Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter - Michael Everitt

Sunday 21 April 2024

Acts 4:5-12 John 10:11-18

Whilst often credited to Kipling because of his easy to remember verse in the Elephant’s Child of the Just So stories, Aristotle first explored the concept that has shaped modern journalism of the five Ws and a H. They are Who, what, why, when, where and how. These are the questions to be answered and until the late twentieth century formed the framework for opening paragraphs of any report.

As Kipling had been the churchwarden of the cathedral where I was once precentor I share his:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

The nineteen century American Baptist poet and theologian William Cleaver Wilkinson used these as a way of looking for the meaning in scripture and it can be a helpful framework to utilise when we have a familiar image before us, such as the Good Shepherd.

We know who the Good Shepherd is, it is Jesus.

But what is the Good shepherd?

The first shepherd in scripture is Abel, the one whose offering was accepted by the Lord and whose brother the arable farmer Cain killed. Abel’s blood irrigating the very soil that Cain needed to till. The one whose life blood was poured into the dust of the earth, from which his father Adam had been created.

Contrary to many contemporary sermons at Christmastide, shepherding has a long-established role in leadership development both for the Children of Israel and also in the New Testament. (We here in Durham with our affection for St Cuthbert also know the account of him tending flocks when he sees St Aidan’s soul ascending to heaven.) Moses tended sheep when he was seeking sanctuary. David was responsible for Jesse’s flocks when Samuel arrived looking for the one to anoint as King. The leaders of Israel are berated for failing as good shepherds caring more for themselves than those entrusted to them. St Peter calls on the leaders of the early church to be as shepherds to a flock.

Jesus tells us what a Good shepherd is, it is one with total commitment to their flock. In parables he speaks of the shepherd seeking out the lost, in our gospel this morning, it is protecting the vulnerable from those who seek to attack or destroy.

Why is he a Good Shepherd? He is not simply engaged in a transactional activity bound by a contract and working commitments, He has a sense of identity with and for the sheep. A hireling is one identified with matters that are beyond the relational. Whilst many hirelings actually become more than simply one’s “doing a job” for illustrative purposes Jesus gives clarity that the reason for his being a good shepherd is that the flock is his. His identification is bound up with those whom he is caring for and seeking to protect. Elsewhere this “why question” is answered by John with the often-quoted line,

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”

When and where
roots us into the reality of Christ.

Our faith is not simply a story or a tale that seeks to give an explanation of life and a framework to live. Whilst we can indeed draw heavily on the lyrical or even dramatic forms of our salvation narrative, we are not limited to poetic devices utilised by human imagination. The gospel is grounded in the person of Jesus Christ who we see as the Word of God fleshed out. Thus, the historical figures of Pontius Pilate and Herod, the geographical locations of Galilee and Jerusalem are essential. There is a reality revealed to us, not just of a particular person but also of who that person actually is. Thus, we go beyond the romance of pastoral idyll that ignores truth or creates false and simple views. These can be seductive and at first glance comforting, however vision without reality is fantasy and fantasy is ultimately fleeting. We have a when and where in Christ, which then enables us to honour the when and where of our lives, here and now.

The How is of course the language of self-giving that mirrors the experience of the first shepherd Abel. That the good shepherd is to show the total identification and commitment by freely giving of themselves to death. The How is of course bound up in the who, it is the logical and painful conclusion of the revelation of God’s care for his world especially in the light of that which seeks to destroy.

The Twenty third psalm, which in different paraphrases we are singing twice, speaks of the “Lord as our shepherd”. There is much within it that gives comfort and support with the assurance of God’s providential care, guidance and support. This even continues in the desaturating and chilling experience of all that is entailed in death and of its overshadowing. Within the psalm we move from being identified as sheep to being guests at a table and then to being ones who dwell with the Lord for ever.

As we look afresh on Jesus the Good Shepherd, one whose embodiment of that entailed him journeying through the valley of the shadow of death with those to whom he was sent, we come to a new relationship ourselves. We become more than sheep, we are restored to that which God had always intended us to be, which is his image and likeness, indeed not simply sheep but once abiding with him in his many roomed mansion.

Thus, as we look at the Who, what, why, when, where and how questions of the Good shepherd, we have them turned on ourselves. If we are to relate to Jesus in that role, who what why when where and how are we going to be defined ourselves. For the sheep of the twenty third psalm are not passive or docile, they are transformed by their encounter with the Lord as shepherd into something ennobled and glorious. This is our resurrection calling due to Jesus the Good Shepherd, as with sheep with ear tags on the hills, do we demonstrate whose flock we are members?

The Revd Canon Michael Everitt