The Shepherd is a very ancient image in Jewish spirituality and life. Perhaps most famously, there’s David the shepherd-king, who united the 12 Jewish tribes and turned them into a nation centred around YHWH- the God of Abraham and Jacob.
Which made David a kind of ideal standard for Jewish leaders, and the Shepherd became the dominant metaphor for Jewish leadership. The prophets talked about shepherds in various ways to comfort and challenge God’s people- most strikingly Ezekiel, who said some very harsh things to the bad shepherds of his day. The prophets promised that a shepherd leader like David would arise to lead Israel into the age of God’s favour, or the kingdom of God. It’s a bit ambiguous in Ezekiel’s prophecy whether the shepherd king of this kingdom will be a human, or will be God, or maybe will be both…
There’s no ambiguity in Psalm 23, where YHWH is the shepherd who cares for the sheep, even through the valley of the shadow of death. This Psalm has helped many many of us through times of loss and difficulty, and through times of rejoicing. Take a moment to read it, allowing its vivid imagery to take you into the happy grassy fields of life, and into the valleys of sadness and despair and death. And as you go, let God go with you- shepherding and supporting you through the ups and the downs.
God the shepherd, David the shepherd, good shepherds, bad shepherds, God’s coming kingdom, protection from enemies- all of these things are in the background when Jesus comes along and says ‘I am the good shepherd.’ The word ‘good’ translates a little better as ‘beautiful.’ Jesus is the beautiful shepherd, and his sheep follow him because he is beautiful- and they want to! What do you find beautiful about Jesus of Nazareth??
There are, of course, other shepherds around, competing for the allegiance of God’s people. Jesus (like Ezekiel) has harsh things to say about the temple leadership- the bad shepherds of his day. Who are the shepherds in our lives? Who are the people that we ‘follow’ and have influence over us? And how do we judge whether they are good or bad shepherds?
It seems that commitment is what separates Jesus out as a beautiful shepherd: he cares about his sheep so much that he knows them and calls them by name, and so much that he stays with them through thick and thin and life and death.
Do you hear and recognise his voice, this morning and every morning? Jesus calls you and us by name and invites us to follow him and become the most amazing ‘you’ and ‘us’ that we can be. He will stay with us through thick and thin and through life and death. He’s committed to us, and if we’re ready to be committed to him, then we stand to gain this wonderful pearl of great price, the kingdom of God. Life to the full, a share in the divine life (which is true human life) – we get to help God re-create the world.
If we follow Jesus the beautiful shepherd. But if we follow him, he asks us to be not just sheep but also shepherds. Jesus was forever getting his followers to go proclaim the kingdom of God, go heal, go bind up the broken-hearted, go feed the hungry- he was training them to be shepherds in his image.
And he wants to train us into his image too- beautiful shepherds amongst our neighbours. In the words of Pope Francis, ‘Like Jesus, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.’ We get to help God re-create the world.
That’s not necessarily easy. Jesus’ beauty is bound up with commitment, which is bound up with suffering. The beautiful shepherd gives up his life for the sheep, and invites his followers to do the same. He talks about picking up a cross and dying to our selves.
That means laying aside our personal and collective issues and agendas, to make space in our lives for the issues and agendas and hurts and needs of others. That way, we are able to embrace the things that are dear to each other, and discover that ALL of these things are dear to God. And that enables us to serve and love each other (ie be committed to each other) in a new and beautiful way. And that is a beautiful thing- we have created a kind of space between us where we can flourish together in a deep and meaningful way, and grow into the people that God has created us to be- loved, loving, committed, caring, beautiful people.
If we follow Jesus the beautiful shepherd. But the beautiful shepherd is not a forceful shepherd. He offers his way of life- ‘Come, follow me’- and then leaves it up to us to respond to his beauty. He invites us to respond to his commitment with commitment of our own.
And you’ve been telling me that you’d like to do that! That you want to be helped and equipped to follow Jesus more ‘beautifully’ in daily life. That means consciously training ourselves to be (like Jesus) committed to the people we encounter every day- to know their names, to recognise their voices and concerns and needs, to rejoice and weep with them.
This means training ourselves to be people of HOPE and GENEROSITY. Hope and generosity are beautiful- people see them and respond to them and emulate them. Living with hope and generosity opens up a new and beautiful possible world- and allow us to join in making that world happen. We get to help God re-create the world.
So what does ‘training ourselves’ look like? You’ve given me some very clear messages over the last few weeks- and those messages are all about hope and generosity! (Coincidence? I think not…)
Training in HOPE: you’d like to meet together more often, to get to know each other more deeply, to pray with and for each other, to study Jesus and his way, and apply that way to your daily lives. So amongst other things, the plan is to have a midweek (probably Wednesday evening) service and gathering, at the vicarage or church. And to start planning a Sunday evening service.
Training in GENEROSITY: you’d like All Hallows to keep focusing outward in service and mission, and especially to become a more local church. So amongst other things, the plan is to regularly go out and serve and meet the people of our parish. This might look something like what we did on Good Friday, but might be far more than that- our imaginations are the limit.
Jesus the beautiful shepherd calls us into commitment: to him, to each other, and to our neighbours. Are we ready to answer his call? To lay aside our own issues and agendas, to make room for God’s beautiful agenda? Are we ready to live lives that are committed and beautiful and full of hope and generosity? That won’t be easy, but Jesus didn’t come into the world to make life easy; he came to make people great!