Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sent out to transform the world - a sermon on rejection, repentance and discipleship

Image: Rev Andy Stoddard
Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 8th July 2018. Main text: Mark 6:1-13, with Ezekiel 2:1-5.

Movie writers sometimes talk about a backstory. Behind the hero, there’s some kind of past history which can floor them completely and makes them unable to function. Perhaps it’s an undisclosed secret. We watched the movie of Les Miserables the other day, and you learn near the end that the former convict Jean Valjean has never told his adopted daughter Cosette about his past, for fear she’ll reject him. Or perhaps it’s an object that renders you powerless, like the way Superman is unable to function in the presence of the element Kryptonite. But for many people, it’s to do with past relationships. The people we used to know years ago can have a hold on us, and their over-familiarity, or their belittling, or their contempt, can reduce us as a person, and make us quite unable to be the selves we’ve become. This is why school reunions aren’t always a great idea.

Because people change over time. I’m quite different from the person I was before I became a parent, or before I got married, or before I started work at the Open University. It’s not just that I’m older. I may or may not be wiser. But I’ve gained skills, I’ve gained experience, I’ve seen and done things, and I’ve matured as a person. The same is true for all of us. If someone from your distant past comes along and expects you to be the same, or judges you according to the things they knew from those days, then not only will they be wrong, but they could well do you damage in the process.

And so it is for Jesus. He returns to Nazareth, where he grew up, and people don’t see the healer and the preacher, the one who has been wowing the crowds around Galilee. And they begin muttering about him.
“I’ve always thought there was something a bit odd about him.”
“He’s not properly educated, just some labourer.”
“And what about that story about his birth? OK he’s Mary’s son but nobody ever worked out who his father was”
“Plus he left his mother and sisters at home to be looked after by his little brothers, while he went waltzing around with weirdos.”
Image: Cerezo Barredo
Because small communities are like that. They remember gossip. They use little innuendos to put people in their place. Israel was a patriarchal society, men were referred to as the son of their father, not as the son of their mother. To call Jesus the son of Mary meant that at best his father was dead, but more likely it’s a way of saying he was illegitimate. And the word translated as carpenter, tekton, is a pretty demeaning word – it’s not a skilled role, more like a day labourer on a building site. So he’s low status, of questionable parentage, and he’s left his family behind in the village when he should be looking after them.

No welcome with open arms for Jesus. When he later told his parable about the prodigal son, perhaps he remembered this moment – but there was no fatted calf in his story. Instead: demeaning language, belittling him and his background. Sounds horrible. No wonder he couldn’t do any deeds of power there in Nazareth.

Now you might think, well he’s ok, he has his friends. There are plenty of people rejected by family and their past associations who find a new life with a set of friends instead. Except Jesus never quite does what you expect, and as soon as he’s been rejected in his hometown, he sends them all away to get preaching.

Except of course he sends them away with a purpose – to start to preach the gospel. He sends them off with a mission, to preach repentance and to heal those who were sick. Notice these two emphases fit closely with what Jesus has been calling for throughout the gospel to that point. The first five chapters of Mark are full of healings – a leper, a paralysed man, someone with a withered hand, a man with a severe mental condition, a child who had died, a woman who suffered years of haemorrhages. We’re told that he healed many more, but these are told as stories. These healings are interesting. They are all people whose conditions cut them off from society, which made them unable to care for themselves or made them outcasts, unclean and unfit to associate with devout Jews. So Jesus healing these people was not just a kind deed. It was a set of actions which challenged oppression, which challenged marginalisation, one person at a time.

But Jesus went further than this. His first recorded words in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. In our time, the idea of repentance and good news are often tied up with a post-Easter vision of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. But the good news Jesus was talking about was a different sort. And it had to do with repentance, the key to Jesus’ preaching and the command he gave to the disciples.

Image: Kimberley D. Reisman
Jesus called people to repent. In the Greek, that’s the word metanoia, which means a changing of your mind. Not simply a change in mind about whether you want pizza or curry for dinner, but a complete mental shift in your worldview, in everything you understand about the world. The point is not to condemn yourself, but to recognise that you’ve strayed from the right path, that your true self is better than this. The Hebrew word for this idea, the lovely word teshuvah, has a sense of homecoming about it. You are a beloved child of God, you can come home to the love of God. But in the process you show love to others. So this is a repentance about changing your life around.

Image: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
It’s a repentance that’s deeply related to the idea of the kingdom of God. It says: turn away from violence and hatred, come home to the power of God’s love. It says: turn away from power and hierarchy, come home to equality and care for the downtrodden. It says: turn away from war, come home to peace. It says: turn away from the kingdom of the emperor, come home to the kingdom of God. It was a deeply radical and transgressive message. It echoed the words of the Hebrew prophets for centuries but it was an incredible challenge to the Roman and Jewish authorities. It’s still a challenge today, in a world governed for the benefit of power and money, run by puffed-up egos such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, full of their own self-importance and with little care for those who get in their way.

So a proclamation that people should repent, and an offer to cure them of their sicknesses – those are radical ideas for Jesus to be sending out his disciples to fulfil. This story in Mark has parallel versions in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he quotes from the prophet Isaiah. He speaks words there that have been described as the Nazareth Manifesto, the foundation of Jesus’ commandments to his disciples then and now. They read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And in case there’s any doubt, Jesus says plainly that these words are fulfilled today in the hearing of the people in Nazareth. That’s what repentance is about. That’s what the healing he conducts in Mark is about – proclaiming good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free. It’s not about just about individual healing. It’s about healing society. It’s about radical social change.

Repent, and put your faith in the power of God to change the world, and you will be healed.

There’s a further challenge in the way he tells the disciples to go out. Travelling preachers weren’t uncommon in Jesus’ day, but they went equipped – spare clothes, food, money. The disciples aren’t to do that. They’re to accept hospitality wherever they can. That has its own challenge. Because leaders are supposed to be givers, not receivers. But part of the upside-down kingdom of God is being willing to receive when something is freely offered, no matter how meagre. It’s not about getting rich on others’ giving – Jesus says his disciples were to stay in the first house they entered, not to go climbing up the social hierarchy of a town. There are no private jets here for the followers of Jesus. This kind of simplicity reminds me of the Franciscans, travelling people in simple robes who accepted the hospitality they were given. And St Francis emphasised the value of action in addition to words, saying that “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today”.

Jesus has been rejected by his family and those he grew up with. He’s lacking in authority in Nazareth. But he has great authority in himself, and he passes on that authority to the disciples.

Yet the rejection Jesus received from his family was similar to the rejection the disciples would receive from society. Yes, they healed and they preached. They spread the good news of the kingdom, and they transformed through their lives, and they slowly built up followers of Jesus, especially after his death. But within a fairly short time, all of the twelve sent out by Jesus would be killed for their teaching and their actions, for the challenge they posed to Roman domination. And Jesus’ followers continue to be persecuted for their faith, from the Christians thrown to the lions, to Martin Luther King shot down for preaching equality and justice. They are persecuted by their own, like the singer Vicky Beeching who was the darling of the evangelical church and then ostracised when she came out as a lesbian. And yet, as Ezekiel was promised by God for his own preaching, “whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they shall know that there has been a prophet among them”.

Because it was the sending out of those twelve disciples that began the slow road towards the establishment of the church, towards the spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world. And it’s through that message that the gospel is spread today.

The world needs repentance today as much it did 2000 years ago. People today need healing as much as they did 2000 years ago. And the pattern established for the twelve is a pattern for us today. We are called to walk the way of Jesus today. We are called as followers of Jesus to urge others to repentance, to cast off the power structures of this world, to become lovers of justice, to show the power of God through the way we live our lives. We are called to heal others in whatever ways we have power to do so, but also to heal society in whatever ways we have power to do so. We might not have to wander the streets to do so, but we can preach the gospel of love in the places we find ourselves daily, in the places we are sent when Jesus calls us to go. We might face rejection, but we will be acting in the authority of Jesus. And we will play a part in bringing about the kingdom of God.

Amen.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Catalyst and disturber: don’t domesticate the dove

Sermon preached on 20 May 2018 (Pentecost) at Creaton URC. Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21.

Don’t domesticate the dove. I read that phrase online this week. Don’t make the Holy Spirit into something small, contained, Encountering the Holy Spirit is an awe-inspiring and life-changing event. It’s not cosy. It’s not simple. It’s not easy to put into words. Pentecost is such a familiar story that we can too readily forget the vastness of the experience. It was so profound that the disciples were left scraping for metaphors to describe it. And yet it changed their lives. And experiences with the Holy Spirit can change our lives too.
Now the Bible is full of occasions where human beings encounter the divine – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus at his baptism, Paul on the road to Damascus. They often struggled to put their experiences into words, beyond umpteen variations on the theme of ‘wow’. But images of wind and fire are common ones. Recall the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites in the desert, or the hurricane in which God appeared to Job, or the still small voice after the wind and fire when God spoke to Elijah.

These would all have been very familiar images to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. With the idea of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and all the talk of different languages and different peoples, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a deeply Jewish occasion. All of those Parthians and Medes and the rest were members of Jewish communities scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot, which was originally the first of two harvest festivals, but was venerated as the time when the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, again with fire and cloud and wind. That event was in many ways the birth of the people of Israel – they came together through persecution and flight from Egypt, but they gained identity when God gave them a way of living. In the same way, the followers of Christ had come together through his preaching and example, but gained identity as a group when God gave them the Holy Spirit.

This year and next, Shavuot falls on the same day as Pentecost though the complexities of religious calendars means this isn’t always the case. This year, Muslims are also celebrating Ramadan just now, which celebrates the revelation of the Qu’ran to Muhammad. Both faiths celebrate by reading their scriptures right through – many Jews stayed up all night yesterday into today to read the Torah. The disciples at Pentecost received a different sort of revelation of God, a direct experience of his power and energy. They received not just the word of God, but the very breath of God – because the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek. That’s the point Ezekiel makes about the dry bones being breathed into life. The followers of Jesus, still reeling from his death and the uncertain events of his resurrection and ascension, were empty and lifeless. And then God came and breathed on them. And nothing was ever the same.

The phrase about domesticating the dove that I quoted comes from an author by the name of Danielle Shroyer. She also writes: “The Spirit of God has been released into the world. Not contained but set free. Not limited but expanding. And what else would we expect, if this Spirit of Life is indeed the One through whom God raised Jesus? This is the Spirit of Life, who God has called not only to raise Jesus to new life but to raise all of creation to new life. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”

So I say again: we need to be careful not to underestimate the power of this Holy Spirit and not to make the story sound too comfortable. Because it’s not a comfortable experience. Let me talk personally. Some of you know that I spent 15 years as a Quaker. If you’ve not been to a Quaker meeting for worship, it’s an interesting experience. The congregation sits in a circle in a simple room, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit. Nobody speaks until they feel compelled to do so by the Spirit, and there are no set words or preachers. But the power of the Holy Spirit can be really compelling, a physical as well as spiritual experience. I remember once having words come to me, and wanting to speak, but not having the courage – and afterwards I felt awful. Another time I was in the annual business meeting of British Quakers, with several hundred others, and we were at the end of three days of discussion and decisions and in a closing period of worship which was normally kept silent. But words came to me about community and love, and I could not be silent, and I was shaking and my ears were buzzing but I was convinced that I was instructed by the Spirit to speak, and so I did; and afterwards others told me that they found value in whatever I said. Because at the moment I was not speaking my own words, I was speaking the words that were given to me.

Now Quakers, for all their many good works in peace and justice and social change that this experience of the Holy Spirit has made possible, are a quieter bunch than charismatics. The ecstatic experiences of raising your hands and singing for half an hour, or speaking in tongues, or healing with the touch of hands – those experiences don’t appeal to me, they feel rather alien and frightening – but I understand where they’re coming from. They come from a place of compulsion by the Holy Spirit, of being filled and being transformed and being a channel. Not my will, not my voice, but that of the Lord.
Artist and original source unknown
Of course that wasn’t a new experience at Pentecost. Peter’s sermon, once he had done pointing out that his colleagues weren’t drunk because it was too early in the day, which I’ve always thought is a good start to a sermon, Peter then quotes the prophet Joel talking of God pouring out his spirit on all flesh, and all kinds of people prophesying. A commentator on the book of Joel has some vivid words to say about this passage: “Whenever God pours out his divine energy, people are transformed; they behave like madmen, they dance frenziedly; seized by ecstasy they undress and lie naked on the ground. Moreover they have visions and enter the heavenly realm.” Quite a party. And very threatening indeed to the political and religious establishments. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit does some odd things.

Here’s something else that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings: justice and equality. Again this has a precedence in the festival of Shavuot. In the book of Leviticus where that festival is commanded, the next verse reads “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien”. The giving of Law is bound up with the giving of social justice, because it comes out of a place where the Israelites were oppressed and both law and justice were responses to that oppression. I talked earlier about the parallels with Ramadan, and you may know that the Muslim practice of zakat, the giving of a proportion of one’s income to the poor and to charity, is a key feature of Ramadan, as much as fasting. Law and justice are joined together in both faiths.

And we see the same thing at Pentecost. Because on that day the Holy Spirit broke down the boundaries which separated people in the very segregated society of 1st century Roman Palestine. The Spirit rested upon women just as on men. The Spirit rested on poor people just as on rich ones. It rested upon people from Jerusalem, from Galilee and from all the lands of the Jewish diaspora. It rested upon slaves as well upon freed people. It rested upon the old and the young alike. And to show that this wasn’t just coincidence, that it was part of the plan, Peter quoted Joel who said exactly that these things would happen. The Spirit came to all of them.

And it comes to all of us today. We cannot exclude women from ministry, because the Spirit came to women. We cannot exclude old people or young people or rich people or poor people or gay people or disabled people or transgender people or people with dementia or people with autism, because the Spirit came to all those people. Pentecost is a story about inclusion, a story about God’s justice being so expansive that he breathed his very Spirit upon peoples of all kinds.

And Pentecost continues today. The Spirit is moving in our world today. Where there is hopelessness and God’s people receive renewal, the Spirit is moving. Where there is injustice and God’s people are enabled to fight for justice, the Spirit is moving. Where people are pushed under the weight of oppressive governments, or the power of money-grabbing corporations, or violence of all kinds, and they say enough! – the Spirit is moving. The young people who are speaking out about gun laws in the United States, the parents protesting against food poverty in rich countries, those brave souls campaigning against female genital mutilation in various African countries – amongst them all, the Spirit is moving.

The Spirit is moving in our world today. It brings life to situations of hopelessness. The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel is the valley of the shadow of death. We all know of valleys like that in our world. There are places of death, like the waste processing towns of China, or the polluted lakes caused by industrialisation in Russia, or the desolate landscapes caused by oil sands extraction in Canada, or the impacts of plastic throughout the world’s oceans. There are places of spiritual death too, the lands where violence has stripped away hope from the people, or where financial austerity has meant life has become harder and harder, or where homeless people are walked over by the rich on their way to fat-cat jobs. And yet in all of these places: the Holy Spirit is present. And it might sound glib and just the vain prattling of preacher-talk, but God has promised to the bones that he will cause breath to enter them, that he will bring life back to them, that he will restore hope to them. And it might feel like nothing much, or it might feel like a rushing of wind and tongues of fire, but the Day of Lord is approaching, when all pain will cease, and when hope will come. And the Spirit is always with us. This is the promise of the day of Pentecost.

I’d like to close with some words from a book entitled The Fire Runs about mission and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. It was written by a Church of Scotland minister called Ian Fraser who died last month at the age of 100. His book was the basis of a conference on liberation theology which I attended in St Andrews around 25 years ago. I remember that in one act of worship we were offered images for the Holy Spirit, and the two which have always stayed with me were the words catalyst and disturber. The Holy Spirit changes and mixes and transforms, it brings the fire that forms the spark that sets alight change in our world – that’s the catalyst. And the Holy Spirit shakes us up, it comes in with a mighty wind that blows away our preconceptions and our prejudices and our past experiences that stop us from following the path of Christ – that’s the disturber. The Spirit was a catalyst and a disturber on the day of Pentecost, and may it be so for all of us today. Here are the words of Ian Fraser in his poem:
Like fireworks lighting up the night
the Holy Spirit came;
dejected Christians felt the touch
of living fronds of flame -
and suddenly the world was young
and nothing looked the same.
For Jesus’ nearness gave them heart
to venture, come what would:
the love of Jesus bade them share
their house, possessions, food:
the mind of Jesus gave them speech
the whole world understood.
This is the Spirit who, today,
new daring will inspire
and common folk are given gifts
to change the world entire:
the sparks which flew at Pentecost
started a forest fire.

Amen.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

The good leader, making us rest

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, Northampton, on 22nd April 2018. Texts: John 10:11-18, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24.

Let’s start with true confessions time. I’ve never met a shepherd. Now I’m a bit of a townie, but I’ve met a fair number of farmers in my time. Some of them probably even farmed sheep. And my wife grew up on a farm, so I've heard a bit about looking after sheep. But a real-life shepherd who lived and breathed sheep? Bloke with a crook and a sheepdog? Nope.

I doubt I’m alone, though knowing my luck there are people tutting even now and going “well I know lots of shepherds”. Quite so. But my point is that what was once a commonplace metaphor has progressively become less so, and the characteristics of shepherds has become less well known. But this wasn’t so in Jesus’ time, and before him in the times when the Old Testament was written. Sheep and shepherds were everywhere.
Image: Orthodox Monastery Icons
The first thing to say about them is to observe that sheep in 1st century Judaea were mostly kept for wool, not meat – so that the shepherd kept a herd together and developed a close bond with the sheep over a number of years. So on the whole shepherds had a long-term relationship with their flocks, not a short bit of guarding then off to the slaughterhouse. And they were famously brave and willing to do battle with the dangerous animals that might attack their sheep out there on the hills. Remember that King David was a shepherd boy originally, and learnt his skills with a slingshot in attacking mountain lions and the like.

The second thing is that shepherds were loners, rural folk who spent lots of time alone on the hills, weren’t rich or well-educated, maybe didn’t smell so good, a bit rough around the edges, tended not to be trusted by the townsfolk. Remember the shepherds in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, out there on the hills.

The third thing about shepherds is that the Old Testament is full of places where the leaders of Israel are compared to shepherds. Sometimes it’s even the same Hebrew word. And the prophets used this comparison to good effect. The prophet Ezekiel had a fantastic rant against the shepherds of Israel, in words that are very close to what we’ve heard already:
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” [34:2b-4]
and later Ezekiel carries on:
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” [34:11,14-16]
Now Jesus knew his prophets, and so did his listeners. So when he talked about good shepherds, he and his listeners would inevitably have that question of leadership behind his words. Moreover, it’s clear if you look to the end of the previous chapter that he’s speaking to a group of Pharisees who have been questioning him after he healed a blind man. And the word he uses that’s translated ‘good’, which is kalos in Greek, doesn’t just mean morally right, but also noble, attractive, magnificent. It’s the kind of goodness that shines out of someone and draws you to them.

So that’s one kind of leader – one who heals, one who feeds their sheep, who leads them to good pastures, and who is willing to protect them followers to the bitter end, to willingly lay down their life. Contrast that with the other kind of leader, who Jesus refers to as a hired hand, someone who might do a reasonable job to start with, but when trouble comes will run away and leave their sheep, those they’re supposed to care for, at the mercy of the troubles around them.

Now we have all come across leaders like that. Whether it’s politicians, CEOs of large corporations, university vice-chancellors – we see some dreadful leaders in place. They swan in from outside having no experience of the organisation they’ve come to lead, sometimes even the kind of organisation they lead, only knowing money and management, but paid huge sums. And their focus isn’t on protecting the organisation and its people, but on making money or on quick change. And we see slashing cuts to staff, offices closed, unnecessary restructuring, mismanagement. All because they were hired hands rather than good shepherds. We had an example of this kind of leadership recently where I work, and it did huge damage to a fine organisation, from which we’ll hopefully recover.

The church likewise is not immune to this kind of lack of leadership. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christian radicals such as the early Quakers preached and wrote furious invectives against what they called ‘hireling priests’, referring to this very passage. A radical Anglican theologian of the 18th century by the name of Thomas Woolston, born and raised here in Northampton, wrote a book where he offered to debate with anyone who’d come “whether the hireling-preachers of this age, who are all ministers of the letter, be not worshippers of the apocalyptic beast, and ministers of Anti-Christ?”. Which on the whole is what I think you’d call a loaded question for debate. Most of today’s clergy, and naturally all lay preachers, are not in it for the money – but there have been terrible stories of clerical misbehaviour, including sexual abuse scandals which were covered up, but also many other cases of misuse of power and authority.

And against that kind of poor leadership, Jesus sets out the role of a good shepherd. That takes us back to Psalm 23, which we heard at the start of the service. That psalm is so familiar that many people can recite it off by heart. It’s been set to music so many times, and even was used for the Vicar of Dibley theme tune! It’s read at many funerals. It’s probably the best-loved and most-familiar of all the psalms. And of course as a result, it’s not read as closely as it might be. Three thoughts about the 23rd psalm.  

First, it could be seen as a job description for a good shepherd. It shows God leading us on a journey through life, taking us to safe and good places which are full of peace and rest and nurture, guiding us past the dangers of life, protecting us from those who trouble us. What more could a sheep ask for from their shepherd?

Second thing to say about the 23rd psalm. We all have our favourite parts, but mine is in the second verse. It reads “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists. Now I’m a chronically busy person, I take on more than I should, and I struggle to stop and relax, and I grew up in a Scottish Presbyterian culture which was suspicious of not using your talents to the full and which said there was always something else you could be doing. Others here may be able to relate to that feeling! But the psalm tells us that a good shepherd will make us blooming well stop in those green pastures and by those still waters. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

Last thing on the 23rd psalm. Many commentators observe that the final verse is a poor translation. Most versions have some variety of “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”, but the Hebrew word we have as ‘follow’ is more active than that, and means more like pursue. Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel had Jesus appearing to the disciples, pursuing them from beyond death and in the face of their scepticism, because of his love for them. The Easter encounters with the risen Christ are all about Jesus pursuing, of reaching out to the disciples in their despair and hopelessness, when they least expected it, and suddenly transforming their lives like when he simply called Mary by her name outside the tomb, or where he simply broke bread and blessed it in Emmaus. The good shepherd runs after their sheep, chases them and protects them, and rejoices when they are found, as Jesus tells in his parable of the lost sheep.

And the good shepherd will ultimately lay down their life for the sheep. Now we’re in the season of Easter, and we immediately connect this phrase with the cross, with Jesus knowingly dying out of love from his followers, to protect them and restore them to life. But if we look at the Greek again, we find that the word translated as life is not zoe, the usual Greek word for life, but it’s actually psyche, from which we have words such as psychology and psychiatry. It’s more about soul, the internal and fundamental part of life, than it’s about physical life. Jesus is laying down his soul for his followers. He is losing his shalom, his wholeness, his integrity, his peace.

The key prayer of Judaism, then and now, is the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”, and that word soul in the Greek version of the Shema is psyche. So Jesus as a good Jew is laying down a fundamental part of his witness to God. He laying down what makes him good, what makes him lovely, what makes him a unique individual, what makes him able to witness to God. When he cried on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, that wasn’t just the cry of someone who was about to lose their life, but the cry of someone about to lose their soul. And in saying that Jesus is the good shepherd, that is the promise he’s making, that’s the level of sacrifice he’s willing to make.

Note that it’s not just for those of us here in this room. Because John’s version of Jesus is the universal Christ, the Christ as we learnt about him after the resurrection. He’s not just the Messiah for the Jews. He’s not just the saviour for the Christians. He’s the saviour of the whole world. He has other sheep that will listen to his voice, and he lays down his life for them too. They might give him other names, they might not believe the same about him as we do, they might be followers of other faiths, but if they too follow in Jesus’ way of love of God and love of neighbour, if they too participate in his upside-down kingdom, then Jesus is the good shepherd for them too. And Jesus lays down his soul for them too.

And what of us? Are we also commanded to lay down our lives for others? We’re told as much in the first epistle of John that we heard earlier, the verse sometimes describes as the other John 3:16. It reads “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”. And here again it’s that word psyche. Now there are plenty of passages in the gospels about taking up one’s cross, but I don’t think this necessarily refers to physical death. What I think it refers to comes in the following verses of 1st John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” and then “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. This is not about death, but about change. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from helping those in need. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from speaking truth to power, that stop us from taking action for the good. It’s about laying down our fears and our egos and our prejudices. And just as the good shepherd takes up his soul again, we too are commanded to take up our souls again, cleansed of these things, and filled with God’s love, ready to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, ready to tend to those in need, whether it is physical, spiritual or emotional.

We are not called to be as shepherds, but we are called to live in the way of love. And as we do so, we shall be led like sheep through green pastures and pursued by goodness and mercy, and led to the peace and wholeness that Jesus offers us, to life lived in abundance, in the name of him who lost everything so that we might gain everything. Amen.