21st Apr, 2002

The Fourth Sunday Of Easter

It has been trendy and fashionable in certain circles of biblical scholarship over the past one hundred or so years to be a little bit sniffy about the New Testament, to regard it as rather crude and primitive. So, for example, it is generally accepted that St Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written down, and has, therefore, in the eyes of some, the most undeveloped and untainted, the most radical, politically pure and “genuine” record of the words and actions of Our Lord. It’s biblical scholarship as archaeology or demythologization. At the other extreme, so the dedicated followers of literary fashion would have us believe, is St John’s Gospel with its refined and carefully nuanced Greek prose and highly developed “Christian theology,” that owes more to Gnostic mysticism than the Word made flesh, at least that’s what they would have us believe.

The man, the great man, who did more than any other to further this kind of “interpretation as archaeology” was Rudolf Bultmann, the twentieth century German New Testament scholar par excellence, whose unparalleled work changed the entire direction of Biblical study and interpretation; Bultmann was poised, lucid, incisive and a genuine scholar possessed of a brilliant mind who made a lasting and monumental contribution to New Testament theology; he was scholarly, erudite, perceptive and WRONG.

Some eleven years ago when the Church in Wales published a new lectionary of readings for use at morning and evening prayer, the Secretary of the Provincial Liturgical Committee was standing at the top of a staircase in the Church in Wales offices in Penarth and slipped, at least that’s how the story goes. As he slipped all the papers he was holding which related to the new lectionary, with all the set readings and Psalms for the daily offices of the Church were dropped down the stairs and were scattered higgeldy piggeldy from the top of the staircase to the bottom. In a panic the Secretary, who did not know the order that the papers had been in originally, immediately began swooping them up, without much thought to what he was doing. Thus when the lectionary was finally published quite a lot of us were perplexed that obscure readings from Leviticus and the Apocrypha were used on important Church festivals and some of the Psalms were omitted altogether, readings from the wrong Gospel were used on days when we commemorated the Evangelists, none of the Pauline readings were used on the Feasts of St Paul…. Just a few examples of the glitches the new lectionary seemed to make. Did the Secretary fall or was he pushed? Was he the victim of some disgruntled liturgical expert intent on wreaking havoc with the Church in Wales?

I suspect something less dramatic and rather more mundane happened, most likely a computer or typesetting mistake had re-arranged all the readings. Nothing like that could ever happen in the Church of England…or could it? Feast of the Purification/ Putrification, I digress.

One might be forgiven for imagining that something similar to the staircase incident happened with St John’s Gospel. Today’s reading from chapter ten, “Amen, amen, I say to you..” the beginning of the famous “Good Shepherd” saying appears from nowhere and is without indication of either chronological setting and no indication of to whom it was addressed. Some New Testament scholars have suggested that the tenth chapter in its current setting is entirely out of place following on as it does without a break from the healing of the man born blind in chapter nine. Some scholars have even suggested taking a scalpel to the body of the text and chopping it up into bite size pieces and re-arranging them to “make sense”. But I think that the author of the Gospel as we know it now, had a definite purpose in mind when he was working on the text and didn’t make mistakes nor force bits of the text into places where they wouldn’t fit.

Most of us know what it is like to face a time when we must move from what is familiar into an unknown and uncertain future, we don’t like our patterns or order being disrupted or disturbed. Again and again, throughout life, we have to make decisions about which path to follow as we seek to map out a good and creative, positive and meaningful life. There are pivotal moments when we make choices, which have significant consequences for the future. A decision about when to leave school or college, where to look for a job, or where to live in retirement, a decision whether one should marry or not, have a relationship or not, a decision to have children or not. Sometimes these decisions come easily to us. But at other times they feel like a tremendous responsibility and burden and we fear making the wrong choice.

So how do we learn to discern what is right, in those pivotal moments and also in the everyday, seemingly casual choices that we make, the more down to earth stuff, which charities do I support, where should I spend my money?

How do we make good decisions? How do we know, as a Church and as individuals, which is the right way to go?

This tenth chapter of St John’s Gospel says that the shepherd of the sheep, “Calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (10: 3b-4) Firstly it asserts that we are sheep and that we have a shepherd. That may make us uncomfortable, sheep are, after all quite stupid, and we can be quite stupid as well; we may be resistant to the idea, but St John tells us that someone else has ownership rights over us.

Our lives are not just our own to do with as we please. “The shepherd calls his own sheep” the text asserts that we belong to him, we are part of God’s flock, the shepherd has a claim on us.

And the shepherd calls us by name, each one of us individually, called and named by God. What an awesome claim to make, that each one of us is called by God himself and that each one of us matter to God. This isn’t an indifferent overseer or an absent landlord but a shepherd who wants to know us intimately, who understands us better than we understand ourselves and calls you by name. How do we know when our name is called by the shepherd? Many people could describe experiences when they’ve felt a presence, an awareness, a peace, a power that was intangible yet nevertheless very real. Perhaps it was a moment in prayer or meditation. Or music that reverberates deep inside one’s being. Or an instance of profound connection with a particular person, or an experience of being loved, inspite of ourselves. Perhaps a time of struggle when you endured more than you were able. There are so many ways that God reaches out to us, pursuing us, watching over us, calling us by name, inviting us into a closer relationship with him. For God desires to be known by us, even as we are known by God. In St John’s Gospel Jesus says that we can know the Shepherd, the sheep can hear and know his voice, recognize him and respond to him. God wants us to be close to him, so close that we will have no difficulty discerning his voice from all the others that crowd into our hearing.

Think about the people that you are closest to. Imagine the voices that you know so well, that you recognize them in the dark. When you hear their voice, you don’t need to ask, who is it? You know them immediately and with that recognition come all the feelings and depth of that relationship. When that voice speaks, their words mean more than what they say in a given moment because of all that has gone before. And when they ask something of you, you aren’t afraid to comply because you trust them and know that they have your best interests at heart. The Good, or Beautiful, or Attractive or Model Shepherd, as the Greek says, desires a relationship with us that is so close and intimate that we immediately discern his voice from all others. His voice and call should comfort, calm, protect and nurture us if we are able to recognize him.

So how do we go about developing that quality of relationship with the Shepherd? We have to do what we do with any other close relationship. We need to spend time together, we need to be vulnerable to that person, open and honest with them, we have to be totally and utterly ourselves with them. We need to be good listeners as well. We have to be willing to take the risk of trusting the Shepherd, with the small things and as faith and trust grow with the big things as well. The best place to develop this intimacy is in the sheepfold, that is where the sheep are called by name, one by one, and are called together. The relationship with the shepherd is at the same time both singular and plural, it is private and corporate. God desires to be in relationship with us individually, but also to make us part of the flock and to bring us into the sheepfold. For it is here in Church that we have a chance to be with others who know the shepherd. It is here that we tell the stories, and remember the times and places that the Shepherd’s voice has been heard in the past. It is here that we share our own stories about how we’ve come to know the Shepherd and how he calls us.

We were never intended to face the future alone or to have to discern what is right by ourselves. The Shepherd has made us part of his flock so that we might benefit from the wisdom of those who have followed the Shepherd across the ages, and the support and guidance of those who continue to listen to the Shepherd’s distinct voice. Together we find safe pasture and abundant life, nourishment for our deepest needs. With that we need not be afraid of the future and we can be confident that we won’t face it alone whatever it may hold… the Shepherd goes ahead of us, preparing the way, leading us and calling us. Our lives are not simply our own, together we belong to the Shepherd.

Sometimes people come and talk to me about problems they are having in their relationships; invariably problems of that nature have their root in the plain simple fact that people don’t communicate with each other, they don’t talk to their partners or friends about what they think or feel. It’s similar to our relationship with the Good Shepherd, how can we expect to be able to discern his voice or know which decision to make if we don’t even spend time praying or meditating or listening to his voice.

When the Good Shepherd calls you, will you recognize his voice or will it be so unfamiliar that it goes unnoticed and ignored?

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