This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel and other Scripture readings for Mass use the image of a shepherd to describe God’s care of us. Christ is the Shepherd who risked everything to protect us and ensure that we have the best possible relationship with a loving God.
The analogy of shepherd and sheep always reminds me of the following story which I hope you won’t remind me repeating.
A young teacher, recently qualified, accepted a temporary teaching post for a class of four year old children in one of the most isolated and rural parts of North Wales. The landscape was dominated by hills and grazing sheep. One of her early lessons involved teaching the children the use of the letter S. So to do this, she held up a large coloured photograph of a sheep and asked: ‘Now, children, who can tell me what this is?’
There was no answer. Twenty blank faces stared back at her. ‘Come now, children’, she said, ‘one of you must know what this is?’ Again, her enquiry met with silence. With mounting frustration she plodded on: ‘children, we see them every day on our way to school!’ As the children grew apprehensive, much to the teacher’s relief a tiny but reluctant hand was held us. ‘Yes, Iain, tell me what you think it is’.
‘Please, Miss’, the boy said hesitantly, ‘is it a three year old Border Leicester?’
I suspect that most of you, like me, cannot tell a Border Leicester from a Cheviot, Swaledale or any of the many other breeds of sheep native to Britain. So if you’re out walking in Northumberland or one of the Dales this Spring, you probably won’t have given the sheep a second look apart from delighting in the sight of the gambolling lambs. For most of us living here in the city, all sheep look alike unless they are black.
This, of course, is the opposite to how Christ sees us. Although sheep may be all the same to us, the Scriptures tell us that we are not all the same to him. Like a responsible, caring shepherd, Jesus says he knows each one of us personally. ‘I know my own and my own know me.’ … So to Christ I am not just a name or a number in a vast worldwide flock: I am unique, intimately known and special to him, having been handed over to his care by God the Father.
To have this relationship with the Lord, however, requires us to ‘listen’ to his ‘voice’ i.e. obey what he teaches. If we do, then he promises to not lead us astray or to allow anyone or anything to take us away from him. And he will give us ‘eternal life’ – the fullest form of life here on earth not available from any other person or source.
To ‘listen’ to the ‘voice’ of Jesus, however, can be quite a struggle when there are so many other competing voices in our lives, all demanding our time and attention. They promise all sorts of rewards but most, in my experience, just want our money. To whom, then, can we truly offer our loyalty in the knowledge that our trust will not be broken? In recent years all institutions, including the Church, have proved flawed and lost our trust. In today’s Gospel Our Lord invites us to place our trust in him and to follow where his voice leads. He will not rip us off or betray our trust. After all, he is the shepherd who laid down his life that we might have the fullness – the truly best – of life.
‘Know that he, the Lord, is God. He made us, we belong to him.
We are his people, the sheep of his flock’
(Responsorial Psalm, 99).
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 May 2019