4th Sunday of Easter / Year B
Every year, in the summer, I go to the Lake District with my husband, where we like to go walking and climbing the hills.
They are usually long and hard climbs, but the views at the top are worth it.
What does rather unreasonably annoy me though is that often I’m just about at the top and I’ll come across a sheep calmly looking down at me and chewing away in a relaxed fashion.
I may be paranoid, but this comes across as rather smug when I’ve just spent a couple of hours struggling up to this point.
However, apart from that, I rather like sheep.
In this country they don’t really have too much to worry about.
There are a few animals that might attack them, especially when they’re lambs, but they don’t have to worry about wolves, big cats or bears.
Neither do they generally struggle to find food or water.
This is lucky for them because sheep are pretty defenceless animals.
So they need a leader, someone to take care of them who they can trust and follow.
When Jesus talked about being a shepherd he was talking about a very tough job.
I’m sure being a shepherd is a hard, physical job at any time or place but what Jesus had in mind was a bit different from shepherding in this country.
Here sheep have plenty of grass to graze on, water to drink, fields to be penned up in, shelter at night if needed, and no predators that a human would be scared to face.
But in Israel shepherds had to prepared to stay with their sheep day and night, always ready to fight off wolves, bears and lions, sleeping in front of the sheepfolds in case of trouble.
During the day they had to lead their sheep across miles of barren land to find enough grazing and water for the flock.
And they had to know each member of the flock personally.
This was because with no fields to separate one person’s flock from another, sheep belonging to different people would become mixed up during the day.
Then at night, when they needed to be put in their own sheepfolds, their shepherds would call them by name to come and follow him – or her, incidentally, as women could also be shepherds in Jesus’ time.
For this to work the sheep really did have to know and trust their shepherd.
They had to recognise the shepherd as their leader, defender and guide to food and water.
They had to know that this was someone with the authority, power, ability and willingness to look after them.
If they were faced with a stranger or a shepherd who mistreated them they might well run away or refuse to go with that person, so the relationship between shepherd and sheep was vital.
It’s said, by the way, that sheep can recognise up to about 50 different people and other sheep, and distinguish between different sheep and human voices, so this way of shepherding was entirely possible.
So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s saying, ‘I am the person you can trust to provide you with what you need, defend you in times of danger, to look out for your needs, and to bring you home at the end of the day’.
Jesus is the one who goes out looking for us when we’re lost in the dark, scared by storms or have fallen down a hole because we weren’t paying proper attention.
He defends us from the things that try to take us away from him and destroy us.
And although we still face difficulties and sorrows, and must still eventually face death, he stays with us and helps us through everything.
Jesus is also saying that he knows every one of us by name, with all our quirks, flaws, gifts and talents.
He knows who will run and hide when things are hard and who will stand and fight – and loves us all equally.
He knows who will be the life and soul of any gathering and who would rather stay at home with a book – and rejoices in and works with our variety.
He knows who can do what, the things that make us laugh or cry, our likes and dislikes, and our secret hopes and fears.
And he wants only those things will help us flourish and grow in the best way for us and his kingdom – even if they look very different from what the world or even the Church calls good, useful or successful.
Of course, if we follow a shepherd then we also need to remember that in some ways we are sheep.
This doesn’t mean we need to follow blindly and not think for ourselves, although sheep are known to be able to solve problems and so are not quite as stupid as people think.
What it does mean is that we’re meant to be Christians with others.
Sheep are highly social flock animals who become stressed if left alone.
When threatened they draw together for defence, not leaving anyone out to face the danger alone.
From the very beginning God said that it is not good for man to be alone, and the same holds true today.
As Christians we’re called into a new family, a new community, a new kingdom, in which all have a known and cherished place, we’re accepted as we are, and no-one is to be left out in the cold to fend for themselves.
We may be very different from one another, and we may find Jesus bringing people to join us who we find it hard to understand, get on with or agree with.
But they, like us, are beloved sheep belonging to our shepherd – the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
And our job is to be his flock together, to listen, trust, follow and play our part in it, and to welcome in all his sheep as he has welcomed us.