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Good Shepherd

 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”

I must introduce you to one of the most important people in my life. My hairdresser. He has a wonderful sense of humour. When we first met, he told me he came from Iran. I said, "Are you a Muslim?" He said, "Sometimes". I know exactly how he feels. I often think I’m a Christian sometimes. Anyway, we often share a joke. I went in one day and sat in the chair, he looked at me and said, "I will make you look ten years younger". I said, "What are you, a hairdresser or a plastic surgeon?"

But there’s one thing he always says to me, when he’s finished doing my hair and beard and stands back to admire his work of art. He says, "Welcome to new life". I always think that’s such a lovely thing to say. And of course it’s a perfect summary of the message of Easter. Welcome to new life.

At first sight, today’s gospel with its references to sheep and shepherds might not seem to have much to do with Easter. Instead, it might make us think of those dreadful stained-glass-window images of Jesus holding a little lamb; or the pictures in those illustrated bibles they used to give to children of my generation. They almost turned me off religion for life. Images like that really should be consigned to the dustbin of history. They’re so unhelpful to faith.  

But if we look more closely, we’ll find that this passage from John’s gospel about Jesus the good shepherd has a lot to do with the message of Easter. What we need to understand first is that this passage refers back to the Old Testament and to certain prophecies found there, notably those of Isaiah, who said God would feed his flock like a shepherd; and of Jeremiah, who said God would keep Israel as a shepherd keeps a flock. These prophecies looked ahead, as prophecies do. They looked forward to a time when God would show his love for his people by being their shepherd and caring for them as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

In Christ, these prophecies are fulfilled. And to see exactly how they are fulfilled, we need to look again at the words of Jesus with which we began, and particularly at the words “I am”. John’s gospel records a whole series of sayings of Jesus which begin with the words “I am”. And this saying – “I am the good shepherd” – is of course one of them. Now these two little words, “I am”, are tremendously important. They too look back to the Old Testament and to that moment in the Book of Exodus when God revealed himself to Moses by telling Moses his name: I am who I am. At least, that’s one translation of the Hebrew. It could also be translated: I will do what I will do. But that’s for the scholars to worry about. The important thing for us is that in the Greek version of the Old Testament – with which many of John’s readers would have been familiar - the name of God revealed to Moses is translated as ego eimi. I am. And when we look at the “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Greek text of John, we find they begin with the same words, ego eimi. I am.

By recording these “I am” sayings of Jesus, John the Evangelist is pointing to the mystery which the Church would later call the Incarnation. In Christ God has taken our human nature. He has made himself known to us, revealed himself finally and definitively, in the historical person of Jesus. As Jesus says, elsewhere in John’s gospel, He who has seen me has seen the Father.

And it was this incarnation of God which fulfilled the prophecies. Christ is the good shepherd, who knows his own and is known by them.

And now we must turn yet again to our gospel reading, and to these words of Jesus: And I lay down my life for the sheep. For Jesus to be the good shepherd was a costly thing. Forget sentimentality and little lambs. The good shepherd was to suffer the betrayal of his closest friends, the injustice of the religious and political establishment, and a cruel form of execution reserved for criminals and insurrectionists.

The Resurrection is much more than the story of how Jesus survived death. Through his resurrection, Christ overcame the forces of destruction and death, the very forces which had tried to destroy him. And thus he set in motion the redemption of the world. Now this may be hard for us to understand. Are we really meant to see things on this scale? Well, yes we are. And here it’s helpful for us to read certain passages in Paul’s letters, particularly Colossians and Ephesians. Paul realised that the death and resurrection of Christ had cosmic implications, because the power that was at work in Christ was also at work in the world to redeem the world. This is and must be an integral part of our faith, and of our understanding of human life.

As we look at the society in which we live and of which we are part, with its tensions and conflicts and its injustices and massive inequalities, what is there for us to hope for? And what is the best that we can hope for? A few cosmetic changes every five years? A slightly different version of the same thing? The status quo with a smile on its face and a vague promise to be a bit nicer the next time round? Yes, it would be all too easy for us to slip into apathy, cynicism and indifference, and let ourselves be morally anaesthetised by the affluence and the materialism that surround us and suffocate us.

Or we could embrace the vision which our Easter faith sets before us. We could see the possibility of redemption. We could see a society in which wealth and resources are shared and used effectively, not wasted or seized by greedy individuals and over-sized corporations. We could see a world in which conflicts are resolved by looking at the underlying issues, not by resorting to military force. We could see communities which exist solely to help and support those who live in them, rather than being built around the needs of a privileged elite.

We could hope and we could pray for these things. And we could work for them. We could find our own way of making a contribution, however small, to what is nothing less than the process of the redemption of the world. We could let our Easter faith become something real and tangible, something at the very centre of our life which drives and motivates us.

Jesus the good shepherd, whom we celebrate today, has everything to do with Easter. So, as my hairdresser would say, welcome to new life.


Easter 4 ’15 CHS