You were straying like sheep,
but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
This morning, in our readings we are being compared with animals – with sheep. And it is a certain characteristic of our personality that is being spoken of – we are followers – and we share this quality with sheep. We are made by God to be followers – it is in our very nature.
When I lived in cattle country in Western Canada, I was invited by a parishioner to go on the twice a year round up of cattle to move them to a different field. He told me that you really have to be careful to guide the cattle. He told me that one time the cattle who were in the lead started turning back around a bunch of trees and the whole herd ended up going around in a big circle around these trees because they were all following the cattle in front of them. It took a lot of effort to break them out of the circle! The herd mentality – it is part of human nature too.
Being followers is not a bad thing, but who are we following?
When we were children, we imitated our parents – copying their virtues and their vices, because of their love for us and our desire to be like them – they were our shepherds. As teens, there is often an antagonism with our parents. Our parents were used to leading and we began to see our parents’ faults for the first time, that they are human, and so we were disappointed (sometimes we were angry with them for that) and we searched for other models. Wise parents, will prepare their children for their disappointment with themselves, by continually deferring them to the great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who will never disappoint them.
If we are not looking at Jesus, we are looking at someone else, whether consciously or unconsciously, and we are following them – it is in our very nature. We learn by imitation; we are all like sheep. (The whole advertising industry is based upon this reality.)
Do you know who you are following in each and every decision that you make in life? How do we know who is trustworthy? As we grow up, as we proceed on the spiritual life, how can we not be taken in by false teachers?
In our first reading from Ezekiel [34:11-16a], God is speaking through the prophet. God says,
Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them…I will bring them into their own land… I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses… there shall they lie down in good grazing land…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep …I will seek the lost…bring back the crippled… bind up the injured…strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice…[and a few lines after today’s lesson God says] I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
Ezekiel is prophesying about 400 years after the death of King David, so he is not talking about the historical King David, but the coming Messiah, the Son of David – who is God Himself. There can be no greater mentor, we are to turn our eyes to Him, and to those who have their eyes fixed on Him. When Jesus came to us 600 years after Ezekiel, he says very deliberately, knowing that he is the fulfillment of this very prophesy, he says, I am the Good Shepherd [St John 10:11-16].
But how do we know Jesus is that one? He is the Good Shepherd because he’s not in it for himself, but rather He gives his life for the sheep. Has any guru, given up his life for his sheep, or have they simply consumed the lives of their sheep? Do society’s rich and famous and powerful, give up their lives for you? Some do, in ways, by their public service. They can provide limited leadership. But will any of them be with you and I when the wolf comes, that is, in the darkest moments in our lives when Satan tempts us, or in the final moments of our lives, even at the moment of our death? Will any of them see us through the gate of death and bring us through to the other side? No, but Jesus will. He has shown us He will by His death for us and by His Resurrection. No other man has risen from the dead, as Jesus has, and appeared to his disciples for 40 days – His resurrection, is a vindication of his death for us. We can be sure He is God for us in the flesh – He’s the one to follow.
We are here this morning because we’ve all been captivated in some way by Jesus. We see in Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and we are right to want to follow Him. Jesus fulfills in us that part of our soul that is always searching for a mentor, for one whom we can follow absolutely – and Jesus will not disappoint us.
And what is this way that Jesus shows us? It is not what we first expected. Jesus’ way, the way of love, includes the way of the Cross.
St. Peter says [1 Peter 2:19-25]:
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
We are being led by Jesus, even in this life, into the Kingdom of heaven. We suffered before we drew close to Jesus, but it was often the result of our own faults. Jesus is leading us into heaven and we come to know a new path that leads to good grazing, beside springs of spiritual refreshment, and to a place of rest for our souls.
Strangely it is not an end to suffering, but now our suffering is for a different reason. We suffer less because of doing what is wrong and more because of doing what is right. If they have hated me, they will hate you, said Jesus. It is to join in the suffering that Jesus knew in his passion and death on the Cross But this suffering, Jesus shows us by his Resurrection, is redemptive. It brings about in us a Resurrection to fuller life.
We can trust fully in Jesus. We are also given the commandment to honour our father and mother – and the wider implication of the commandment is that we are to honour those in authority (honouring doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with). Jesus has also left us the Church of which we are all a part through our baptism and faith. We have a certain healthy suspicion of earthly leaders…. whether cultural or political or in the Church… because we recognize we are all fallen.
So there are tensions within the Church that we are all aware of, especially if we come from a tradition which is established in contrast to, or as a reaction against or apart from the mainstream. Whether we come from the Catholic Apostolic or Protestant or Reformed backgrounds, or from whatever part of the Anglican tradition you come from, or if you come from Roman Catholic or Orthodox tradition – there is this jostling within the Church… We have to ask ourselves, is my struggle with earthly or Church authority prophetic or is it simply my pride? These are tensions we must learn to live with, each of us individually as we keep our eyes on The Good Shepherd and humble ourselves before one another. The Word of God is the final check and guide, and as it is interpreted, not just by ourselves, but through the centuries of the Tradition, and as people struggle to understand its application in each generation.
Jesus says today [John 10:11-16],
I am the good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
As we follow Jesus more closely, others, who cannot see Jesus yet, will follow us – they will recognize His voice in us and in our actions. (What a responsibility! – if we stray when others are following, it leads them into trouble too, but if we come back, they too may come back with us). And there will be this great gathering up of all the sheep, moving more and more in the same direction, heavenward, all returning their praise and thanksgiving and their love to the ultimate Good Shepherd and Bishop of our souls – Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow, the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.