The Good Shepherd – probably one of the most familiar images for us, no doubt there are paintings that come to mind of gentle shepherd with beautiful well behaved lambs and green pastures – yet I wonder if we are often a little over romantic about this!
It’s not a surprise that the Psalm which is set for today is Psalm 23 – most of us know it best from the Hymn ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’ rather than from the Bible itself. Like many I love that hymn because it holds the realism of the Psalm before us, it has the beauty and romance but it also includes the darker and more difficult side of life, the valley of death, which is perhaps why it is sung at funerals as often as it is sung at weddings.
This Old testament image of God as shepherd, whose Rod and Staff comfort and guide us through life with all its light and darkness, yet interestingly ‘shepherd’ is an image not only used of God.
In Ezekiel 34 the ‘shepherds of Israel’, the leaders, are accused of looking after themselves and not caring for the flock.
We though are most familiar with the image of Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’ from John’s gospel (which we heard this morning) but what does that really mean? What is a ‘Good Shepherd’?
It is of course Jesus saying this of himself - the ‘Good shepherd’ is one who sacrifices, who gives up his life for the sheep. One who trust in God, confident of God’s Love. The Good Shepherd is relational and caring (unlike the hired hand) the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, they trust the shepherd.
In this description we see that Jesus demonstrates the good news, the salvation, which he came to bring, not only talking about sacrifice to bring us into relationship with God but demonstrating what that looks like.
In Jesus we see God at work, we see the way that God sees the world, our reading from Acts tells of a ‘healing’ in the name of Jesus, just like the many healings Jesus himself performed before he ascended to Heaven.
Jesus is the one who heals, who forgives sin, Jesus is the Shepherd who searches for the lost, broken, sick and isolated. We see the value that God has for each of us, the disabled, the child, the foreigner, the outsider, the woman – all are treated as valuable and worthy of time and attention by Jesus (often in a way that was shocking to the culture of the time).
All this is still somewhat familiar… but here’s the challenge.
We are called to be ‘Christians’ – literally ‘Little Christ’ we are called to imitate and follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ – sounds easy but it is most certainly not.
God the Good shepherd demonstrates an attitude more generous and inclusive than much of humanity can manage. We see this in the story of Jonah who is angry with God for granting mercy and forgiveness to the evil people of Nineveh. We see it in the story of Peter, convinced that the salvation of Jesus is a gift for the Jews, God’s chosen people, yet challenged through a dream and an encounter with Cornelius the gentile.
Peter was deeply challenged when God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles in the same way as on the day of Pentecost the disciples received the Holy Spirit.
This wider reach of God that is pointed to throughout scripture appears in our Gospel too, Jesus speaks of ‘other sheep’ ‘not of this sheep pen’ and promises to ‘bring them also’ - who are those ‘other sheep’? We don’t of course know, but given the scriptural evidence for the generous inclusion that God tends towards it may be a challenge to us.
Who are those beyond our boundary? Who are those ‘not like us’ who are called and loved by God.
As human beings we put up all kinds of barriers, we ‘other’ people because they are different by class or culture, race, gender or sexuality – whatever the difference it is easy for our pre-judgement, our prejudice, to be clearly present with those not like us.
So it is a challenge that we are called to be like the Good Shepherd, like Jesus, one who reaches out to the untouchable, seeks the other sheep, shares the good news of God’s love with anyone and everyone and welcomes in God’s family all who are willing to come.
Difference is always a challenge, rarely comfortable, yet it brings diversity and richness that can see healing and salvation demonstrated in new ways.
We are to be like the Good shepherd. Trusting in the truth that God values us and in the truth that God values others – and living accordingly.
This week I hope we can reflect on what that might look like in practice. What might that mean for us? Amen.