(Easter 4. Yr C. Acts 9, 36-43; John 10, 22-30)
Have you noticed how bossy our equipment has become these days?
Once upon a time, we humans were in charge. We decided when to set our equipment going, and when to stop. Now almost everything has a timed programme – your oven, your washing machine, your dishwasher – and when it is ready it beeps at you – and keeps on beeping until you pay it attention.
Or there are lights that flash at you to tell you to do something, especially on your computer, or questioning your decisions (Do you want to switch off your computer? Yes, I do!) – and in the worst scenario, the equipment (like your printer!) stops working all together until you obey its instructions.
Then there are modern cars, with lights to tell you if you haven’t closed the doors, or put your seat belt on; and worst of all, the sat navs, telling you where and when to turn – and going into a sulk if you use your own local knowledge to take a better route, and continually repeating instructions to take you back onto their prescribed route.
At least with sat navs you can change the voice, to choose something which is a little less irritating.
In the Gospel reading today, John is reflecting on the image of Jesus as a Shepherd, and speaking about the way those who belong to Jesus recognise and respond to his voice.
Earlier in this chapter, John’s Jesus says of himself that he is the Good Shepherd, and the gate for the sheep. This imagery is unique to John, though Luke has echoes of it in his parable of the lost sheep.
This picture of Jesus probably doesn’t have as much impact on us as it would have done on the people of John’s time. He was speaking to a pastoral people, for whom sheep represented both wealth, and a clean animal which could be used for sacrifices to God and for food. So, Jesus is saying that those who follow him, who hear and respond to his voice, are ‘clean’ in God’s eyes.
But those who read these words would have been reminded of other meanings from their Scriptures. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of Israel’s leaders of his time as ‘wicked shepherds’, who exploited the sheep, neglected the weak lambs, and allowed the flock to be scattered by ravening wild animals. His message was that God would replace the wicked shepherds and come, or send a ‘Good Shepherd’, to gather the scattered sheep together again, to feed them, and to give them peace and safety. This is what those who originally read these words would have understood by Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd, and when he said ‘The Father and I are one’.
They would also have been reminded of the 23rd Psalm, a version of which we sang as our first hymn; traditionally held to have been written by David, the shepherd boy who became God’s chosen king, and who freed the Jews from the threat of domination by the Philistines. That psalm promises the people of Israel that they will enjoy God’s guidance, protection, assurance and presence all the days of their lives and beyond, so long as they follow their true shepherd in the paths in which he leads them.
In the passage we heard, Jesus is rejecting the contemporary leaders of the Jewish nation. They are not of his flock, he says, because they do not accept the works he does as God’s works, and the words he says as God’s words. They do not listen and obey his voice. They are not the good shepherds of the 23rd Psalm, they are the wicked shepherds of Ezekiel.
In New Testament times, as you may know, sheep were not driven along by their shepherds or by sheepdogs. They were led by their shepherd, recognising and trusting his voice, and following him in the way he had trodden before them. That is what all Jesus’ disciples, including us, are meant to do. We are meant to follow in the Way to which God calls us, through Jesus.
The Book of Acts provides us with many stories of disciples doing just that, which is why we hear readings from it during this Easter season. The coming of the Messiah established a new community, following the voice of Jesus. That community had different leaders from the religious community that had gone before, leaders who didn’t fit the established pattern of who was thought competent to lead.
In the passage set for today we hear about Peter, a fisherman who has become a preacher, carrying on Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, prayer and healing. And we hear the story of Tabitha or Dorcas, a poor widow who carried out a ministry of charity among the poor of Joppa.
I’ve known the story of Dorcas since I was at school, because our school held an annual event named after her. Like Dorcas, we were all encouraged to sew or knit garments for small children, which were collected and given to families in need in this country and overseas.
Dorcas, one of the poorest and least privileged in society, heard the voice of Jesus calling her to work to relieve the poverty of those among whom she lived. She was called from being a recipient of charity to be a leader and a disciple (and is notable that she is the only female to be called a disciple in the New Testament). Her death caused a crisis among the other widows she cared for, and threatened the collapse of the ministry of care she established.
When Peter came and prayed over her, his command to her to ‘Get up’ uses the same verb in Greek as is used of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit, working through Peter, restored life to her, and enabled her to continue to bring new life to the community she served.
In John’s Gospel, the Son and the Father are one, because they speak and act in concert. Jesus prayed that his disciples might hear his voice and act as he did in order that they too may be ‘one with the Father’; that is, at one in thought and action with God. Thus Peter and Dorcas are united with God because they live In Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and carry out God’s work in their communities.
Today is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday’ in the church, but is also kept as ‘Vocations Sunday’, because of the theme of hearing the voice of God calling us, and responding.
How do we hear the voice of God? Some of us may hear actual voices speaking to us, as we heard last week that Paul did; but maybe only a minority will have that sort of experience. The traditional ways in which we as Anglicans expect to hear God are through the Scriptures; through the wisdom of the Christian Tradition, in the writing of faithful followers of Christ through the ages, and in the liturgy; and through the use of our God-given reason, applying our knowledge of the world and of human beings, given to us through science and the arts, to the scriptures and the tradition. To these three, Methodists add experience, which I think is valuable, because we should listen for God with our emotions as well as our intellect, our hearts as well as our heads.
However, in this world of noise in which we live, there are many voices claiming to speak for God. So how do we judge which is actually God speaking to us, and calling us to follow the Way of Jesus?
Peter Vardy, who lectures in the philosophy of religion, wrote a book called “Good and Bad Religion’ which gives some guidelines to judge whether we are truly hearing the voice of God. Good religion, he says, transforms the individual rather than just making them conform to the group; it is not afraid of science or rational scrutiny; it promotes justice and respects human freedom; good religion promotes human flourishing, without distinctions of gender, race or sexuality; good religion exercises humility in its claims, acknowledges it may sometimes be in error, and admits there may be a variety of legitimate interpretations of truth.
I hope that the readings we heard today will encourage you to listen for the voice of God, whether it comes to you through reading the scriptures or other Christian literature, through worship and song, or through your daily life and what is going on in the world around you.
And that, having listened, you will hear God calling you to the vocation – the particular role in the communities in which you live – that you have already been equipped as a disciple to carry out.
And I hope that the readings will also reassure you that you don’t have to be particularly religious, or feel a call to ordination, or be very intellectual in order to be called as a disciple of the Good Shepherd; Dorcas wasn’t, and neither was Peter.
All that is necessary is for you to hear God’s voice, and to follow faithfully, and you will be raised, as our collect asks, to find those things which are from above.
Let us pray:
*Day by day, God leads us:
to the deep, deep pools of peace,
to the green, lush lawns of grace.
Day by day, Jesus calls us:
to pour out ourselves in service,
to anoint the stranger with hope.
Day by day, the Holy Spirit shows us:
the community we could be,
the family we are called to become.
Day by day, may we hear God’s voice
And follow in the way God is calling us to go.
*Adapted from a call to worship written by Thom Shuman on Lectionary Liturgies.