On 26th April, the fourth Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 23, Acts 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18.
‘Follow the Leader’ is a children’s game. Everyone has to follow whoever is the leader and do exactly as they do. The cartoon of Peter Pan has a game of Follow the Leader in it. John leads the lost boys through a waterfall, over a fallen log, through the jungle, across stepping stones, swinging along vines and through a cornfield as they sing a song.
Being the leader is fun, of course, but it also has some responsibilities. If the route the leader takes is too boring and repetitive, the game will soon end. If the challenges are too great there won’t be any followers after a while as they won’t be able to keep up. John seemed to just assume that everyone would keep up. He almost had some of his followers eaten by a bear or drowned. However, he did forge a way through the cornfield with his umbrella so that the others could walk through more easily.
The role of a shepherd in first century Israel and in some countries now, is to lead the sheep, rather than herd them from behind. It was essential that the shepherd led them to a place with pasture and water each day to keep the sheep alive. Hence we have those much loved words of Psalm 23 describing God, the ultimate shepherd: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.’
The shepherd would know his sheep and the sheep knew and trusted their shepherd. They could pick out his voice from the voices of others. In whatever way sheep think, they knew that following the shepherd would lead to a time of refreshment.
As we learn from what Jesus said about the job of a shepherd, there were dangers to be found where the sheep grazed. Wolves, bears and lions were around and would be happy to pick off an animal if they could. Facing a hungry wolf was not for the faint-hearted. King David was a shepherd at first, looking after his father’s flock. His reputation as a great warrior came purely from his work defending his sheep against wild animals when he was still a young man. In the face of such danger, it’s not difficult to understand why someone just hired to care for the sheep might run off if a wolf came. I doubt if shepherds were paid enough to include danger money. Jesus, a descendant of David, was prepared to die in order to protect his flock, the people he was given to care for.
It’s not exactly flattering to be considered as sheep. We like to think of ourselves as independent, able to make our own way in life, leaders of others as well as of ourselves. The idea of playing a game of ‘follow the leader’ in life is not necessarily appealing. Sheep, on the other hand, seem to be silly creatures at times. We can understand why they need a careful eye keeping on them and someone sensible to lead them the right way. Yet if we are honest, we too can be silly creatures. We can wander in life and find ourselves in dangerous places where we feel frightened and alone. We can fail to find the good things in life that nourish and sustain us.
Jesus is offering us the best in life, if we will just trust and follow him as sheep trust and follow their shepherd. Just like the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus leads his flock to places where they can be nourished. He walks along the right paths, showing the correct way to go through life. Jesus is there when dangers or enemies come along, giving security in the face of challenges. He won’t desert us no matter what. He’s already proved to us that he is prepared to die a dreadful death to save us. Following Jesus means being in the company of the one who really knows us, the sort of intimate knowing that characterised the relationship between the Father and Jesus. Following Jesus means that instead of being independent and alone, we have unity with other members of the flock. I know there can be arguments between Christians but we have more in common than we have differences.
Far from being a silly game for children, or a way of life only fit for stupid sheep, following the leader is the best choice by far. Jesus makes sure there is enough challenge to keep us interested but he doesn’t leave people behind by not considering their limitations. In following, we become like Jesus bit by bit as we copy what he does and where he goes.
We can see the outcome of following Jesus as leader in the various passages from the Acts of the Apostles which are read in this Easter season. The disciples became courageous, generous, loving, forgiving, able to heal as Jesus did, able to challenge authorities, able to draw others into their community by the sheer attractiveness of their communal lives. It got to the point where that small band and those who joined them were accused of turning the world upside down in the face of persecution and all kinds of secular power.
Alexander the Great is credited with saying that he would rather face an army of lions led by a sheep than an army of sheep led by a lion. The leader makes a huge difference. The army of sheep which is the Church, and to which we are called to belong, is led by a Good Shepherd who is also the Lion of Judah. It still has the potential to turn the world upside down and still proves it daily in many parts of the world.