Sermon preached on John 10.11-18 at Stainbeck United Reformed Church, 25 April 2021. The sermon can be watched here.
John’s Gospel as a whole reflects on the life of Jesus, his words and his actions.
John was like a man standing on a high hill, able to see the whole land laid out before him, or an astronaut viewing the Earth as one whole globe in space. John’s standpoint in the risenness of Jesus – not so much resurrection as a miraculous exception in history, but resurrection Jesus in his glory with the Father, the glory he had with the Father from the beginning, the glory he shed abroad as the light of the world, the glory of the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, in a death which was his being raised up so that he draws all people to him.
The other Gospels climax in the story of resurrection, but it is something they come to at the end, which turns out to be God’s New Beginning. The other Gospels tend to give us a strong message: Wait for it, without giving up; follow day by day and you will get to it. John’s Gospel rather says: the eternal light and life, the very essence of God, comes to us in Jesus, and is here and now and all around us, because the Word is made flesh, and we behold the glory of God’s special son, the Son that God, in his great love, gives for the salvation of the world.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep ...
Sheep need a shepherd, because there are wolves – there are dangers.
We may rightly say, We are not sheep – but in our human way, we are threatened by many dangers, to life, to well-being and we need help.
We need good help.
We don’t always get help when we need it.
Sometimes there are people and movements that are ready to take advantage of our need of help, because they really are against us. (There are wolves).
Sometimes there are people who offer to help, but are out to help themselves. Have you had people ring you up to tell you your internet is not working properly and they will fix it? Or it may be your bank account? But they are scammers.
The person who is hired to look after the sheep can have a real loving commitment to them, but he acts within the limits of his job description and does only what he is paid for. He is not paid to risk his life. His health and safety comes first – he will help the sheep as long as it doesn’t endanger him, as long it is does not ask too much of him – Oh dear he says, wolves frighten me, I will run away – after all, they are only sheep.
Or to take a less extreme example, he is not paid to go the second mile and to go of his own accord. (Roman soldiers had the right to force people in occupied territories to carry their pack for a mile – Jesus tells people who live in the light of the kingdom of God, to do what they had to do, and then to add another. Whether or not it is noticed by other people, it is seen by God as a free act, revealing the free good spirit of the person, even though so limited in freedom. This does nothing to justify coercive exploitation, which the first mile was; but it says, being forced to go one mile does not take away our capacity, or our calling, to be free, generous, peaceable people, even to the point of loving enemies and being good to those who persecute us.)
In everyday life, in the home, or in work, or with friends, we may get tired out doing what love calls us to do, so we think, I’ve done enough, I want a rest. Yet there are still things that need doing, there is still a mile to go. Do we excuse ourselves – I’ve done my share? If we do more than we are obliged to do, it is a sign of generosity and courage, which lightens up the whole place for other people. We certainly know it from the other angle: when we see people going the second mile, putting themselves out for us, we are not only grateful for what they do, but we are gladdened by being able to glimpse their free generous living spirit.
The hireling is not much of a help, because his own need for safety competes with the sheep’s need to be protected.
We shouldn’t blame the hireling too heavily. His weak failure to look after the sheep when things get really bad is not altogether his fault.
His weakness comes from the fact that the sheep do not belong to him. He does not own them. The interest of the sheep is not identical with his self-interest. Why should the hireling sacrifice himself to protect the investment of the rich owner who sleeps safely in his bed every night, rakes in the shekels, and pays the hireling a pittance for his labour? The terms and conditions of the hireling’s employment mean that he is given no encouragement to be committed heart and soul to the wellbeing of the sheep.
But mere ownership of the flock, merely owning the business, does not ensure good shepherding. If you own the flock, you won’t want the wolves to get your property. You want to hold on to the sheep, so that you can send them to the abattoir and get the profit. There are limits to your care of the sheep. You value them because they serve you: you don’t serve them. Ownership means thinking things and people exist for our benefit. We humans own the earth, we tend to think, it exists for our benefit, and we are the proper judges of what counts for ‘our benefit’. We see now that is a dangerous view to take of the earth.
And it is not only profit from the sheep you are after. An owner wants comfort and ease and status. So he hires people to do the hard work, and keeps wages as low as he can. He values people in just the way he values sheep – market value, social status, and getting the freedom to please himself.
The Good Shepherd says, the sheep are my own. He says to his disciples, You are my own. But he does not say, I can do what I like with what is my own. That is the basic position of untamed capitalism. It is I think akin to the small energetic child who breaks up his toys, because it gives pleasure, and he can do what he likes with his own.
The Good Shepherd says, The sheep are my own, so I give my life for the sheep. The sheep are my own, because I give my life for the sheep. I don’t throw my life away for no purpose, but when the sheep can only be helped if I risk my life and get wounded fatally, then I will give my life.
Jesus did that; not just by being killed at the end, but by living his whole life for others.
As it says in I John 3.16, We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another – laying out one’s life for one another. It is not only on the final, unrepeatable day of death that we can lay down our life for others, but every day we have some chance to serve even in little things – a cup of cold water …
We lay down life, day by day, the living of it – this self-giving is not restricted to the time of dying, which by itself is an empty, emptying moment.
The death of Jesus was the conclusion, the Finishing, of his life of given away in doing good.
Jesus will be our Shepherd if we let him lead us in green pastures and through the valley of the shadow of death –
But Jesus does not look after us as though we were daft sheep.
He looks after us as the human beings we are and he calls us to be. Not to live for ourselves but for God and others.
So he asks Peter: Do you love me? And then, it follows, Feed my sheep.
Peter joins Jesus in shepherding, loving others and living for them.
Good shepherds with Jesus measure the achievement of their lives by the wellbeing of others.
There are a number of hymns I am aware of that echo the theme of these notes – one is, The church of Christ, in every age, by Fred Pratt Green .
1. The church of Christ, in every age,
beset by change but Spiritled,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.
2. Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live until they die.
3. Then let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ’s humanity.
4. For he alone, whose blood was shed,
can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread
and feed the starving multitude.
5. We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord,
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating Word.
Another hymn that fits:
Christ of the upward way, my guide divine,
Where Thou hast set Thy feet, may I place mine;
And move and march wherever Thou hast trod,
Keeping face forward up the hill of God.
Give me the heart to hear Thy voice and will,
That without fault or fear I may fulfill
Thy purpose with a glad and holy zest,
Like one who would not bring less than his best.
Give me the eye to see each chance to serve,
Then send me strength to rise with steady nerve,
And leap at once with kind and helpful deed,
To the sure succor of a soul in need.
Give me the good stout arm to shield the right,
And wield Thy sword of truth with all my might,
That, in the warfare I must wage for Thee,
More than a victor I may ever be.
Christ of the upward way, my guide divine,
Where Thou hast set Thy feet, may I place mine;
And when Thy last call comes, serene and clear,
Calm may my answer be, Lord, I am here.
This hymn was written by Walter Mathams, who explained its origin:
I was minister at St. Columba, Mallaig, Inverness-shire, Scotland, and opposite the Island of Skye. The boys of a large school in the South had been brought up for their summer holiday.
I was much interested in them for many of their fathers were away at the war and I thought it well to impress them with the importance of loyalty to their country and to Christ.
On one memorable Sunday I preached on Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah? based on Psalms 15 and 24, as contrasted with the hills of fame, wealth, power, and other worldly ambitions.
Not cleverness or great ability but purity of heart, clearness of vision, and singleness of purpose are the essential things…I composed the hymn to be used as a peroration and brought in the word adsum, meaning I am here, so much used in our schools as the response to every call to the noblest adventures of life.
As the tune Sursum Corda had been haunting my heart for years the words almost unconsciously ran into that most effective meter. The effect on the boys was remarkable.
There is always George Herbert:
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
And Fred Kaan:
Lord, as we rise to leave this shell of worship,
called to the risk of unprotected living,
willing to be at one with all your people,
we ask for courage.
For all the strain with living interwoven,
for the demands each day will make upon us
and for the love we owe the modern city,
Lord, make us cheerful.
Give us an eye for opening to serve you;
make us alert when calm is interrupted,
ready and wise to use the unexpected:
sharpen our insight.
Lift from our life the blanket of convention,
give us the nerve to lose our life to others,
be with your Church in death and resurrection,
Lord of all ages!