Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’
If you spend any time at all on social media you can’t fail to be aware of the dangers. The dangers of living in a sort of echo-chamber, and only responding to those posts and people you agree with. Or of engaging with those you don’t agree with, only to challenge and refute with your own preconceived ideas rather than listening and trying to understand.
It’s a great temptation. But it’s not new. People have always done this. One of the ways we demonise other people and their views is to stick a label on them like the sort of label you’d stick on a bottle of poison, and then keep well away.
And you see this happening in the gospels. Especially in St John’s gospel which we read today and that we’ve heard quite a lot during this season. The teaching of Jesus came as such a threat to the established authorities that they formed themselves into a closed group to resist it. And St John reacts by labelling them as the enemies of Jesus and gives them a name: ‘the Jews.’ The editors of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible make this worse by inserting the subtitle ‘Jesus is rejected by the Jews’.
That’s nonsensical really. Because Jesus himself was a Jew. St John was a Jew. The twelve apostles and most of the early disciples were Jewish. But this particular group of Jews – call them the religious authorities – seemed to seek out confrontation and were met by a similar reaction from the other side. Not from Jesus of course, but from his defensive followers.
And from those misleading labels that we read in this gospel, came two thousand years of Christian anti-semitism. Something that has poisoned not just relations between two great religions but that has poisoned European and world politics for centuries.
Yet the message of Jesus is totally opposed to such labelling. And the teaching of St John in this gospel, when you look beyond the surface confrontation, is much deeper, more subtle and the total contradiction of the sort of racist or political polarisation that we see around us even, or especially, now.
Jesus compares himself to a shepherd. Not just any shepherd but the shepherd, the Good Shepherd. That’s an image that would make a lot of sense to those who heard him speak. They were well used to rural life and to sheep and shepherds. But they were also Jews and inherited the long tradition that went back to King David, the shepherd-king.
If you read the stories of King David you soon discover that he’s no paragon of virtue – but all the same the Jews always looked back to his reign as the epitome of when things were going right for God’s people. And that ideal of the shepherd-king remained their ideal. He was a ruler whose job it was to look out for others, to care for the needy and the helpless, and not to seek his own comfort or take sides with those who were out for selfish gain.
It’s a noble vision but it’s been distorted time and time again. Instead of a society where all were accepted as God’s people, others have tried to divide people into the deserving and the undeserving. By the time of Jesus people like the Pharisees refused to admit anyone into that Kingdom who didn’t meticulously observe the law.
Much of the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, is concerned with opening up the love of God to all people, not just those with a particular label or who toed a party line. And yet in the two thousand years since, Christians have been guilty of all the faults of the Pharisees and worse. Because we have persistently ignored the teaching of Jesus.
Consider when and where Jesus is when he makes this declaration. It’s the festival of the Dedication and he’s in the hallowed precincts of the Temple. St John never misses an opportunity for powerful symbolism, and this is it. The Temple, to the Jews, was the sign of God’s presence in the midst of his people. With the coming of Jesus the Temple, the building, will no longer be needed because the Son of God is present in human flesh.
And he’s surrounded by people who are sure that they belong to the Kingdom of the Shepherd King. Because it’s their holy temple. Their inheritance.
Yet Jesus says to them, ‘you do not belong to my flock.’ We don’t get a ticket from heaven by being born into a particular community. We don’t qualify just because we might have the right religious jargon either. “Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of heaven – but those who do the will of my heavenly Father.’ We become Christ’s sheep by our response to his love. And that’s not something you can define or legislate for. It’s not for us to judge who does and who doesn’t hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. One thing is sure – there will be at least as many of them outside the church as inside.
The fault of the enemies of Jesus is that they – we – cry out for strong leaders. For certainty. We need to know where we stand and have our slogans and labels ready to protect us and keep our enemies at bay. Except of course that they don’t. All they do is entrench bitterness and hostility, and push God away at the same time as repelling so-called enemies.
The Shepherd-king was different. He used his strength and his power to defend the weak and the poor. The Good Shepherd doesn’t rule an undifferentiated mob, hordes without a name: he rules a community of human beings, of persons whom he knows by name. ‘Do not be afraid’ says the Lord, ‘for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.’ Unlike the tyrant, who comes to dominate, to control; or the thief, who ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy’, the Good Shepherd comes to lead them out of captivity into new pastures. ‘I have come,’ he says, ‘ so that they may have life and have it to the full.’
And that should be the model for authority whether in church or state. We need leaders who will listen. Who will use their power to enable people to grow and develop fullness of life. Not condemn them to be economic units or prisoners of market forces or victims of ethnic cleansing. We need bishops and pastors who listen to what God is saying through his people; who seek to lead people into life and to the water-springs where they are content, not into a prison of legalism and rigid fundamentalism.
The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, he knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s why he isn’t a cuddly sentimentalist who pretends we don’t need guidance. He leads us and encourages us and gently stimulates us into growth. And he’s calling us all to be shepherds too, each in our own way with the people he gives us to care for. We need to pray for one another in this task. But pray too for our bishops, and for those of us who by our ordination or training share this task in a special way. We need the grace to listen, to encourage, to love and to guide.
That’s the model of authority that Christ the Good Shepherd puts before us. It’s one that the world sorely needs. Let the Good Shepherd lead us to ‘springs of living water’ and to the fullness of his resurrection kingdom.