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Sermon on 26th April 2015

Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

Guests from Goslar

It was a great privilege to be in Rochester on Friday evening to see Joel inducted and installed as Vicar of Rochester in his parish church of St Margaret’s, close to Rochester Cathedral, and with spectacular views over the Medway to Strood. Good, too, that so many people from the Priory were able to make the journey down to Kent to ‘hand Joel over’ to the good people of Rochester.

It was the feast of St Mellitus on Friday – the first Bishop of London – and for the reading Joel chose the gospel for that feast – the moment from the Gospel from John 21, when Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time after Peter replies, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” Jesus responds with a command – “Feed my sheep; tend my flock; feed my lambs.”

The Bishop of Rochester then preached on that text, reminding Joel, and indeed every ordained priest there, of our ordination service, when we are charged always to have before us the image of Jesus “The Good Shepherd”, to inspire and challenge us in our ministry. The ordination service says about those to be ordained priest: “They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.”

Not an easy example to follow – Jesus, who laid down his life for the sheep, and then rose again to be the great High Priest in heaven. But he is nevertheless the model to follow for all who have a ministry of service in God’s Church, and who seek to follow Christ as shepherds of God’s people.

Today is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” as the Gospel set is the passage from John’s Gospel when Jesus first describes himself as the ‘Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.’ Those who would be shepherds must know their sheep and be known (and by implication, be trusted) by them. That relationship is modelled in Christ’s ministry to his disciples and those closest to him after his Resurrection, as he gathered people to himself to teach, to train, and to strengthen for their own future ministry, as modelled in so many of the encounters Jesus had with his disciples and others after his Resurrection.

But do not think that, because this is particularly true for those whose ministry is authorised in the Church as bishops, priests, and deacons, those who are lay members of the Church do not have any responsibility as shepherds. Every member of Christ’s body, the Church, has a ministry as shepherd and pastor to those around them, and the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is one for us all to keep before us as we seek to respond to the commission we all receive at our baptism,

  • To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
  • To persevere in resisting evil
  • To proclaim the good news of God in Christ
  • To seek and serve Christ in all people
  • To acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society

That is a weighty commission, indeed, but it is not from the ordination service – that is from the baptism service, reminding us of those duties we all share, clergy and lay, of worship and prayer, of resisting the power of evil in the world, of proclaiming that Christ is the Son of God, and serving all people, created in God’s image, and finally acknowledging Christ’s authority over human society.

No small commission for us all to receive – and it would seem impossible to us to be able to do all of this – except that by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we are indeed given the strength to do all that God calls us to do, caring for those around us, and those placed in our care – and for clergy, it is that gift of the “cure of souls” which us a special responsibility laid on us, to care for our ‘parishioners’ for whom we have a particular responsibility.

But our duty does not end there, for Jesus goes on to say even more, and to lay even more responsibilities on our shoulders – as on his shoulders lays the young lamb, the symbol of those for whom we are called to serve and to care for.

He says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

The phrase “Other sheep” has challenged commentators and theologians for many years. Who are these ‘other sheep’? The answer which most people refer to is the “Gentiles”, as opposed to the people of Israel, who are known as God’s chosen flock, or ‘fold’. This may be the way this was understood in the Church of the apostles, as they, led by Paul, preached the Gospel of Jesus to the wider world, and all who heard the Good News of Jesus and came to faith in Christ the Son of God became members of Christ’s fold. The one flock under one shepherd is the whole Church of God under the lordship and rule of Christ, our heavenly Lord.

But is this the only way we can understand this phrase? The Church today cannot afford to be complacent! Are there “other sheep” in our world today, to whom we are called to reach out with the love of God, and in his name?

In the 19th Century, these words were held dear by many of the missionaries who left these shores to preach the gospel where it had never before been heard. One such was David Livingstone, who was preeminent among the missionaries and explorers of the late nineteenth century. He felt impelled to take the gospel to Africa, believing that the people of Africa were the “other sheep” to whom God was calling him to go and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He loved the people of Africa, and along with many others fought to end the cruelty of slavery still imposed on many there, even in the late 19th century. He died in Africa, the continent he loved – having brought only one African to faith – a man named Sechele, Chief of a large tribe, but that man was instrumental in bringing many of his people to the Christian faith. Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Abbey bears the quotation from today’s Gospel “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold” which was the mark of his faith and commitment to serving others.

So, as Livingstone interpreted the “other sheep” in his generation, who, I wonder, are the “other sheep” of today’s generation, whom God is calling to be a part of his flock?

On one level “other sheep” are people whose language, tradition, culture is different to our own: people with whom we can share our own understandings, as well as our own hopes and fears in the hope that they may help us to broaden our experience of God and God’s world. This is one of the reasons we make partnerships – and today that is highlighted by the presence among us of our new friends from the town of Goslar in Germany. Our history has often set us apart as enemies, but today we join as friends and equal partners in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have our differences, of course – I hope these will help us learn more about each other – and indeed, about ourselves.

But there is something yet more challenging about those who are the other sheep in our own context. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us one clue – there it is the healing of a sick man which is the cause of the complaint made against Peter and the apostles. Reaching out to the sick and healing them in the name of Jesus Christ was one of the first signs of the new community formed of believers in Christ (they had not yet been called Christians). Those who were blind, lame, lepers were marginalised in the society which Jesus and his followers knew. But these were the very people that Jesus and his disciples reached out to – to heal them, and bring them back into the fold.

And in our own context and community there are many who are stigmatised, those who are “other” in any way. “Other” because they are not ‘like us’ or easy for us to get on with; ‘other’ because they cannot contribute to society because they are in such need themselves; ‘other’ because they are from a different ethnic group or faith community, ‘other’ because their sexual orientation or gender identity marks them as different from us.

We don’t have to look hard to find the ‘other’ in our society today. That is not the problem. The challenge is accepting the fact that these are precisely the people whom Jesus is referring to when he says “I must bring them also”, and responding in Jesus’ name to their needs in the world today. It is indeed Jesus who calls them, as he calls us to work with him in caring for all the other sheep.

And may God give us all the humility and the grace to work together with our partners in the Gospel today to reach out to those who are God’s “other sheep” in our church and in our world today.