This sermon can also be found an the following video link:
Being sheep in a Covid-19 world – A sermon for 3 May
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Five weeks of Covid-19 lockdown!
How has it been for you?
I remember, just before we went into lockdown for the initial three weeks, thinking, that’s a long time. What will we do for three weeks? And now five weeks have passed and (in South Africa) some of the doors are beginning to open.
How has it been for you?
People have spoken about the opportunity to reflect, to realign, to reorganise (or, for some of us, just to organise).
Many years ago, I was in hospital for four or five weeks with bilharzia. And I kept hearing about people who had been in similar or worse situations, and how they had used the time for deep reflection and prayer and had grown spiritually.
I felt so guilty. I didn’t want to reflect on anything other than how nauseous and miserable I felt. I didn’t feel the least bit spiritual.
How has the lockdown been for you?
For most of us, it’s about the money. Where will this month’s pay come from? Will my business survive? Will I still have a job?
Then there is the virus itself. Will we survive? Will our family survive? Will those in essential services be able to cope?
Relationships are especially difficult. Our lives are often so busy that we usually don’t spend much time together. Suddenly we are locked down, and we only have each other for company. And it’s not like when we are on holiday and all relaxed. There are all these new fears and worries that create tension or add to tensions that are already there.
The early church
In the middle of all this, we read about the early church in Acts 2.42–47.
Remember the disciples, too, had been locked down. As far as we know, they had been self-isolating in the Jerusalem upper room for the last 50 days. They had just started to emerge. There were a few jaunts here and there — to Galilee, for example, where Jesus met them for breakfast. But, in Jerusalem, we are told, they were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.
Then, at Pentecost, they emerged like butterflies out of their cocoons. And what we read in Acts 2, sounds so idyllic:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Everyone was filled with awe ….
All the believers were together ….
They gave to anyone who had need.
They met together in the temple.
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
… enjoying the favour of all the people.
And (every day) the Lord added to their number ….
How does our lockdown compare with any of that?
Close? Not very? Way off?
As our lockdown has dragged on, people have begun to show more and more frustration and anger on social media. We are used to being in control. We like to decide what to do and how to run our lives.
We like to choose what we buy, when we buy and where we buy. We want to visit friends and neighbours. We want to take a meal to a someone who is sick.
We don’t want to drive down the road and worry about how many roadblocks there will be and whether we’ll be sent back (or worse, put in jail). We don’t like being told what to do.
Jesus as shepherd
But, in John 10, Jesus portrays himself as a shepherd. In verse 11, just following the passage we read, Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd’.
Now, the idea of Jesus as shepherd is a wonderful image of love, care and hope. But the problem with the image is that if Jesus is the shepherd, we are the sheep. And, although we think of lambs in warm and fuzzy terms, there are very few images of sheep that are flattering:
- Bumbling, ignorant, trusting;
- Vulnerable, docile, dependent;
- Bred for human use and consumption.
Even in our well-loved Psalm 23, the Psalmist is utterly dependent on God, the Shepherd.
And Peter tells us in our 1 Peter 2 passage that, when Jesus took our place on the cross, he ‘did not retaliate’. ‘Instead he entrusted himself to [depended on] him who judges justly.’
The Church in Acts
But in Acts 2 (in fact, in the whole of Acts) the disciples are nothing like sheep. Have they been set free? Does that mean we grow out of being sheep?
No, it’s because they saw themselves as sheep, utterly dependent on God, that they were able to do extraordinary things.
We often hear people talking about recreating the New Testament church. We try to reinvent the church on the basis of what the early church did. But the key to the early church is not what they did, but their dependence on God, which is summed up in the opening verse of our Acts passage:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
Trying to recreate the NT church by copying their actions is the wrong approach. We are not called to do what they did, but to be as they were — utterly dependent on God.
What does that mean for us as we struggle to be the church and to live as Christians in a struggling world? I suggest we are given three invitations.
KNOW THE SHEPHERD
Our first invitation is to know the shepherd.
Knowing the shepherd is a critical step in our journey. It is almost impossible to trust someone you don’t know.
Jesus tells us in John 10 that the shepherd knows his sheep, he loves his sheep, he cares for his sheep, he calls them by name. It isn’t just a job for him, as it might be for a day labourer who is just helping out. For the shepherd, it’s a labour of love.
And so, these new disciples ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ — activities that would enable them to get to know the Shepherd and experience his love for themselves.
Friends, you and I are loved.
Sink back into that love as you would into a soft pillow. Enjoy that love as you have enjoyed this respite from the relentless rush of everyday life.
Keep coming back to this. Pray often. Read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. Talk to other Christians who have journeyed with this Shepherd and have known his love. Begin to discover that love for yourself. Grow in his love and get to know him better.
Relationships, not activities
Too often, we want to run on ahead and do things, and live a ‘proper’ Christian life. But our Christian faith is routed in a relationship rather than in activities. Being a Christian is about knowing that we are deeply loved. Knowing that Jesus poured out his love for us on the cross, and that God, in his mercy and grace, has opened the doors of the kingdom to you and to me.
That’s not the end of the journey, of course. As we experience this undeserved, extravagant love of God, we can’t help ourselves. It’s as Jesus described in the parables of the ‘Hidden treasure’ and the ‘Pearl of great price’, because we’ve discovered this treasure, we want to give everything of ourselves to the one who loves us. We want to live that Christian life.
TRUST THE SHEPHERD
And so, the second invitation is to trust the shepherd. Know the shepherd so that we can trust the shepherd.
As we experience God’s love for us, we begin to trust him more. And we trust him not only with our lives, but with our way of life as well, which may be much more difficult.
Jesus said, ‘If you want to follow me, take up your cross daily and follow me.’
Jesus wasn’t suggesting martyrdom. He didn’t say, ‘Die for me.’
He said die to yourself. Put yourself — your dreams, your plans, your desires, your rights — put it all on the cross every day and live for me.
Friends this is really difficult. As we have seen in this Covid-19 lockdown, we don’t like being dependent; we don’t like following other people’s rules.
But, when our legs, for example, aren’t able to do what they are supposed to do, we have to accept the fact that we need help, otherwise we are immobile. But when we learn to depend on our crutches, we are free to move around.
Franklin D Roosevelt served as Governor of New York for four years from 1928, and then as President of the United States for an unprecedented 12 years to the end of WW2. And all of this from his wheelchair. He had contracted a paralytic illness, at the age of 39, seven years before he became New York Governor.
He didn’t say, ‘This wheelchair is just a crutch. I don’t need this; I’m better than this. I’m going to stand up and run the country on my own two feet.’
That would have been foolish. He knew and accepted his dependence. He trusted those around him to do for him what he couldn’t do for himself, and that freed him to get on with what he could do — running the country and fighting a war.
As we get to know the Shepherd and begin to trust the Shepherd, we discover our true freedom. We are able to rise above our limitations, becoming far more than we could if we only trusted in ourselves.
And we are not alone in this. Jesus, the good shepherd, has walked this road before us, and he travels with us.
In our 1 Peter passage, Peter describes how, Jesus, who knew no sin, took on the role of sinner; in humility and in utter dependence on God, he took the insults hurled at him and allowed people to think he deserved them. Then Jesus took on the consequences of sin and died on the cross. And Peter says, ‘He entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’
This is our shepherd who leads us.
OBEY THE SHEPHERD
So, we are invited to know the shepherd.
We are invited to trust the shepherd.
And our third invitation as sheep in God’s pasture is to obey the shepherd.
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:25, ‘You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’
We don’t stop being sheep, but instead of following our own way, we follow and obey the shepherd.
When we think about obedience we usually think about lists of rules and regulations. And the nice thing about a list of rules is that they are relatively easy to follow.
Of course, some lists are longer and more complicated than others. We thought the regulations for the Covid-19 lockdown were onerous. Now we know they were child’s play compared with the regulations for getting unlocked.
For Moses and the Israelites, things were a bit easier, it seems. There were only ten Commandments. Jesus made it even simpler for us to understand. He summarised it all into three commands:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Friends, it is ALL about love, which makes it easy to remember and even to understand. But love is much more demanding and much more costly than the longest list of regulations you will ever find.
Love never asks the question, ‘Have I done enough?’
Love never says, ‘I’ve ticked all the boxes. I’ve done what you asked me to do.’
Love asks, ‘How can I express my love to God, today?’
Love asks, ‘What can I do to demonstrate God’s love to this neighbour today, to my Christian sister or brother in this situation?”
Love doesn’t ask, ‘What should I do?’ as if there were a to-do list for every situation.
Love rather asks, as Phillip Yancy suggested, ‘What would love look like in this situation?’
‘What can I do differently, that would show more of God’s love to you?’
Friends, the lockdown is over; the invitations are out:
We are invited to get to know the shepherd who loves us
We are invited to trust the shepherd we can depend on
And we are invited to obey the shepherd and join him on a journey of love.
Will you come?
Let us pray …
Link to the prayer here