Sermon on John 10: 22-30 and Acts 9:36-43
Mirfield Upper Church
Sunday, 8th of May 2022
Revd Dr Dorothea Bertschmann
May I speak in the name of the living God
Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
There is nothing which says “spring” to me like sheep grazing peacefully in the sunshine or resting in the shade of a tree. It is such an idyllic tableau, the very picture of contentment.
“Sheep may safely graze where a good shepherd watches” are the lyrics of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s more famous compositions. The shepherd mentioned here does actually not refer to God, but to his Lordship the Duke of Saxony-Weissenfels on the occasion of his birthday.
Our Gospel reading and in fact the entire chapter of John 10 taps into the familiar metaphor of sheep and shepherds seen as people and their religious or political leaders. Sheep may safely graze if those leaders fulfil their duty of care, protection and guidance.
But wait until you meet some of the real existing shepherds! You will find that adjectives like “peaceful” and “idyllic” are not really cutting it anymore. Already in the Old Testament we find some shepherds throwing sticks and stones at each other in an attempt to secure the best wells for themselves. Worse, some shepherds also known as rulers become self-serving and corrupt, quite literally fleecing the sheep and abandoning them in time of danger. The prophets in the Old Testament raise their voices against such pseudo-shepherds, both kings and priests.
We encounter the same prophetic heat when Jesus has a go at those who climb into the sheep fold by stealth, stealing and killing and working havoc. But unlike the prophets he proclaims himself to be the one true and good shepherd. This cannot go unchallenged. In our Gospel passage we see Jesus once more in a hostile argument with his Jewish opponents, the leading figures of Jerusalem. Standing at the holy site of the Temple on the feast of dedication they are trying to corner him, to pin him down at last. “Are you actually saying that you are the Messiah?”(v.24)
In the end, just after our passage, Jesus’ opponents are picking up stones, too (v.31). This is not going to end well.
What do you do, if shepherds, who were appointed for the good of the sheep go so very wrong?
Jesus says in John 10 that the sheep will suffer from such shepherds, but they will not be easily fooled. Twice, in verse 3 and in verse 27 Jesus says with great emphasis that the sheep hear the voice of the true shepherd and follow him only – because they know his voice.
These words have resonated throughout the centuries:
When the city of Bern adopted the Reformation in 1527 a group of theologians summed up the new faith like this:
“The Holy Christian church has Christ alone as her head and is born of the Word of God, in which she abides. She does not heed the voice of a stranger.”
The “stranger” mentioned here was of course the pope, seen as the pseudo – shepherd extraordinaire by the Reformers… which is a rather bold and cheeky thing to say come to think of it.
400 years later similar words sounded forth in the Barmen theological declaration, a document drafted by a group of German theologians, who took an incredibly brave stand against Hitler and the ways in which he wanted to use the church for his own aims.
“Jesus Christ is the one Word of God, which we have to hear, heed and trust, in life and in death”, they wrote.
Even if we do not wish to lump together Pope Clement VII with Adolf Hitler these examples show us the dynamite of this passage – forget the peacefully ruminating sheep, this is a dangerous text about dangerous times:
What do you do when God’s appointed shepherds go bad or mad?
What do you do when democratically or semi-democratically elected leaders are losing it, fleecing their sheep with impunity, even unlashing war and violence?
What do you do when God’s appointed servants, even the highest office-holders in the church are complicit in this, being silent where they should speak, lending tacit or open support to such great evils?
“My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me” says Jesus.
It is in hearing the voice of the one shepherd, in becoming familiar with its tone and content, that we learn to discern good and false authority, that we learn to spot and if needed to resist the pseudo-shepherds.
This is of course more easily said than done and can seem like a daunting task. If even top-shepherds can completely lose it where does that leave me, a humble little sheep trying to find its way in the world?
I find Jesus’ answer to his opponents remarkable in that respect. He flat out refuses to tell them who he is, because they will not believe it anyway. More, Jesus says that they cannot grasp and process such a revelation because they are not part of the flock.
At first glance this is some rather circular reasoning. It is a bit like saying: If you don’t know German you will not understand German. Well thanks a lot for sharing this!
But put positively we are told that in order to hear the good Shepherd we need to be part of his flock to begin with. We need to be in communion with Him. Only if we know Christ we understand Christ, understand who he is. This knowledge is the intimate knowledge of a love, not something we read in a book. Ticking the box “Son of God” or “Messiah” won’t do. Jesus says: “I know my sheep”. Knowing Christ begins by being known by him, in Paul’s words this is a “knowing more fully as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). It is in this deep and growing union and communion with Jesus and each other that we discern and decide, that we are trying to figure out our vocation, that we read the signs of the time and seek to respond to them. Never alone. And always loved.
Some years ago I was pondering an important decision. I was thinking about where my journey had led me in recent years and a fearful voice in me wondered whether I did “the right thing” or whether I had perhaps lost the plot some time ago. It was this time of the year and a lovely spring day as I went on a walk. I can’t remember if I encountered any sheep. But I remember taking in a path unfolding before me and recalling the reading of John 10. And suddenly I felt like God was saying to me: “Why are you afraid? I am not leading you astray.”
You see, Jesus’ voice is not the voice of Google maps which says: “At the next roundabout take the second exit.” It would be really nice at times, wouldn’t it? Is ordained ministry really God’s will for me? Should I really look at any other colleges after coming to this open day at the College of the Resurrection?
The voice of the good shepherd leaves a lot of room for us to use our brains and instincts, to decide in freedom and to grow through trial and error. He is quite capable of leading us through dangerous short-cuts and long-winded detours.
There is no certainty that we will never encounter pain and frustration when we follow that voice. But there is the deepest assurance that through it all we will not be misled, not be led astray but led ever more deeply into His risen life.
“I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”(V.28).
And he invites us to act with courage and trust out of such knowledge.
We see some such courage and trust reflected in our reading from Acts. Here we have two remarkable people who have heard the voice of the good shepherd and followed him.
There is Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, meaning “gazelle”, a woman who almost remained in the dark of history, but whose death caused an enormous outpouring of grief in her day, because she had loved so many so well. She had been making garments, tunics for people who probably struggled to find bread for the day, let alone clothing.
And there is Peter, yes, the very man, who was given such an important place in Christ’s emerging church. Peter, who was entrusted with so much authority by Jesus, but who also failed and fell so miserably.
But here we see him, speaking words of power and life and snatching Dorcas back from the dead because she really cannot just go yet, because her community needs her.
Works of love and Words of power join hands in this scene.
And even now, even today, in all the terror and anguish of our world there are many Tabithas and many Peters. Men and women who just keep making tunics and knitting socks metaphorically and literally speaking, who keep themselves busy with ordinary but defiant acts of kindness and love, as if it all made sense, as if death did indeed not have the last word. And even now there are women and men who raise their voices in protest against all that death and death-mongering of pseudo-shepherds, who are speaking truth to power, who take incredibly courageous decisions which will often put them in harm’s way. And we thank God for them, for all the rock-solid personalities and for all the swift gazelles, who keep the world from collapsing on itself.
“Tabitha, get up” are the words Peter speaks and the words Dorcas hears in her slumber of death.
Peter echoes and joins Jesus’ life-giving words in the Gospel of Mark, when a little girl was taken by the hand, too, and brought back to life: “Talitha kumi, little girl, get up” (Mark 5:41).
It is the same voice which was calling Mary Magdalene by name in her haze of grief outside the tomb: “Mary!” It is the same voice which has called each of us by name in our baptism, the voice which calls us into ever new ways of living and loving, deeper and higher than we can yet imagine.
And that same voice will call us by name on that last day, out of death into indestructible life.Alleluia, Christ is risen!