Eucharist – 4th Sunday of Easter – 25th April 2021
Jesus said,“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
One of my favourite pastimes (in non-Covid times) is to visit Manchester Art Gallery. Although I’m not a painter myself, spending time with these beautiful artworks is like oxygen to the soul – and visiting art galleries is one of those activities that simply helps me breathe! I’m really hopeful that sometime over the coming weeks the gallery will re-open and I’ll be able to spend a good few hours perusing the artwork. (Plus, the coffee in the café is probably the best in the whole of Manchester!)
One of the pictures in the gallery that always catches my eye is this one called The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt. The picture shows a hireling shepherd who cares nothing for the sheep that he’s supposed to be looking after. Rather, he’s completely preoccupied with the young lady, eating his lunch, and examining and dissecting a butterfly that the young woman has caught. The shepherd is distracted and completely self-absorbed whilst the sheep are wandering off into all kinds of danger, away from the green pastures into places where they might get hurt or be vulnerable to attack by wild animals.
Holman Hunt said that he had this Sunday’s gospel reading in mind when he drew the picture. So the shepherd in the picture is like the ‘hired hand’ that Jesus talks about who cares nothing for the flock under his care. Indeed, the vicars of Holman Hunt’s day seemed to be all talk – busy discussing the latest ideas while caring nothing for the needs of the sheep, the needs of the poor, sick and vulnerable in society.
Sheep by their very nature are peaceable and gentle, but also very vulnerable to attack. And sadly, I’ve been reminded on three occasions this last week about people within the Church of England who have been abused or attacked by those supposedly looking after them. Firstly, we had our safeguarding training and were reminded how some past leaders in the Church sadly abused people within their flock; a horrendous reality that sickens us to the core! Secondly, I saw on TV last week a documentary called ‘Is the Church racist?’ which highlighted racial discrimination and racial abuse within the Church of England’s ranks. Some of those interviewed were told by their vicars that they couldn’t pursue a calling to ordination in their church unless they changed their accents and toned down their personality in order to fit in with largely white congregations. And finally, I was reminded this week how gay, lesbian and trans people have entered their local churches only to be told that they need to change or deny who they are, or worse still, told that they are evil just because of who they are or who they love.
This, of course, is all really sad, depressing news – the Church (with a capital ‘C) is supposed to be a place of green pastures where all can survive and flourish, but instead, at times, the Church can be full of thorns, thistles and poison ivy. Not exactly good news!
So where exactly is the good news in this passage? Well, the first piece of Good News is we follow the Good Shepherd, the One who has our very best interests at heart. This Good Shepherd leads us to good pasture (John 10:9), helps the poor and the vulnerable (John 9:1-12), goes after the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), takes the lambs in his arms (Isaiah 40:11), and brings us all home to the fold as the loving shepherd and guardian of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). Being close to Jesus is the safest place to be, especially in difficult times like we’ve been going through at the moment.
And the second piece of good news is that we too can become like the Good Shepherd. By following Jesus’ example we too can look after and be gentle with one another, especially with those among us who are vulnerable or in need. Like Jesus we can go after the lost sheep in our world, which might simply mean reaching out to a neighbour or a family member, someone who has given up on God or the Church during these difficult times, or someone who simply feels left out and excluded. Like Jesus, we can all be on the look-out for the ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’: this means being aware of our safeguarding procedures that are there to protect us all, but also to seek to confront all forms of discrimination, verbal abuse and hurtful comments whether within our neighbourhoods or our churches, and model a better way of relating to one another. And like Jesus, we are called to lead people to good pasture, ensuring that when our churches fully reopen, they remain places of welcome and inclusion for all people, no matter who they are.
So as we enter this new week, let us follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd. And in due time, may we lead people back into the household of God, back to the fold where we are determined that all should flourish under the loving care of the Good Shepherd.
PS – is there a picture that means a lot to you, maybe a painting in an art gallery or one that you’ve seen elsewhere? Why not tell us all about it by replying or by dropping a comment into Facebook?