Sunday 15th April 2018
Some of the more recent Ecumenical Churches have searched hard for names. Well worn and rather static is the word ‘Trinity’! Much more dynamic and graphic is a name like the ‘The Church of the Good Shepherd’. There are one or two of these around. They present a picture of caring and of good leadership merely through their name. This morning, I would like to explore the picture of the Good Shepherd and ask how all our congregations can live up to the image of the Good Shepherd.
And at its heart we’re going to be talking about leadership, simply that. So let’s start to rid our minds of the cosy images often found in Christian art and hymnody of tender shepherds and gentle blond blue eyed Jesus’s with little lambs around them lovingly tucked under his armpit.
If you take a walk out into the country one fine spring weekend, pop into a farm. You might get a few surprises in the lambing season. Near the lambing sheds you may see a sort of nursery; the post natal ward, if you like. The lambs will be a matter of hours old, that’s all. Then you see the farmer come out of the lambing shed with a ewe and freshly born lamb. The lamb isn’t lovingly tucked under his arm; it is suspended upside down as he holds it by the legs and when he reaches the field the poor little thing is thrown unceremonially on to the ground. In a matter of seconds it shakes its head as though recovering from a hangover and gets gingerly to its feet to face a tough and hungry world.
You will soon realise that the life of shepherd or sheep is not a cosy one whether in Surrey or Shropshire. But in Galilee or Judea it must have been positively horrendous. No safe English pastures there, simply barren rock and stony semi-desert conditions which tested man and beast to the limit. Shepherds knew what the realities of life and death were all about.
The Biblical picture is therefore nothing to do with cosy domesticated leadership. It’s got to do with survival and with poachers and robbers and with wolves and wild beasts. John’s Gospel reminds us of all these things. The young and tender churches, the newborn Christians thrown into the rough and tumble of a wild wild world had to learn to be streetwise and world wise if they were to survive. The Gospel likewise had to be able to stand up to the most rigorous testing as cowboys and fanatics tried to distort it and as proud and hungry individuals tried to hi-jack its message and use it for their own advantage.
All this lies behind the sophisticated language of John 10.
What was needed was strong and sensitive leadership, vision and guts, determination and confidence. Not a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ but, as Luke says, a Jesus with a face set like flint and making for Jerusalem.
Now don’t get the wrong impression. We mustn’t try to turn Jesus into Silvester Stallonie or a St. Rambo the Fifth. This shepherd had amazing resources of compassion and care, but his leadership was quite decisive, his vision was sure and solid, his good news unwavering in the face of opposition.
In the Old Testament the image of the shepherd had to do as much with political leadership as it did with the religious sphere. Ezekiel complained bitterly against the false shepherds who neglected the poor and made laws, secular and sacred. to oppress the people. This political angle cannot be underestimated. The prophets had no problem with seeing God’s reign in terms of the world as a whole, they did not divide Church from State, God was in charge. Those who had responsibilities, whether priests or politicians were answerable to God. If their leadership became selfish and arrogant, then God would act to bring to an end their government. Or he would send a leader of his own choosing. And the government would be upon his shoulder and his leadership gifts would be different: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
It is interesting that after the discourse on the Good Shepherd the Jewish leaders tried there and then to stone Jesus, for to them he was claiming to be Messiah and King. The leadership which people looked to was not simply spiritual. They want a new government. They had had enough of the Romans and their poll tax. But Jesus didn’t offer what they wanted. He was no ordinary leader. He was a Good Shepherd, not any old shepherd. He would not reinforce their prejudices and their selfishness. He would go for truth, even though it was uncomfortable.
So let us look at the qualities which he offers to the world today and we will see our own task within them.
The first is intimacy. ‘I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ That word ‘know’ in Hebrew is sexual as well. It is intimate. God knows us body, mind and spirit. His way of leading us does not come out of ignorance of our feelings, Jesus says ‘I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’
This means that any leadership given by the church or by the government has to arise out of an intimate knowledge of the needs and aspirations, the joys and pain of the people. From the Church point of view we cannot engage in mission and evangelism until we know those whom we are addressing and understand their dilemmas and fears. Sensitivity is essential to strong leadership. That goes for the wider councils of the church as they seek to care for individual churches. It goes for clergy as they seek to understand their own flock. It goes for the lay leaders, like elders and comparable positions in the other denominations, as they enable the membership of the local congregation to be strong and caring.
The second quality of the Good Shepherd is the quality of truth. The thieves and robbers in John don’t go in by the main entrance, they get in illegally. They should not be where they are and they positively harm the sheep. Now there is little doubt that in the context these referred to false teachers which were already infiltrating the church. As Paul said, they have ‘another Gospel’. They mislead people as to where salvation is to be found.
Today we need a caring and sensitive leadership which still searches for truth. The truth seeks the best for the whole world. It has a universal vision and seeks to open doors and not shut them. The Church must shun those who try to turn it into a holy club, a narrow saved society, those who urge it to avoid the heat of political and community discussion, for the truth is the truth for all people, not simply those who are so sure of their own salvation. Eyes must therefore be on Jesus and his style of leadership. He is the good Shepherd.
Finally, there is a third quality which is unmistakable and that is love.
Leadership in the style of Jesus is leadership motivated by and rooted in love.
Leadership is corrupt when love is denied pride of place.
If leaders are concerned mainly with their own selves and their own ideologies then they will fail. History is littered with examples of the fall of the loveless.
If truth and the search for it is a real challenge to the intellect, and intimacy and the search for it is a real challenge for the heart, then love and the search for it is a real challenge for the will. To love means to sacrifice for the good of someone else. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. That’s what makes him worlds different from the thieves and the robbers and the hirelings who are simply in it for what they can get out of it.
The real sign of leadership in the church and also in the nation is commitment and sacrifice. That’s all that will wash ultimately with people. ‘The Father loves me because I lay down my life, to receive it back again.’
That’s it. Love is costly. But it is incredibly powerful and persuasive. Any church of the good shepherd needs to create signs of this live in the community if it is to have credibility. They may come quite simply through the one to one caring of member for member. They may also come through concerted community action and response which demands a great deal of energy and time and very few thank yous. They may be seen as a church building is used creatively to care for the disadvantaged and wounded within its immediate community.
Here then is a threefold vision of leadership: the qualities of intimacy, truth and love may well be so difficult to achieve that they may seem out of reach. But we are much better reaching towards these gifts than accepting what is second best. Our salvation lies not in the ordinary but in the extraordinary. That’s why today is such a challenge. The Good Shepherd is leading us forward to be his risen people. He will sustain us. He knows us and he will love us as we search for his truth and seek to live it in our tired and beautiful world.