All We Like Sheep

Sunday 15th May 2011
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Easter
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

I wonder how many of us, when we heard Saint Peter quoting Isaiah, "All we like sheep" started to hear Handel's music from Messiah; and I wonder how many of us, reciting the 23rd Psalm or listening to the Gospel of John on Jesus as the good shepherd, could not help thinking of the theme tune for the Vicar of Dibley. You don't have to feel worried, as I am guilty on both counts.

The trouble is, that the music and art that are created to arrest us can too easily become clichés, wallpaper, muzak, chocolate box rusticity, something that makes us feel comfortable. How many of us, for example, are hurt by, as opposed to soothed by a performance of the Bach Saint Matthew or Saint John Passion? What is left of the magnificence of Handel's response to the libretto of Charles Jennings? And do we suffer nightmares from seeing paintings of the Crucifixion?

For us, who live in the country, there is at least a tenuous relationship with the reality of sheep but for most people they are nothing more than cuddly toys; many urban people, for example, don't make any connection between the sheep in the fields and lamb chops!

But if sheep are reduced to the status of cuddly toys, then the Biblical near obsession with them makes no sense. For all we, like cuddly toys, have been led astray means nothing at all; nor do the severe chidings of the religious and secular leaders by Jeremiah (Chapter 23) and Ezekiel (Chapter 34) make any sense if sheep are simply decorative or childish things.

But for the chosen people sheep (and, in certain places goats) were their livelihood, their means of survival. Animal flesh was the only way that semi nomads had of storing food. When a Jewish family sacrificed a sheep at Passover it was the equivalent of you or me taking a tenth of our savings and offering it to God on a sacred fire. So when the prophets likened the Chosen People to sheep that were dependent on God they had a very clear picture of how real sheep were dependent on their shepherds. These were not sentimental relationships: likening people to sheep was real for Jesus and his followers because there was nothing you could tell them about the importance and vulnerability of sheep.

And there we have it. Our relationship with Jesus is likened to that between a shepherd and the sheep because, from the perspective of creation, we are both vulnerable and necessary: vulnerable to all kinds of forces which make life uncertain but also necessarily vulnerable when we stand before our creator; and we are necessary because that is in our nature as creatures. We do not know why we are necessary to God's completeness - that is the ultimate mystery, beyond all other mysteries - but we know that we are.

When all we, like sheep, go astray, therefore, this is not the raw material for the story that ends happily ever after. Encapsulated in another mystery is the reality that the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world or, more accurately, of the sheep that had gone astray. Our faults, more often collective and passive than individual and active, are such that the consequences could not have been more serious; the shepherd  became the sacrificial victim in the enactment of a new Passover for the new covenant described in the New Testament.

It is important, then, not to be carried away by the fluffiness of the image; and, it is equally important not to buy into the metaphor for the wrong reason. In terms of our status as creatures of the Creator, we are like sheep; without God we would not be and without the good shepherd we would still be lost; but as creatures we have our lives to live and our decisions to make: we should not always be tempted by the grass that looks greener on the other side of the hill; we should not be lured away by false promises of easy living; and we should certainly not come to think, as we graze safely in our pasture, that the good life is somehow possible without the Good Shepherd. Remember what the Psalm has told us:

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me."

Going through the valley of the shadow of death is not trivial fearing no evil is not commonplace; and the Lord with us is a quite remarkable circumstance.

And we should never under estimate the temptation of the comfortable and the calm. The point of the story in John is that in First Century Palestine flocks of sheep were not segregated on their respective farms with reserved pasture, they were all mixed together in the pound for overnight safety; and in the morning each shepherd would come and call his sheep and they would recognise his voice and follow him, separating themselves from the other sheep. We, too, must do that. In the cacophonous world of competing temptations but, perhaps even more, in the subtle insouciant world where evil hides in the guise of respectability, of not rocking the boat, of saying nothing in case it causes controversy, of keeping ourselves to ourselves, the voice of our shepherd can get so easily lost as we spend too much of our time wondering how we are doing compared with the sheep in other flocks.

Today’s reading from Peter citing Isaiah, the Psalm and the Gospel all bear careful and prayerful, unsentimental reading. Jesus paid a price as our shepherd and we will probably have to pay a price for being his sheep; nothing heroic; nothing involving torture and death; but a steady listening ear to hear our shepherd's voice and a steady determination not to stray, no matter how green the distant grass may appear to be.