25th April 2021

Easter 4

Rev. Tom Mumford

I pray that I may speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

An old friend of mine who is a priest now in Cambridge tells a good story. Years ago when he was the chaplain to the Bishop of London, he had a week off where he travelled home to see his family in Shropshire.
Now Shropshire, if anyone hasn’t been, is a beautiful county woven together with rolling countryside…and loads of sheep. When my friend was there, out walking in the fields, he told me that he bumped into a local shepherd. He joked with him that his boss back in London had a shepherd’s crook a bit like the one he was holding. He then asked him if he really used it to haul in the naughty stray lambs. “Oh no,” he said, “that’s not what this is good for. I’ll tell you what I do with this crook. I stick it in the ground, so deep, that I can hold on to it, and keep myself so still, that eventually the sheep learn to trust me.” ….My friend has been dying to preach at a bishops’ consecration service ever since!

Because this, it seems, is not just a good model for the pastoral ministry of a bishop or indeed a priest, but exactly the sort of thing not only a good shepherd does, but the Good Shepherd does. The Good Shepherd that is the God in Jesus Christ we hear in our gospel reading today. Because it is in Jesus that we find a stillness, a rootedness, a safeness, through which we learn to trust God, learn that we are loved (maybe perhaps even learn to love ourselves), and from this place, learn to go out and love the world.

It is this process, this rhythm even, that is central to the Christian life, and exactly what we see going on in our reading from Acts. When reading Acts, or anything about the early church and the first Christians, I always try to remind myself that these people weren’t called, and never thought of themselves, as ‘Christians’. This was a name that came much later.Actually, these people were known as followers of ‘the Way’.
It is this Way, then, that Peter and his friends are discovering. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for others? Well, as we hear, it means that their ministry, their actions, inspired by the Way of Jesus
Christ and empowered by God the Holy Spirit, gives the opportunity for new life. For healing and reconciliation in the lives of others. However, to their cost, they realise that this isn’t all that straight forward. They realise, actually, that not everyone can handle that. We know that because as we hear them speak today, they are prisoners. But of course, this wouldn’t have been a surprise for them, and it shouldn’t come as a
surprise to us either. We’ve all seen this before. The same hearers of Jesus in our gospel reading today, are the very same that nail him to the cross not too long later.

But back to this ‘Way’ that’s brought us all here. We hear more of what being followers of this ‘Way’ looks like, the more we listen to the words of Christ. In our gospel this week, and next, we hear some of his famous ‘I am’ sayings: ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ this week, ‘I am the vine’ next. These ‘I am’ sayings, interestingly, mirror the ‘I am’ sayings of God in Exodus. This, then, is Jesus telling his Jewish followers, as God did to their ancestors, that he is: ‘I am who I am’, ‘I am God your God’. This is incredible.

And so what does it mean for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd? Well it means that he is God, who is the Good Shepherd. It means, like the good shepherds throughout scripture (not least in Psalm 23),  God is the one who protects, who cares, who gives nourishment. God in Christ is the one who comes after us, who leaves the 99 to find the 1. God in Christ is the one who knows his own, who binds the shepherd to the sheep like the Son is bound to the Father. He knows and loves each of the sheep, each of us, every single one, intimately. There are no strangers in his flock.

But as we hear in Acts, as we know for Jesus, there is something about this news that is too much for some. And what I think we see is that there is quite simply so much of the recklessness of God’s love in Jesus Christ, so much in the followers of the Way, that some people rather hate it. They find themselves embarrassed by their unlovingness, by their hardheartedness. They find themselves afraid, even hateful, and they push back. They push back so far, in fact, so hard, that God in Christ ends up going over the cliff edge on the cross. But, just as those who hate, those who are embarrassed, those who are afraid think they’ve got rid of it, think they’ve done off with the Way, the Way of life and love…well just as they look down into the abyss into which they’ve pushed the love of God, they hear a voice from behind them saying: ‘peace be with you’. And so the story of hope and love and new life continues.

To follow the Way, then, we must not only receive the Good Shepherd, but become good shepherds. We must be people rooted in the divine life, rooted in God through prayer, still enough and sure enough of that love that people learn to trust us. But we must also love, recklessly, and when it comes, confront all evil and hate and fear and embarrassment that is pushed back in return. We must absorb it and transform it. We must show people the Way, and invite them to follow.  Because this is what it is all about, this is the Way, this is the truth, and this is the life.