Sermon for Lent IV
Sermon for Lent IV
Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent by Revd Dr Martin Henig – Vice Chairman of ASWA
6. Lamb of God. A Reflection for Easter 4
Acts 9: 36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 23; John 10: 22–30
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. [John 10:27-28]
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.Amen.
What might one have expected of the Messiah (or the Christ to use the Greek name), if one were a member of the Jewish elite in 1st century Judea? What you would have hoped for was surely a leader who would re-establish the Jewish state as it had been before the Romans came dominate the country, and perhaps restore it to what it had been in the legendary days of David and especially of his son Solomon. Jesus, the successful healer, was certainly a ‘likely lad’, someone who (they thought) would surely bolster the power of the Temple faction, and here he was walking and teaching in the temple stoa named for that famous king Solomon, but built by a more recent despot, Herod, known for his building mania and skill as a politician rather than for his singular (lack of) virtue, as ‘the Great’. Certainly Jesus’ pastoral imagery in his discourse recalls the origins of David, the shepherd king, to whom so many of the psalms including what is perhaps the most famous, psalm 23, were attributed. But his language to them is anything but reassuring in addressing these arrogant men, who it is clear have quite a false notion of divine leadership, which for them is all about self rather than others Moreover, Jesus does not hesitate to point out to them that he is one with the Father in the role of shepherd, so they are not only failing him but also failing the Father.
You might expect that I would include animals in my sermon, and you will not be disappointed. There is a widespread tendency to dismiss sheep as stupid animals; but that is simply not true, as any sheep-farmer will tell you. In their own way, sheep are highly intelligent and can discriminate both between themselves and with regard to those who care for them. The affection that hill farmers in particular have for their flocks was demonstrated to us all very recently by the grief of hill farmers in Wales and the North of England a month or so ago, when so many sheep and lambs died in the blizzards that overwhelmed them. And the tears were not simply for economic losses. These shepherds knew their sheep, they empathised with them, and their own sheep trusted them, as they would not trust a casual stranger.
Specifically the gospel, the psalm and the beautiful hymn based on it, employ a pastoral metaphor of deep resonance throughout the contemporary Mediterranean world (and especially in the language of Augustan poetry and art); it was one which was very familiar to Christians from the earliest days of the faith. Indeed in Early Christian art one of the most familiar images borrowed from Classical art is the Good Shepherd bearing a lamb on his shoulders, or as on the wonderful early 5th century mosaic on the entrance wall of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, Our Lord in golden Resurrection garments seated on rocks amongst his contented flock. In the apse mosaic in the apse of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe a couple of kilometres outside Ravenna, twelve sheep surely allude to the Apostles. All Christians, however distinguished, are simply Christ’s sheep
Moreover the image of shepherd and sheep can be stretched further for in another sense sheep and shepherd are one: the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is, himself, the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei who we will salute before receiving him in his body and blood later in the service. And in the reading from Revelation set for today he is so called:
Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb (Revelation 7:10).
It is all too easy to take rather a passive view, and perhaps psalm 23 and the various hymns based on it, such as ‘The King of love my Shepherd is’ and (my favourite) ‘The Lord my pasture shall prepare’, encourage that view, a rather saccharine view that God will simply provide under all circumstances, and we will be saved from all dangers. For this reason it is almost always the psalm of choice at funerals or on other sad occasions, a way of saying simply that ‘everything is alright’ which, in one way,it is but in another it most certainly is not. We should be prepared to take a tougher approach in our relationship with God, with Christ, not simply as passive spectators but as his committed disciples.
The Revelation passage, indeed, ends with the Lamb as shepherd guiding his sheep to springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear but these followers of Christ are martyrs who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In other words, their love for him has been absolute.
Following Christ means no less than imitatio Christi. That was what it meant to committed Christians from the beginning. Many of the early Apostles were called to witness in their blood. Following Christ has often meant suffering for Christ. When Peter apparently raised Tabitha (Dorcas) from the dead he was doing what Our Lord did in his lifetime, for example raising Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56). He, like Christ, will have a ministry and, in the end, a Passion.
Following Christ can never be a passive experience. It means taking within ourselves or trying to take within ourselves the nature of Christ, as his hands and feet. Of course as he tells us in the Gospel, ‘the Father and I are one’: he is no less than God, while we are both fallible and mortal, although he has promised to take us to himself. So we are commanded to be loving to each other, and to everyone we meet, and also to be loving to all creation (that is to all animals) , made by God of which we are stewards albeit self-appointed stewards. This incidentally seems to me to be one of the great challenges facing the church. We tend to worry about small things, ourselves, our own parochial concerns and neglect cruelty inflicted daily on countless number of animals, creatures of the same god. Moreover despite its pacific beginnings the Church has been far too often complicit in warfare and persecution, that is in violence to and between people. For me to keep silent on this would be to deny Christ, it would be to deny that insight which being a Christian means to me.
Words from Isaiah probably addressed to an ideal restored Israel but which have been applied to Christ come readily to mind:
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice [Isaiah 42:2-3].
And of course that passage is reflected in Jesus’ refusing to answer the question of whether he was Messiah then, or later before Pilate whether he was king for such questions were couched in worldly terms.
I think it is a good practice to have before one’s eyes the letters WWJD –‘What would Jesus do?’ What would Jesus do now– I emphasise NOW- in the light of the most loving, the most open course of action? All of us are inevitably aware that we may come up against limitations both in the circumstances in which we find ourselves and in our humanity for we must remember that we are only human, not gods, not even angels.. Jesus does not give us any explicit instructions except to tell his disciples and would-be followers in his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel that ‘he is the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15:5) and to ‘abide in his love, just as he has kept his Father’s commandments and abide in his love.’ (John 15:10).
Where might we begin to reflect that other life, the eternal life in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes? The greater part, the harder part, is up to each of us individually to live out that imitatio perhaps,following in the path of a well-loved saint. But sheep live in flocks, so is there anything that we as a community, as a Christian community, might do? An APCM is a very apt day to think about it. I don’t want to stress Financial Stewardship in this sermon , because important as that is for keeping the lights on, there are other sides to stewardship as already stated. We can band together for good causes, for visiting the lonely and housebound, engaging with children, enhancing the environment and understanding it. And in our worship, there is fully participating by reading lessons or by interceding, so that our prayers come from the congregation or serving at the altar, being an acolyte or a thurifer or singing in the choir. There is also encouraging friends to come and to see we have here a living, a truly vibrant community.
On Thursday I went to a Eucharist in London which marked the launch of a new and it is to be hoped vibrant movement within the Church, Anglican Catholic Future. Worshipping in the vast space of Sir Walter Tapper’s Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch those of us who were present sensed something of the excitement of the late 19th and early 20th century revival in the Church when heaven seemed within our grasp, before the experience of the First World War blasted it away. Let us begin to live again in the hope that our church communities can make a difference, without being too carried away by such events.
In Newman’s great poem, The Dream of Gerontius, so memorably set to music by Sir Edward Elgar, Gerontius has such a vision though he, like us, is not yet ready to fully receive it and exclaims:
Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain
Until the morn.
There will I sing and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne’er can cease
To throb and pine and languish, till possest
Of its sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:—
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.
In his Grace and in that hope may we, his faithful sheep, ever abide. Amen.
 J.Spier, Picturing the Bible. The earliest Christian art (New Haven and London 2007),pp. 189-194 nos 20-24; idem, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden 2007),pp.53-62 nos 317-409 even including (no.400) a glass intaglio from a villa at Barnsley Park near Cirencester. W.F.Volbach, Early Christian Art (London 1961),p. 340 and pl.147 (Mausoleum of Galla Placidia).
 Volbach,p.344, pl.173
 Though of course organisations such as the Anglican Association for the Welfare of Animals and Catholic Concern for Animals campaign on such issues as do many individual Christians, both ordained and lay. The Leading Article in this week’s Church Times (19th April 2013, p.14) succinctly tackles the issue in connected with the horrific slaughter of pangolins in south-east Asia for the Chinese meat market, as an evil contrary to ‘the carefulness with which God regards his creation, which is the definition of good’.and calls for ‘a greater carefulness for the world and its creatures’.