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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Laying down our lives

Here is the sermon that I preached this morning at St Martin-in-the-Fields (based on John 10. 11-18):

‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ Jesus repeats the phrase ‘lay down my life’ five times during his discourse about being the Good Shepherd. Clearly, that makes it of particular significance in this context and, while it has rightly been interpreted as being part of Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for his imminent death, it is a phrase with multi-layered meanings that have significance for us in terms of laying down our lives and taking them up again. For the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep has a daytime significance, a night-time significance and an end of lifetime significance.

The Greek word translated as ‘Good’ in our translations is the word ‘kalos’, which has the double meaning of attractive and skilled. This shepherd is good because he is both good-looking and effective in his role. His role was one that required a whole life commitment. Sheep, and therefore shepherds, were central to the economy in Jesus’ day. Sheep provided food, milk, meat and wool, and were essential to the Old Testament sacrificial system. Both men and women could be shepherds and among the Biblical examples are Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David and Amos.

However, caring for sheep involved a nomadic lifestyle because of the available pasture. Although sheep could survive in the arid Mediterranean environment with minimum water and could be left to fend for themselves rather than being fenced in, they had to be regularly moved on to find new pasture. This meant that shepherding was a 24-7 job where the shepherd lived, worked and travelled with the sheep.

One implication was that shepherds could not fulfil their religious duties and thus were religious outcasts. ‘So it was a radical, even appalling, idea that shepherds were the first to hear, directly from angels, about the birth of Jesus, the saviour of the world. Everything about that went against religious propriety.’[] ‘Sheep are the most frequently mentioned animals in the bible and shepherds get about 100 mentions because, in a pastoral society like ancient Israel, both were used to describe the relationship of God with his people: ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ (Psalm 23)’.[Richard A. Burridge, John]

So, the good shepherd, this attractive and skilful shepherd, ‘puts the whole of his mind and heart at the disposal of the sheep, through lambing time and shearing time, through summer days in the high mountains and through the cold winter days when food is scarce’.[Stephen Verney, Water into Wine] To do so keeps the economy functioning and enables the role to be used as a key metaphor for God, while turning those who worked as shepherd into religious outcasts. If ever there was a case of being ‘At the heart. On the edge.’, this was it!

Like the Good Shepherd, we are encouraged by scripture to lay down our lives through our daily work (whether paid or unpaid). So, Jesus encouraged us to work while it is daylight, because night is coming on, when no one can work (John 9.4). Similarly, St Paul encouraged us to work hard and cheerfully at all we do, just as though we were working for God and not merely for our employers (Colossians 3. 23). That is the daytime significance of the phrase ‘lay down your life’.

During the day, sheep could wander within the area of that day’s pasture and the flocks of different shepherds could mingle but, at the end of the day, the shepherd would call his sheep by name and lead them to a sheepfold for the night, counting them to ensure none had been lost, and would then lie across the entrance to the fold; hence Jesus’ reference earlier in this discourse to himself as the door of the sheepfold. So, the night-time significance of the phrase ‘lay down your life’ is that the Good Shepherd lay down to sleep across the entrance to the sheepfold, thereby forming a protective gate for the sheep through the physical barrier of his or her body.

Who might we be called to protect or shelter in a similar way? One example could be that of the Irish poet John F. Deane, whose faith and poetry memoir I have recently read. He chose to leave his work in order to be the sole carer for his two young daughters following the tragically early death of his first wife, Barbara. Through this decision, in addition to caring for his daughters, he found his vocation as a poet by contributing to an Arts Council programme that funded writers in schools. He is, therefore, an illustration of Christ’s words that laying down our lives for others is paradoxically the way to find life and come alive ourselves.

A second example of someone laying down their life for others brings us to the third understanding of this phrase, which is to do with its end of lifetime significance. On 24th March this year, French police officer Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame walked into a supermarket having swapped places with a hostage to secure their release. Later, responding to the sound of shots inside, his police colleagues stormed the supermarket and the terrorist shot Beltrame through the throat. Originally from a secular background, Beltrame had found faith in his thirties. The National Chaplain of the French Police force said of him: ‘He did not hide his faith, he radiated it. We can say that his act of self-offering is consistent with what he believed. He bore witness to his faith to the very end.’ As Giles Fraser stated in a recent Thought for the Day ‘Beltrame was indeed a Christian martyr, a hero of selfless commitment to other people and a witness to the courage and love that is exemplified by the cross.’

Jesus said that the Good Shepherd would lay down his earthly life to protect the sheep if they were attacked by wolves or other predators. King David is perhaps the most famous example given of this in the scriptures. In order to convince King Saul to let him fight Goliath he said, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.’ David risked his life for the sake of the sheep and that was the basis of his rise up the political and religious hierarchy in Israel to become the shepherd King. His story suggests that the last came become first, that the least can aspire to become the greatest.

Jesus, however, reversed that journey; as God, he gave up all power and prestige to become a human being, to be with us through his incarnation, like shepherds, generally, to become a religious outcast and, ultimately, to lay down his earthly life in order to save others. In Jesus, we see that divine leadership (being a shepherd King) is not about personal aspiration and achievement but, instead, about service and sacrifice.

So, we see that laying down our lives for others, when we’re not called to make the ultimate sacrifice, involves commitment to our daily work, protection and support of others on an ongoing basis, and the turning upside down of the usual hierarchies that we find in business, politics and religion.

At St Martin’s, we have a particular opportunity to explore what that means in practice through our business. From the point that Geoffrey Brown established the Enterprise here at St Martin’s, he engaged the church with the world of work. Our Vicar Sam Wells explained in the Memorial Service for Geoffrey that his understanding of the incarnation ‘meant taking human existence seriously.’ ‘It required particularly taking seriously some things the more pious and world-wary church ignores or scorns – things like wages, work and wealth-creation. Geoffrey earned people’s respect because he didn’t see faith as an escape from life: he saw it as a deep attention to, and trust in, the details of making a living, doing good and doing well.’

We are continuing to work out what that vision means in practice through our approach to mission which integrates all we do commercially, with our congregational, cultural and compassionate activities. It is why in this year’s Annual Report we say that,through the St Martin’s Action Plan, we are seeking to become an exemplary organisation. ‘Exemplary organisations have an admirable and inspiring ethos and embody it in everything they do. They monitor their performance through good governance. They cherish their people, communicate their purpose, embrace a range of partners, and share their wisdom. They thus attract engagement, participation, commitment, support, and imitation. We seek to become widely and rightly recognised as such an exemplary organisation.’

Doing so, in the light of the incarnation and the example of Jesus as Good Shepherd, means inverting the traditional hierarchical structures of business, politics and religion in order to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard wherever they are within the organisation and providing all with the right training, resources and tools to succeed, so everyone can feel prepared and comfortable about making appropriate decisions on their own. In such organisations, ‘Me’ commands turn into ‘We’ control and the focus is on collaborative success, not on individual glory.

The Good Shepherd gave his own life so that the sheep could receive the superabundant life of God. The ordination charge for priests in the Church of England says ‘as servant and shepherd … set the Good Shepherd always before you as the pattern of your calling … to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations … the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock’. As we have seen, however, this is true for us whether we are an Archbishop or a lay person, a minister or a manager, a volunteer or an employee. As Lesslie Newbigin wrote, ‘This is the way for all humankind, and to follow this way is to learn the only true leadership’.[Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come]


Gordon Jacob - Brother James' Air.

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