
He is the One who has chosen them, saved them, who protects them, leads them out to pasture and tends them. His wall of protection is utterly sure.
And yet He also sees that there are those who wish to gain access to the sheep – while by-passing Jesus. They want the sheep – but not Jesus. Emphatically not.
The sheep offer money, opinions, votes, and possibly the conversion of the whole fold to the values and agendas of the interlopers. If the interlopers are successful then they gain the whole sheepfold but exclude Jesus Himself.
In other circles, this is called entryism or institutional capture. It is certainly a distortion of the original purpose of the sheepfold and its redirection into another direction, possibly more attractively and alluringly presented.
But then Eve came to regret the slick presentation by the snake in the Garden of Eden.
But there is another aspect to all of this because Jesus is utterly confident that the sheep of His sheepfold know and recognize His voice and will not follow another shepherd.
They know the real thing when they see and hear it, and so they can tell a false line when this is offered to them as well. They will not follow a false shepherd, no matter how attractive and persuasive the pitch.
In this, there is a clear contrast between what Jesus has to offer and what the other presentations may put forward.
Jesus was clear in saying that He had come of offer life, and life in its fulness.
This means a new kind of freedom in relation to God, first of all and then to one another. It is a freedom from fear, especially of eternity and of death. It is a release from condemnation, and that includes the most intimate personal embarrassments as well as the received wisdoms of the culture of the day.
Even our sins may be named before Him, in the silence of our hearts, and He will forgive and lead us to victory over them.
That which is the most gut-wrenching is also that from which He most desires to release us.
The agendas of the interlopers are less constructive, even if they are presented more attractively.
There are all sorts of identity issues to be exploited, and all sorts of resentments on which to trade.
There is the ease with which others are made to feel guilty, and equally, by which the loyalties and wallets of the devotees may be pried open and exploited.
There is the satisfaction of seeing opponents humiliated and destroyed.
The glow of (short-lived) public approval before the spotlight moves on to another issue and another target.
But Jesus came so that His sheep may find freedom together in His love and His provision. He has already given all that He has and is so that His sheep may live.
And this is not so much that they may continue in their own lives – rather it is so that they may continue and prosper in His life.
It means growing in confidence in the things of His salvation and His kingdom. It means finding new depths as we learn to love one another – without personal agendas or ulterior motives.
It also means allowing Him to lead us into His new pastures and yet to shelter us in His sheepfold. This is why it is Jesus’ agenda and methods that have to take priority over anybody else’s. Including the interlopers and climbers of walls.