Tuesday, 28 April 2015

I am the good shepherd

“I am the good shepherd”
Probably the only knowledge most people have nowadays of shepherding is “One man and his dog” on BBC2 some time ago, but the role still retains a romantic place in the imagination of many of us.
In the middle east in Jesus’ time shepherds were common and extremely important to the economy even though socially they were pretty much at the bottom of the pile and epitomised a rugged no-nonsense, down to earth quality. That was the point of the announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds rather than kings and princes. They had no airs and graces.
Shepherds in the middle east also led from the front, knew their flock well, protected them by shepherding them into sheepfolds at night and guarding them. Every one of the flock was valuable so if one of the sheep strayed, the shepherd would go and try and find it.  The flock in turn knew the voice of their shepherd and responded when they heard him.
So a shepherd provided leadership, protection and because the flock knew and trusted their shepherd, they followed where he led them.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd” While any shepherd would take a few risks to protect or get back one of his flock who strayed, Jesus promised to go even further. He said he would even “lay down his life for the sheep.” 
This is where the metaphors and symbolism start to become entangled. As well as being the good shepherd Jesus is also known as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. He identifies so completely with his flock he becomes representative of them and offers himself as the perfect sacrificial lamb used in Temple worship.
The good shepherd would gladly swap places and become the sacrificial lamb offered to save all the others. This is the kind of servant leader that we are asked to follow. He can hold two roles together at once. He is both shepherd and lamb, both servant and king.
As I’ve said before, I think it is significant that Jesus never asks us to worship him even once in the New Testament. But he does ask, on many occasions that we follow him. This tells us how important following Jesus is. You can follow him and trust where he leads us because he is the “Good shepherd” the perfect shepherd, leading his flock forwards.
Do we recognise his voice? It is the voice of God speaking through Jesus who is calling us forwards, to follow in the way that Jesus trod.
Do you trust him? “Believe in me, believe also in God” He says. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.
Everyone has a choice. Do we recognise and trust the voice of Jesus? We can choose to follow where Jesus leads because we trust that he is who He claims to be “the way, the truth and the life” or we can choose not to, because we don’t really trust him. We don’t recognise his voice. We need to recognise his voice and understand what he requires of us.
As a part of his flock there is only two ways that this will recognise his voice. By acting on the prompting of the Holy Spirit in prayer and by reading the Bible to understand what is required of us. Both are closely related to each other.
Bible reading and study of the text has been much neglected in the church of England and the recent reports just publishes on our health, prompted by our decline, has pointed out that this is something the C of E needs to address if it is to flourish again.  The Bible is God’s revelation to us of his action first through the Jewish people and then decisively through the person of Jesus Christ.
Who do you trust. Who do you choose? The choice was ever before us but in the days when Christianity was the only choice out there, the choice was more obvious and the church got lazy.  In a pluralist society with lots of religious options out there discerning and making that choice is much harder and requires much greater effort, discernment and real commitment that ever before.
Christians believe that Jesus is the decisive and full revelation of God to humankind. So when another revelation appears, like Islam that overturns and contradicts the voice of Jesus, that claims to supersede Christianity and presents itself as the final and definitive revelation of God, and indeed says that we have perverted the gospel of the prophet Jesus – we have a massive personal choice to make. If we are confused, think how confusing it must be for our children and grandchildren, especially if there is no strong example to show them.
Addressing Biblical literacy and fostering discipleship are the ways in which we learn to hear and recognise the voice of God amongst many other voices and following where that voice, that person leads.

Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me”.   

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Life after death

If you take all the accounts of the resurrection together, including Saint Paul’s conversion and his own writings about resurrection we are certainly in the realm of deep mystery. In our gospel reading today Luke insists that Jesus had a body of flesh and blood and yet on the other hand he could walk through walls and be in different locations at the same time which tells us that it was not a normal body.
In fact his body did disappear or dematerialise and return to God soon after the resurrection and we celebrate that event at a day we call the Ascension. Saint Paul on the other hand writes about “spiritual bodies” and insists that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”. His encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus was a spiritual one, with a disembodied voice asking Paul “Why are you persecuting me?”
We have to take all these things together to gain some kind of purchase on what is being conveyed here and what it means for our own future beyond the grave.
Nothing is crystal clear but we can be clear enough to be certain about some things. Luke’s insistence of physicality is there to tell us one thing certainly ; that the person that is raised after death is exactly the same person who died.
People don’t like talking about death but if and when they do one question that pops up regularly is will I be “me” and will I recognise others? Luke’s insistence on a physical resurrection gives an emphatic answer to that question. The answer is yes, you will.
You will remember also that Jesus’ resurrection body bore the wounds of his death on the cross. What can this mean except that not only are we recognisably the same person but we bear the marks of our experiences here on earth.
In a spiritual sense, pre-figured here by Luke in a physical sense, we take the sum of all we are and all we learnt, all we did and all we didn’t do with us.
God will perfect and use all those experiences for the good, because we believe and trust in a God of goodness and light.  
Depending on whether we accept our culpability for our wrongdoing or not and whether we turn to God in Christ for forgiveness will determine what happens then. God forgives all who truly repent.
There were two thieves on the cross. One mocked Jesus and one acknowledged his guilt and threw himself on God’s mercy. Jesus said to the repentant thief. “I tell you the truth. This day you shall be with me in paradise”. It is not recorded what would happen to the other thief. Whatever his ultimate destination was, the implication is that, you are outside of God’s presence until you yourself turn to be saved.
I can find no timeframe for when that turning must take place in the Bible but I do understand  why people think that our ultimate destination is fixed by our decision in our lifetime. But to be true to a God of Love as well as justice and to encompass all the people who had no reasonable chance to hear the message and “turn and be saved” in this life I believe we have an opportunity to turn after death.
Some may then say. Why would we bother to worship and evangelise if everyone eventually has a chance to turn and be saved anyway? Well that is a curious and illogical thing to say. If you know what is true. If you know the saving love of God. If you know the peace of God now in this life, if you know the path you should be walking on, if you can know your ultimate destination now, why would you deny yourself those riches? If I believe that to be true, why would I deny Jesus and turn away from Him, in a fit of pique because others might eventually receive what I can enjoy right now – that is the picture of the eldest son in the parable of the prodigal son.
And remember Jesus says to us in Matthew 10: 33 “If you deny me in front of men I will deny you before the Father”
We can enjoy God and all His benefits forever, and it can start right now. We have the advantage over other people because we know what is true. When we repent (Metanoia – Go beyond your mind) and are born again, we recognise and embrace the gift of Life that God offers to us.
Preaching Salvation for all without repentance is often called peddling “cheap grace” though of course the revelation of God’s deep love for us did not come cheap. It came at a huge cost, borne with grace on the cross on a desolate hillside in Palestine 2000 years ago. The appropriate response to that sacrifice is gratitude and the determination to turn around our lives in response.
I’ll end with some prophetic words from Saint Augustine that I love because they concentrate the mind so well and so we might do well to meditate upon them. I’ve already commented that the the destination of the second thief is not noted. But Augustine assumes the worst......
Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

True Resurrection

So what was the resurrection? What does it mean to us and How does it affect Christians?
I think there are three aspects to that question and they all relate to each other.
Firstly of course the resurrection is something that happened to Jesus about 2000 years ago – a historical event.
Using the word miracle in its colloquial sense it is to my mind the second greatest miracle ever but linked to the greatest miracle.
The first and greatest miracle is creation itself.
But then we have annihilation – death – all things die.
But in the resurrection we have re-creation.
So for Christians we believe not just in the cycle of life and death but in Life, death and new life. This leads us to our second meaning. Not only is the resurrection a historical event that happened to Jesus it is something that can be applied to us.
When we die we will be resurrected to eternal life. How do we know? Because that is what Jesus promised us in the Bible.
 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
All authority in the world is suspect. Thousands of different voices all telling us different things. But if I am being asked to place my trust in one man in this world I choose to place my trust in Jesus and follow him, as well as I can.
So the first two meanings of the resurrection are a historical fact and a future hope, but if we are not careful that is where our resurrection faith ends, locked in the past and the future. What about now – our present life?
Emerging from those first two meanings the resurrection gives us a way of seeing and perceiving the world. It gives us eyes and hearts of hope. There is no situation so bad that something good cannot grow from it. There is no relationship so broken that it cannot be healed and transformed. In every situation from a stubbed toe to bereavement, from the darkest of situations light can emerge. It is a way of seeing the world through eyes of hope, through the lens of resurrection. We see more deeply and look more closely for the signs of a God who raises up, working in any and every situation.

That light may be slow coming. Between the tragedy represented by Good Friday and the New life represented by Easter Sunday there is Easter Saturday, a day of darkness, desolation, fear and unknowing. For many of us, we can sometimes be locked in an Easter Saturday that seems unending, but eventually, and often, not in the ways we expected, light and growth does come!