Sermon transcript, 19 July 2015

I am the Good Shepherd: go and do likewise by Fr. Dana

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34


The readings today seem to have a lot to do with sheep. And as you know, one of the primarily analogies Jesus used for Himself was the Good Shepherd – the True Shepherd. The prophets and everyone else were hirelings; that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, but they are not the Owner of the sheep. I am not the Owner of any sheep: you belong to the Lord; I’m a caretaker, and I will be answerable to the Lord for how I’ve treated His sheep.

God rescues His sheep from abusive shepherds

The Old Testament started out pretty strongly: “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!’ says the Lord.”  (Jeremiah 23:1) In the original the word for destroy means “to cause to wander away, to perish.” When sheep wander away from the flock, they’re in danger because they’re by themselves, and wolves make them easy prey. The word for scatter means “to dash to pieces” or “to disperse”. If you had a small handful of sand and drop it in a bucket of water, it starts spreading out; that’s the meaning of “scatter”. Woe to the shepherds who cause the sheep to fall away from the faith and perish, and those who cause the sheep to be scattered into separate groups. To such shepherds, the Lord says, “I will attend to you for the evil of your doings,” (Jeremiah 23:2).

But to the sheep He says, “I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and bring them back to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.” (Jeremiah 23:3) He’s not blaming the sheep for wandering off – there are sheep that, despite the best efforts of the shepherd, wander off because they have their own mind about things; that’s not who He’s talking to. When the sheep stray, the shepherd goes after them; if a sheep does this all the time, the shepherd breaks a leg so that it can’t wander so far, and it limps after them: He has a way of dealing with unruly sheep. But that’s not what he’s talking about here.

Read Jeremiah 23:4-5. This is played out over and over again since Jesus’ time and before Jesus’ time. The Old Covenant shepherds – the Pharisees and rulers – neglected the sheep, in some cases destroyed and scattered them. You’re supposed to shear sheep: when the wool gets too long, you cut off most but not all of it, and use it for clothing and other things, and then the sheep grows more wool. If you shear it too closely and don’t leave enough wool, the sheep can’t maintain body temperature: it’s unhealthy. A shepherd who takes too much from the sheep harms the sheep; and certainly a shepherd who kills the sheep and eats them for his own benefit is harming the sheep; and these will be held accountable.

But God sent His Son Jesus Christ, who at the end of this passage is called “the Lord our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6), to gather all these injured sheep and bring them back. Jesus Himself said, I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16) There is one faith, one Lord, one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5), one flock, one Shepherd. He will bring them back from all the places where they have been driven. And He did that when He came to earth: He did it physically by gathering followers, and He did it spiritually for those of that time who never met Him directly and for everyone since then who hears the Gospel and responds. And He appointed New Covenant shepherds: the Eleven Apostles and the one who as added to become Twelve again. These shepherds fed the flock, they were fruitful and increased. But as you know, over the last two thousand years some of those shepherds lost their way and started abusing and feeding off the sheep. But God didn’t stop working, and He is ever renewing His flock, renewing His shepherds. Multiple times over the past two millennia He has removed some of His shepherds and replaced them with shepherds who will feed and protect His flock, so that as this passage says, They shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor shall they be lacking.” That should not fill us with pride but with holy fear, especially those in leadership; because if we are appointed as shepherds, we have a solemn charge, we have a responsibility. If we start abusing the sheep, He will remove us; we are not immune.

Good shepherds care for the sheep

Psalm 23 describes the life of a sheep under the Good Shepherd: those who follow the Great shepherd, Jesus, will receive provision, restoration, protection, comfort, will be fed, He’ll fill our cup to overflowing, He’ll set a table for us even in the midst of our enemies – that’s good to know because the world isn’t too friendly to us right now – and, most importantly, we’ll dwell with Him forever. That’s the life of a sheep. It’s a great life. He’ll lead me beside still waters and make me lie down in green pastures. That doesn’t mean I’ll have everything I want, be rich, or that things will be easy – but it will be good.

In the New Testament reading, He talks about the flock becoming one. He’s speaking to Gentiles: read Ephesians 2:11-12. People who were not Jews, people who didn’t intentionally come and learn from the Jews, were without hope: they didn’t know anything about the true God; they didn’t know anything about Jesus Christ. But read Ephesians 2:13-15: He has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one flock. Now they are no longer foreigners; now they are sheep of the flock, just like His chosen people. This is good news; it is another expression of the good news of the Gospel.

And then in the Gospel (Mark 6:30-34) we learn how a good shepherd operates. Jesus and the disciples had been ministering in a very busy place with lots of people around; He knew they were getting tired, and He was tired. He said to his disciples, “Let’s go to a quiet place, because we need to refill. It’s good to minister, but you can’t keep pouring out when your needle is on empty. Let’s go to a quiet place.” And they did; but the sheep followed them. Jesus is not a selfish shepherd – He’s a good shepherd. They get out of the boat and there are all these needy people there; He says they are like sheep without a shepherd. Even though He’s tired, even though the specific reason they came away was to rest, He meets their needs: the sheep come first; He ministers to the sheep. This is how a good shepherd takes care of the sheep, how he responds. A good shepherd shows love and compassion to the sheep, and that precedes rest. He had mercy on the sheep because He knew they couldn’t fend for themselves. Sheep without a shepherd start to scatter, and those that get away from the main group become easy pickings for wolves. He knew, and He didn’t want that to happen, and so He ministered to the sheep.

Rescuing lost sheep in today’s culture

There are sheep out in the world today. Some of them have been part of a flock and have wandered away; some of them have never known Jesus, but they will. We are called to minister to them. I’m the shepherd of this congregation, but we are also each a shepherd in some way. Parents are shepherds of their children: we’re responsible for feeding them, taking care of them, helping them to grow, encouraging them… Every one of us has been given something: talent, resources, time… whatever it is, we have something that we can give to other people. That’s what He’s calling us to do: even if we don’t have “Shepherd” as a title after our name, we are still called to love one another, to minister to one another, to go after the sheep that are lost, and to rescue any of them that are willing to be rescued and saved.

We’re in a unique age in our culture. When I was a teenager, and certainly earlier, it was almost assumed that eight or nine out of ten people that you would meet were Christians. They understood what you were talking about, and they understood concepts like sin, compassion, redemption… They don’t anymore; and in fact, when you mention some of those terms, they’re downright hostile: it’s seen as control, manipulation. A lot of the sheep really don’t want to be rescued: they’re quite happy on their own, and no amount of debate will change their minds. You cannot argue someone into the Kingdom: you might point out some fallacies in their life philosophy, but that doesn’t make them want to receive yours.

We’ve seen a time like this before in a culture – in a big culture: the Roman Empire. In the time of the disciples, the Roman Empire wasn’t at all friendly to Christians, and in the century or two after that it got worse, to the point where some of the Emperors liked to cover them in tar and plant them in their gardens and burn them as torches to light their parties. But that Empire was changed; in fact, it fell.

The Celtic way of evangelism

We live in a culture that’s not friendly. No one’s being burned as torches – thank goodness! But we need to reach out to them, and we need to reach them; and we can learn some things. There are many places we can go to learn: we can learn from the disciples and from the Scriptures, but that doesn’t tell us much about the day-to-day life of people other than Paul and the Twelve Apostles. One place where can look is the Celtic Church. Have you seen Celtic or Irish art: crosses with lots of curlicues, and illustrated Gospel books with lots of fancy letters that are almost impossible to read? The Celtic people did that. Ireland was primarily a Celtic culture before Saint Patrick came. Ireland is one of the few places in the world where Christianity came from the outside and became the primary faith without anyone being killed – that didn’t happen in Rome or in most of Europe. There are things we can learn about how it happened in Ireland.

About twenty years or so ago I first read a book called The Celtic Way of Evangelism, and it opened my eyes. It’s not going around knocking on doors and handing out tracts; it’s not arguing people into the Kingdom. It describes how Saint Patrick and his followers brought Christianity to Ireland and totally transformed the whole culture. There are some things we can learn about that. I would like to read you a few little things out of here, to start you thinking about how this might apply to us.

Patrick had been kidnapped in a raid by men from Ireland, taken to Ireland, and was a prisoner there for several years, escaped, came back to Britain where he lived, and had a dream where one of the Irish peasants was calling to him and saying, “Come back: bring the Gospel”. This was unprecedented, because until this point in time there was a philosophy that you can’t save a barbarian people; if they weren’t civilised, you couldn’t relate to them and they couldn’t understand the Gospel. This was why there was bloodshed in other places: the first thing you had to do was go in and civilise them, get them to act the way we act; then you could share the Gospel. That didn’t happen in Ireland. The Celts were barbarians: there was child sacrifice, Druidic priests, and all kinds of strange practices. But one thing they did was that they were always looking for the truth – maybe in the wrong places, but they were always looking for the truth.

Enter Patrick. While he didn’t say this, by looking at what happened in Ireland, we can understand that the first principle is that there is no shortcut to evangelising people: the first thing you have to do is understand them. You can’t go around that fact; you can’t minister to someone you don’t understand. This was tried in other places, but the way of understanding them was to beat them into submission until they talked and thought the way did, and then you could communicate them. That’s not what happened with the Celts; they listened. The Druid priests maintained control because they had secret knowledge that only the priests knew, secret spells and secret philosophy; if you wanted anything you had to go to the priests and ask for it. That was one of the big distinctions they saw in the early Christians: in Patrick and his followers: the people easily perceived the difference in early Christianity, which was open to all, it kept no secrets from anyone, and had as its aim the happiness of the whole population – not fattening the shepherds.

Here’s a little description of how they did it: Patrick’s entourage [group] would have included a dozen or so people including priests, seminarians, and two or three women. Upon arrival at a tribal settlement Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for their conversion or at least their clearance to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement. The team would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive. They would pray for sick people and possessed people, counsel people and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish – and they did. They would engage in open-air speaking, probably employing parables, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts and maybe even drama, to engage the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations. Often Patrick would receive the people’s questions and then speak to those questions collectively.

The group would welcome prospective people into their fellowship to worship with them, pray with them, minister to them, converse with them, and break bread together – not say, “You have to do this, this and this before you can come into our fellowship.” The mission team typically spent weeks or even months as a ministering community of faith within the tribe, and the church that emerged would have been astonishingly indigenous, made up of local people who lived there. In this area, if God blessed the efforts of Patrick’s band and the people responded in faith, or if enough people gathered around, they built a church.

Patrick engaged in this group approach to apostolic ministry for twenty-eight years until he died. By this time the people that he’d planted were also growing up and planting. An ancient document called The Annals of the Four Masters estimated that in those twenty-eight years Patrick’s mission planted seven hundred churches and that Patrick ordained perhaps a thousand priests. Within just his lifetime, thirty to forty, perhaps more, of Ireland’s one hundred and fifty tribes became substantially Christian. Patrick and his followers went into the culture, made a place – camped near the tribal settlement – and modelled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity and peace to all the Irish; and the Irish responded.

The strange thing is, the leadership of the Church loved Patrick – right? They said, “Good job! Amazing! I don’t believe how you did that!” No – they called Patrick on the carpet for associating with these barbarians. It sounds like the Pharisees: “Jesus eats with sinners. If he was the Son of God, he’d know who those yucky people are, and he wouldn’t get near them.” Patrick did just what Jesus did, and look what happened.

Where is the community to which God has called us?

How does that relate to us? We’re looking for a place to meet. We have an awesome place right now; it’s incredible. There is no tribal settlement out there. If we could take the tourists off the street, take away the bus and taxi drivers, and go outside the door, there wouldn’t be anyone within a how many miles: no one lives very close. We aren’t in a community. We love tourists and we talk to them and minister to them when they come in here. This morning someone came here looking for a Roman Catholic Church, and I used the map on my phone to show him where the closest one is. Will he come back here? No – there’s no community out there to minister to, to engage with on a prolonged basis, like Patrick. I really believe that we’re called to be in a place – wherever that is – where we can be a presence in a neighbourhood, a tribal settlement, that we can walk out of our door and minister to; where we can have a sign that says who we are and what we do, and if you need something, come on in; and as we build a reputation in the neighbourhood they will, and we’ll grow. The goal is not to grow: the goal is to see sheep rescued, restored, made healthy, including our own people now, and any sheep that God brings to us: that’s what we’re called to.

And so I would ask you to pray seriously about that: How does that apply to us? How can we fulfil what we are called to do? This book is not a manual how to; it doesn’t tell you ten steps how to build a big church. It says: This is what we have seen in looking at how Patrick and others engaged the culture, the barbarian culture, and we can learn from that; we can apply knowledge from that – maybe different techniques: they didn’t have cell phones or electric drums – but we can apply what we learn from this. And so I would ask you to join with us to pray. We have a group of intercessors – an intercessor is someone who gets between two parties and communicates both directions. Intercessors want to hear from God and speak what God says to the people and speak to God what the people are saying. Even if you’re not able or willing or desirous to be an intercessor, you can still pray. Pray that God would show us where He has for us; because He has a place just for us: we don’t know what it looks like or where it is, but we know it’s just what we need at this point in our history. And if we’re faithful to follow Him, He’s faithful to lead, because this is the kind of transformation of the culture He desires: not to go out with signs and whacking people over the head, not to be Bible thumpers, “slaying” people “in the Spirit” with something physical; but to be Jesus, to be good shepherds.