Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I suppose it is true of political dramas in general, that the freedom-loving peoples of the world move around as free people, unafraid and relaxed, yet purposeful and productively. Those of the oppressors move in military formation, repressed and tightly controlled. The citizens are furtive, hurried, guarded, and anxious. It is there to be seen in the Star Wars series, and historical dramas centered on the 2nd World War or the Cold war.
But our readings show both kinds of scene from the viewpoint of the church. In the Acts, the very early church in Jerusalem has general public approval, and is growing without opposition. That developed later. The early Christians share what they have received in the gospel, and what they already have at home freely and generously, in an atmosphere free of persecution and constraint.
They are learning together, and sharing what they have in a kind of Garden of Eden freedom.
In the Epistle however times have changed, for the church is now under pressure. These are times of persecution, of varying kinds of intensity. They range from the soft form of abuse and insults that are common among us, but not persecution as such, to the demands of the state to worship its gods, to abandon the faith and teaching of the church, and even denounce one another as if they were unreliable elements or even traitors.
The important thing is what the readings from Acts and I Peter have in common, rather than the social and political contrasts between them.
In both cases there is the attendance on the teachings of the gospel, the worship of God in Jesus Christ and the care for one another. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a fair-weather message which loses its relevance or potency when adversity strikes. If anything it is adversity that should bring out the truth and strength of the Christian gospel rather than the ease of prosperity.
In the gospel however Jesus points to an even more enduring aspect of the truth in that He speaks of Himself as the Gate. In other places He speaks of Himself as the Good Shepherd and we are more familiar with that. Here however the sheepfold is both the Kingdom of Heaven, and indeed the church. The Gatekeeper is God the Father and the Jesus is also the Shepherd.
His central point is that it is only by entering the sheepfold through the gate that the sheep may thrive. There is only one point of access and this is guarded by the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper hears and recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and opens to Him.
The sheep will not climb in over the wall, but neither will they follow another shepherd. They thrive by remaining in the flock and being led by the shepherd who provides for them and guides them to water and pasture. But He brings them back to the Gate where there is only one way into the fold.
The message is clear that so long as the sheep remain in the flock, and so long as they follow the Shepherd, then they will thrive, even when times turn against them. Their care and safeguarding is the task of the shepherd, who knows them all by name.
But in John there is a certain kind of warning. Just as Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd, so there are other shepherds who are not of Him but who would like the control of the flock and its members and their possessions. There are false shepherds around who do not acknowledge either the gate or the gatekeeper, and there are indeed certain sheep within or close to the flock who do not hear the shepherd’s voice or recognize His care and authority.
The other thing to notice is that the shepherd leads the sheep out and He does so in order that they might feed in rich pastures. For us also there is the sense of being led out. We are not only drawn together in order to worship and to learn and to support one another. We are also led out in order to pursue the tasks of the body of Christ in our own life styles, and among friends, neighbours, colleagues, and all other contacts.
For us also there is that sense of being led out. As you know we have been following the Bishop’s Mission Action Plan and have been reviewing previous deliberations in this area from 2009. We have asked what God is saying to the churches as we studied the letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
Now we will be looking at how it all fits together and as a congregation will be looking at where we believe that Jesus is leading us as we seek to discern His direction of travel and to follow Him.
The point in all this is that there is nothing in our readings to suggest that the shepherd only leads out those who want to do that sort of thing. Rather He leads the whole of the flock, and He does so in order that they may have life and have it in abundance.
Jesus is not looking for survival strategies for the discouraged or sanctified hobbies for the pathologically religious. He is wanting us to live and to do so abundantly. That means both resting and working. It is both pondering and doing. It is worshipping Him in the beauty of holiness and in bringing comfort to the sad and the lonely and the desperate wherever we find them and however they are.
In short, the abundance of life is in the whole of the gospel and in the wholeness of the church as it seeks to proclaim it. But that abundance is there for each member, for the shepherd knows each by name and each of them hears and recognizes His voice. That also means that in our own lives, Jesus also expects us to both find peace and security within the fold, and purpose and fulfilment in the field.