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From the Priest-In-Charge of Sarum St. Martin’s

Easter 4 b 2018

James Rebanks may be a name with which you are not familiar.  In 2015 he was published by Penguin Books; his book was entitled, ‘The Shepherd’s Life: A tale of the the Lake District.’ James Rebanks is a shepherd of Lake District Herdwick sheep.  Reading the cover blurbs of reviewers I gained the impression that the book was about the rural idyll of the Lake District, one of the most naturally beautiful places in England.  And indeed there is in the book much of that rugged beauty.  The heart of the book is the shepherds’ life on the fells of Cumbria, and to tell the truth, there is, according to Rebanks account, very little that is idyllic about the shepherd’s life.

The image that Our Lord sets before us this morning is of Himself as the Good Shepherd: ‘Jesus said: I am the Good shepherd:’  This is image is so familiar to us, just look on the pew sheet to see a photograph of the Good Shepherd taken from a mosaic of Orthodox Christianity.  How many Sunday school photographs, or stained windows have reinforced that image in our minds of the passive good shepherd carrying the one lost sheep around his shoulders whilst the ninety-nine gently graze on the hillside awaiting his return.  Well, when we are conjuring with that image we tend to overlook the next line, ‘the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.’  We overlook this line perhaps because those Sunday school images are so strong.  But if we wish to understand just what the Lord meant well, read James Rebanks.

It would seem that the life of the shepherd is a 365 day business every year and 366 in a leap year.  The fells of Cumbria are indeed beautiful but not so welcoming when horizontal rain is driving of the Irish Sea or the snow has drifted to the tops of the barns.  Rebanks tells it how it is for him, and while it is his life, it is not an easy one; there is struggle at the heart of the shepherd’s life.  Rebanks has never had to ‘lay down his life’ for his sheep but reading his book I certainly gained the impression that if needs must he might well do so, but with this one difference to what the Lord said; death would be an accidental part of the shepherd’s life, not the intention.

When Our Lord used this image of Himself he was using an image with which His hearers were familiar; they knew shepherds and what they had to do.  But whereas his hearers were familiar with shepherds they were not as familiar with the idea of the ‘Good Shepherd.’  We might render ‘Good’ as ‘True’, as when Jesus said, ‘I am the True Vine’ meaning that in Jesus is seen the perfection.  Jesus is indeed the perfect shepherd, the perfect vine.  And so that we do not misunderstand what this perfection is He lays it out for us: ‘The hired man … abandons the sheep and runs away … he has no concern for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, … and I lay down my life for the sheep.’  In other words, as He says in another place, ‘I am with you always, yes, until the end of time.’  Jesus never abandons us.  He has claimed us in baptism and confirmation; He has fed us in Holy Communion; He has forgiven us in Confession and Absolution; He constantly gives Himself to us precisely because he is the Good Shepherd who knows His own sheep, that is you and me! And what is our response?

Fr David Fisher

Sheep are notoriously stupid animals; Rebanks confirms this in his book.  They simply never seem to learn how to avoid danger.  Does Our Lord then imply that we are notoriously stupid?  Well perhaps not stupid, but perhaps prone to doing dangerous things, for if we are His true sheep, His followers, then in following in His way there will be times when we are in danger, and then to whom do we turn for aid?  I’m sure you don’t need me to provide the answer.  To be a Christian has never been easy, else this Church and indeed all churches would be thronged with people.  But it is the true way to live for those who call upon the Name of Jesus.  Yet that is not all.  To be a Christian means to live as Christ lives in the world.  Not seeking out danger but not walking away from those occasions when to be Christlike would put us in dangerous ways.  It is not be surprised at that when human beings are downtrodden or persecuted, when humans are degraded and abused it is Christians who, at no little cost to themselves work to right those wrongs.  And sometimes it has meant that these Christians have had to give their lives.  This year of 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  See what I mean?  And if I may I would like to quote one simple phrase of his: ‘I’m not fearing any man!’  Why? because Dr. King knew that Jesus the Good Shepherd was with him.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  As we go on in our Christian discipleship we do so not alone, for the Good Shepherd is with us always, and that whatever we have to face, Jesus has already been there and knows it in His incarnate ministry, and so He strengthens His sheep.  But the sheep can only know that if they, that is us, allow themselves, ourselves, to know Him.  And How do we know Him?  In Scripture, in prayer, in the life of the Church, in the Sacraments of the Church.

The Shepherd’s Life is not an easy one for it calls for commitment and dedication and a thinking first of the sheep.  That is Jesus; and if we are serious can we do less than show commitment


Almighty God, you have made us members of Christ and of his Church in this parish. May we as a congregation reach upwards to your throne in worship and adoration: inwards to one another in understanding and fellowship; and outwards to the world in evangelism and social compassion. Make us like a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden, so that men and women may find Christ as the Light of the World, and his Church as the family of the redeemed, and eternal life as the gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.

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