Sunday 25 April 2021: Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good shepherding advice
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Context: an English town centre congregation, including many who have or had leadership responsibilities
Aim: to encourage listeners to apply biblical images of shepherding to leadership in general, not only to church or pastoral settings
It’s not easy being a Prime Minister. You manage to get yourself elected on the basis of ‘Getting Brexit Done.’ Then, before you have a chance to enjoy the fruits of office, along comes a worldwide pandemic and the bar for successful leadership has been raised yet again.
We have high expectations of our leaders. God, who puts leaders into place, and sometimes puts them in their place, has such expectations. Today’s Gospel has a poetic ring, but also has practical implications for how we view and practise leadership; political or military, in business and industry, in health and education; and the sort of leadership we expect in the life of our churches.
‘I am the good shepherd,’ says Jesus. Immediately, his first audience would have thought of leadership: people like Abraham, Moses and David who rose from shepherding flocks to being shepherds of peoples. They would have remembered prophetic denunciations of impious kings as bad shepherds of their flock (Jeremiah 23:1,2).
Jesus’s earliest listeners would also have thought about God. Rulers were described as shepherds in Old Testament times because they were doing the work of God. As Psalm 23 puts it, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ That shepherd Lord appeared everywhere, from Genesis – ‘the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel’ (49:24) – to the prophets, like Ezekiel, where, ‘as a shepherd looks after his scattered flock … so will I look after my sheep’ (34:12). Leaders were called to be not only shepherds, but God-like shepherds.
Fortunately, God not only makes the demand but provides the role model: God himself, in the pages of the Old Testament but also in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. A role model does not provide detailed answers for every leadership dilemma. In Jesus, however, every leader is provided with a model upon which to base their performance.
Jesus, as Good Shepherd, models active leadership. Here, actions matter more than words. As it says in our reading from 1 John, ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.’ (3:16) That’s not to suggest that Jesus’s words are unimportant, but they are given authenticity by Jesus’s actions: teaching and calling, praying and healing, suffering, dying, and rising. So, though we want to hear what leaders have to say, we are also concerned with what they do.
Jesus models sacrificial leadership: ‘the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:11) And good leaders are ready to sacrifice themselves rather than sacrificing others. Above all, at the cross, Jesus was prepared to take the lead, making the sacrifice required. This was a once-for-all-time sacrifice, but it still provides a model for would-be leaders in terms of being prepared to make sacrifices so that others may benefit. We admire the sacrifices made by health care staff in recent times, and so we should. Such sacrifices have a Jesus-like quality to them.
And then finally the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is a knowledgeable leader: ‘I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’ (10:14). Lose touch with the sheep and they and the shepherd are in big trouble. In recent years, the founder of a large, established, flourishing British business, with branches in every town, still made time each week to turn up at a local branch and work on the shop-floor, talking with workers, meeting the customers. The business flourished and continues to do so. I understand that this entrepreneur was a Christian and I wonder if they got the idea from Jesus, who spent so much of his time with his disciples, talking and teaching, as he led them across the Palestinian landscape, so like a shepherd leading a flock of sheep.
So, God offers us a leadership model – active, sacrificial, knowledgeable. This is what today’s shepherd-leaders (church leaders included) are called to emulate. Yes, Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and so a good basis upon which to judge our leaders – but also the quality of leadership which we ourselves must offer to others.
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