Sunday 12 May 2019
Following the Shepherd
Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30
By Paul Richardson
Priest in the Diocese of Westminster
Context: Mass in a central London parish with a large ethnically and socially diverse congregation
Aim: to explore how Christians today can hear Jesus’ voice
Today is sometimes referred to as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ Living in central London most of us do not have contact with shepherds. I grew up in rural Cumbria where there are plenty of shepherds but even in Cumbria shepherds to not have to carry out the same duties expected of them in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Shepherds then had a hard life. They were expected to live out in the open with their sheep. They were responsible for guiding the sheep in the search for food and for protecting them from wolves and other sources of danger. Out in the wilds shepherds and sheep grew close. Shepherds depended on the sheep for their livelihood and while the sheep needed the shepherds to protect them. Sheep grew to know their shepherd and to recognise his voice.
Shepherds are used in the Bible as an image for leaders, both human and divine. Israel’s greatest king, David, was seen as a shepherd of his people. In a passage in John’s Gospel just before today’s gospel reading Jesus was challenged to say whether or not he was the Messiah. Characteristically he did not answer directly but responded by telling his questioners they would not believe him because they were not his sheep.
In today’s gospel reading the focus is not so much on Jesus as the Good Shepherd as on the readiness of the sheep to listen to his voice. ‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice,’ Jesus says. How do we listen to Jesus’ voice?
Among some Christians the letters ‘WWJD’ have become popular. They stand for ‘What would Jesus do?’ It’s a good question but it is not always easy to know the answer. Jesus lived his earthly life 2000 years’ ago in circumstances very different from ours. He knew nothing of nuclear weapons, the internet, computers or the possibility of people walking on the moon. There are dangers in deciding what Jesus wants us to do on the basis of hunches, guesses or feelings. When people hear voices or claim to have seen visions, we are usually suspicious. So how do we hear the voice of Jesus?
One important way in which we learn what Jesus would do is similar to the way in which we learn what other people would do. My parents have been dead many years but when I find myself in a new situation, confronted by choices or called to make a decision, I usually know what my mother or father would have done in the same circumstances. This is because I spent so much time with them and came to know them so well that I can still guess their views on a given topic.
Something similar happens in our relationship with Jesus. If we spend time with him in prayer or in reading the scriptures, if we listen to others who are trying to follow him, maybe go regularly on retreat or spend time before the Blessed Sacrament we grow to know him, and this can enable us to see how he would have us act. It is true that Jesus lived 2000 years’ ago but the Risen Christ is present with us today as our contemporary by the power of the Holy Spirit. In prayer we become conscious of Christ’ presence and of the guidance he gives us. The test that we really are trying to listen to Jesus and to follow him is that we find he is leading us to eternal life, to a new quality of life in which we find new strength to love and serve others.
In the reading from the Apocalypse we were given a wonderful picture of people of every nation, ethnicity and culture worshipping the lamb. In the poetic language of this book the lamb and the shepherd are one. The image of Christ as the lamb is a powerful one because in the culture of his day people who were seen as like lambs were humble and meek. Lambs were also offered in sacrifice in the Temple twice a day and at Passover every family was supposed to slaughter a lamb.
Jesus dies as a lamb in sacrifice to reveal God’s love and forgiveness for sinful human beings. The lamb is on the throne because Jesus conquered not by using the strength of a lion but by showing the meekness of a lamb, humbling himself and assuming the form of servant.
But the lamb is also the shepherd, leading his people to springs of living water and wiping the tears from their eyes. Following the shepherd, we find new life, we become citizens of the kingdom and see the first signs of God’s new creation. This does not mean all problems are taken away from us. Loved ones still die; evil still stalks the earth. Still, we can trust the Good Shepherd to care for us. His resurrection is a sign and promise that we will follow where he has led.
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