Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd and references to people being sheep are scattered through the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible, perhaps most famously in Psalm 23. We might think of sheep as silly creatures but they have enough sense to follow their shepherd and so keep safe. It is plain that Jesus came with a message for all and died for all, with the aim of gathering us all in one flock. As humans, we have an uncanny ability to divide ourselves into many flocks. By centring our lives on Jesus, instead of seeking to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of a group, we are working towards fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for us: ‘that they may be one’.
The sermon which follows was preached at the noon service on Sunday. The readings were Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-end, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end.
Animals have amazing abilities that we humans just don’t seem to have. I read recently about how dogs can detect various medical conditions. One dog sniffed a sore spot on its owner’s skin so often that the owner checked it out and found it was skin cancer. Tests have shown that dogs can pick up signs of lung cancer and breast cancer. They can detect chemicals when there are just a few particles per trillion. Their sense of smell is truly amazing.
Animals have other abilities and attributes of course. They can be very, very loyal and loving. They also seem to sense who they can trust. They have this in common with children. We tend to think of sheep as silly creatures who can easily get themselves into all sorts of problems. However, as Jesus pointed out in an illustration, sheep know the voice of the shepherd and follow him and not anyone else. They are not so stupid, following one who is totally trustworthy.
Jesus saw himself as the shepherd of the people, something they desperately needed. He had a deep compassion for them. He did his best to teach them, to help them to follow him. The early part of today’s gospel passage takes place just before the feeding of the 5000. We can see here Jesus teaching the people, feeding them spiritually before feeding them physically. This echoes the psalm where God is seen as leading us in the paths of righteousness. Then we see him spreading a table before us and feeding us, just as Jesus did when he fed the people with loaves and fish.
The people gathered for that miracle were no doubt of all types – good people, bad people, old and young, fit and ill. There was no guarantee that they were all Jews. All were welcomed to eat together as Jesus fed them.
When Jesus arrived in the area around Gennesaret every kind of person once more gathered round Jesus. This time they gathered because they or their friends needed to be healed and they knew that Jesus could heal them. You can be sure that rich and poor would have had sick people in their family and would have longed for them to be healed. All brought them to Jesus, begging for an opportunity to touch his cloak. All who did so were healed. There was no checking of eligibility, no discrimination. Instead there was a sort of levelling going on here. People who would not normally associate together gathered with their common need around Jesus.
Paul picks this up in his epistle. He tells us that Jesus moved beyond the law which had the ability to sort people into those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. He was creating one group with one shepherd. He was about the business of bringing peace and reconciliation between people. His greatest work of reconciliation was his dying on the cross, once for all. The peace Jesus bought is for people for all time, ‘those who are far off and those who are near’ and so that includes us.
At the moment there is a lack of peace in the Anglican Church as a result of the decisions that have been taken at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Some people will be very happy at what has happened and some won’t. Some will feel concerned that they will be rejected by other Christians because of what has happened. Some may even be afraid that they will not be welcomed here at the Cathedral.
I hope you have taken the chance to look at our vision statement on the blog. I’d like to draw to your attention two of our statements. Our church is one which ‘encourages Christians from different countries and theological persuasions to work together to the glory of God’. It is also a community which ‘welcomes and serves others, and is known for its love and care’.
The way we fulfil this vision is to be a church which concentrates more on where our centre is than where our boundaries are. What I mean by this is that we need to concentrate on what our belief is centred on, which is on the person of Jesus and our relationship with him. Some may be in a close relationship, a bit like the sheep in the flock who keep very near to the shepherd. Some may be further away but still know they have a relationship. Some may be seeking a relationship with Jesus, so are at least looking his way. Anyone can belong if they are at least beginning to move towards Jesus. Like Jesus, we turn away from enforcing boundaries or rules to decide who is welcome and who is not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. We are clear what we stand for, what our values are, but that doesn’t prevent everyone being welcome here.
I’m very much aware of my position as Lay Pastor on the Leadership Team. I have the responsibility for the pastoral care of those with whom we come into contact here. I would like to make a commitment to you that I will do everything in my power to make sure that this is a place of welcome for everyone. If anyone has any problem or is concerned about something, I urge you to come to me. I assure you that I don’t take offence easily and I will listen without being defensive or trying to justify anything that cannot be justified. If something needs putting right I will work to put it right.
I am human and I will let you down sometimes, not wilfully but due to human weakness or error. I hope if that happens, you will let me know what I’ve done wrong and give me the opportunity to apologise. I will do my best to learn from any mistakes I make. I also hope that an error on the part of myself or another member here will not cause you to turn your back on the Church or on faith, something I once nearly did. I am so very glad I was brought back into the fold by the love and care of other Christians. We can be sure that even if other people let us down, God never will but will lead us safely even through dark times.
I hope as we go forward we can work together, build teams to move our ministry forward and uphold one another in prayer, remembering that all of us ‘have access in one Spirit to the Father’.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor