Twenty seven years ago I knew little or nothing about sheep and the art of shepherding. Then I met Sallyanne. Sallyanne was a pig farmer at the time and her father was a shepherd. He kept a large flock on his mixed farm which was situated at Shalstone, half way between Buckingham and Brackley. Twenty seven years ago I was a townie and much to the amazement of my wonderful father-in-law to be Sallyanne had decided to marry a townie. My relationship with my father-in-law didn’t get off to the best of starts for on my first visit to the farm I got out of Sallyanne’s pick up truck and saw a large sheep dog running across the yard. I promptly got back into the vehicle and shut the door. I then glanced out of the windscreen and through the farm house kitchen window and saw my father-in-law stood there, cap on his head, and mouth open in amazement that Sallyanne could have fallen for a man who was scared of dogs! Anyway, we now have a sheep dog, the blessed Milo, so it all worked out okay.
Jesus describes himself as both a shepherd and the gate for the sheepfold. We are of course his sheep, and such is Jesus concern for each and every one of us, as well as for the flock as a whole, that we are all known and called by name. Jesus' desire is to call out to each and every one of us and beckon us into his fold. He calls us into relationship not only with himself but with each other. Jesus' desire is that his flock have life eternal. But, Jesus is also realistic for in using the metaphors of shepherd, flock and gate he recognises that there are a lot of false shepherds out there. Jesus urges us in the Gospel story to learn to recognise his voice and to look to him alone as the gateway into life eternal.
Life eternal doesn’t simply refer to the afterlife. Eternal life starts in the here and now, in the waif and wain of ordinary life. So the question surely follows as to what sort of flock we are to be. What should our collective life look like? How are we to be an explicitly Christian flock?
The reading from the Acts of Apostles providers the answers. The Christian flock is to be characterised by two ways of being and behaving. We are to be a worshipping community and a serving community. The early Christian flock met regularly for prayer, worship and the celebration of the Eucharist. They also pooled their possessions and gave to those in need. They cared and they shared. They were intentionally generous and they were motivated by a spirit of gratitude. This spirit and ethos allowed them to endure the pain and injustice described in the reading from 1 Peter.
The Acts of the Apostles describes life in the early church. The early church was a missionary church for as it is recorded ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ Through their common life they built a community that was attractive and relevant. Their common life was built on two distinct activities worship and service and guided by a spirit of gratitude for the redeeming love of Jesus – the gate – and generosity.
Our job is to become a generous, grateful, caring, sharing, worshipping community. We need to become this sort of flock not only for our own good but so that ‘day by day the Lord can add to our number those who are being saved.’
We need to become the sort of flock that is described in the Acts of the Apostles.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown