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Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter – Revd Ian Blyth

ST THOMAS CHURCH 3RD MAY 2020 EASTER 4

Our readings for today are a rich source of insights for our own personal spiritual life of  faith in Jesus Christ and for our life in the present pandemic that has produced the lock-down of our normal lives. Whether we are leaders or followers, the challenge comes to both in a variety of ways and on a number of different fronts as the media inform us.   

In the reading from John’s Gospel and in Psalm 23 the Shepherd and the Sheep are the two protagonists in what we could call a single analogy to illustrate the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Both have roles to play. In these two passages the Shepherd is a person of experience; the sheep he is herding can, for their health and safety, depend on him because of his knowledge of what is best for them. In the Psalm it is the shepherd who leads the sheep to green pastures and quiet waters for nourishment. Through his leadership, the soul, or inner being, of each sheep is nurtured and refreshed and they remain content for as long as they continue to trust and remain in contact with the Shepherd, who is willing even to lay down his life for the protection of his sheep which in the Gospel passage, belong to the Shepherd. The Shepherd protects the sheep from deep valleys, wild animals and from the thief (presumably Satan) using his rod and his staff both of which are signs of authority and righteousness.

The sheep, for their part, as long as they trust the Shepherd, are willing to follow him. They know the Shepherd’s voice and can distinguish it from a stranger’s voice. The sheep do not necessarily know the right paths to take to get to a rich pasture that will be best for them even though they might be able to smell the best grass even if it is on the other side of the fence. There are other flocks of sheep who feed in different pastures. The shepherd knows from experience that sheep are easily led astray by just one sheep. This happened to us while we were living next to a sheep paddock in Berkshire. Our grass, which was different to the grass in the paddock was tempting because it was fresh and untouched by the sheep; they would feed on our grass as far as they could reach through the wooden fence that separated the paddock and our garden. That was until a sheep found a gap in the wire fence on one side of our property. Once one sheep went astray others followed. As caring outsiders we called the shepherd who soon came and returned the sheep to the flock because the gate to the road was not closed.

I will leave you to consider the implications or parallels within the lock-down through which we are going. Let me ask another question: “What is it that we need to do to help those who have wandered off to return and become once again one of Jesus’ sheep? And, a second question, “How do we nurture our relationship with Jesus as Shepherd? Robin Joubert recently had a vision of a collection of small crosses that were being watered. The  crosses symbolised people who are struggling with their faith. People who, for one reason or another, have drifted away from the nurture of the sheepfold and need to be reintegrated so that their life can be different as they are re-united with others in the sheepfold. The more people who are brought back to faith the greater will be the difference to the sheepfold and to the wider world. In the natural environment the changes that have taken place as a result of the Covid 19 are remarkable. Dolphins are returning to the waterways of Venice, and wild animals are wandering through the streets of cities and villages. The picture is similar to that of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.

As Christians we are identified not just by the cross we wear around our necks but by the loving way in which we live in the world and draw other people into relationship. Some of these people have drifted away because they have lost the feeling of being loved and cared for within the flock and as a result have no reason to remain. They no longer feel the need to feast with others of the flock on the grass which the Shepherd chooses for them. When Jesus encountered the woman at the well he knew, and she tried to avoid, the truth about her life. Jesus offered her living water that would quench her thirst for life once and for all. The well of this living water is always full but, we leak and need water to remain spiritually healthy, just as we need water for our physical well-being. In the letter to the Ephesians there is a prayer (Ephesians 3:14-21) in which the writer recognises the power of love to unite people and asks that they fully grasp the fullness of the love of Christ deep within not just it is a nice idea but to know Christ.

Further to Robin’s picture of the small crosses, and to change for a moment the analogy, Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, points out that there is a tendency for Christians to be influenced by one pastor or another (in the letter it was Paul and Apollos). One plants the seed, others water the seeds that have been sown, the growth comes from God. In St Thomas church the Barnabas ministry of encouragement, is intended to keep us together and to care for one another, to sow seeds and to nurture the growth that the Lord is bringing about. This was characteristic of the early Church. The believers shared what they had so that no one went hungry. They met together and broke bread together, not just a religious practice but as a way of making sure that all were cared for. Everyone received a complete meal and let us not forget that in the early church there were thousands, not just hundreds, who had turned to faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Lord was daily adding to their number (Acts 2:47).

One of the things that I notice about love is that the more I am willing to love others the more I grow as a disciple of Christ. For a few weeks, I have been thinking about the words of Jesus to Nicodemus that when, not if, the Son of Man is lifted up, like the snake in the wilderness that brought healing to the people bitten by snakes, those who believe will be given eternal life. As we lift up Jesus through the way in which we love others we build relationships and influence the life of others and draw them to the Shepherd of our souls. AMEN.