In the Name...
A minister was teaching a Sunday school lesson and he told the kids that, as the pastor, he was like a shepherd and the congregation were the sheep. He then asked them: "Now, what does a shepherd do with his sheep?" A little fellow in the front row raised his hand and answered, "He fleeces them." Out of the mouths of babes.
Well, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I would like us to reflect on the words of what I will call a papal encyclical - that is, a letter written by a pope in his role as shepherd of Christ's flock. And the title of this particular encyclical is - The First Letter of St. Peter, and it was our second lesson this morning.
As I consider this letter, one of the overwhelming impressions I get is Peter's insistence that it should make a difference to be a Christian. In our easy-going day and age, a lot of people treat Christianity as a belief-system that doesn't have to affect the way they live. It seems easy to say, "Sure. I believe in Jesus", and then carry on living however good, bad, or indifferent, as one pleases. Even among self-described "born-again" Christians, surveys reveal that attitudes to others, use of money, leisure, and time, life goals, are all pretty much the same as those of people who don't claim any religion. We call that "nominalism" - accepting Christianity for its spiritual teaching about the after-life, while ignoring its practical teaching for this life.
I said this was a characteristic of our easy-going time, but, it seems that Peter discovered the same thing was happening in his own time and so, in his letter, he encouraged the new Christians of Asia Minor to not only live differently to the society around them, but, make a difference in that society. For example, using the example of the way Christ approached the cross, Peter says, "When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten."
Now, this was not the usual way people behaved in the 1st Century and it's not the usual way people behave in the 21st Century, either. This is behaviour totally at odds with what seems natural to us because we hate to look weak. We hate to look like someone took advantage of us. We hate it when unreasonable people seem to have the last say. We rebel against injustice. And why not? Nobody hates injustice more than God and we're made in His image. We're bound to feel anger, just as He does. It's how we're made.
But, anger, we're told is a bad thing, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. So is something wrong with the way God made us? Absolutely not. There's nothing wrong. But, there's a lot more to how He made us than we realize and we often don't live up to our full potential. To stay with Peter's example, having natural feelings of justifiable anger is part of who we are, but so is having the supernatural grace to turn that anger over to God.
King David provides us with many good examples of how to do this. In the Psalms, he often complains about and curses his enemies. Yes, the same man who wrote "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want", also wrote, "Let my accuser’s children be fatherless and let the creditor exact everything he has." But, no matter how angry he gets, David always steps back and turns it over to God to take care of whatever it is. He never lets his anger, no matter how justified, lead him to commit acts of violence or vengeance.
To David, his enemy would never have the last word because God will. And, as Shakespeare put it, "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", is how we live out our faith that God will prevail. This is the strongest evidence that supernatural grace is at work in our lives. And we heard today in our first lesson about how people reacted when they saw this grace at work. "Awe came upon everyone." "And day by day the Lord added to their number."
Later on, in the Book of Acts, there's a bit of throw-away line about the church in the city of Antioch, one of the places to which Peter addressed his letter. After describing the church in that city it says, like a footnote, "And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians'."
We tend to take the title for granted, today, and we don't realize what it meant back then to the people who first used it. The word "Christ" is a royal title and means "the anointed one". Kings are anointed at their coronations. For us to be called "Christian" literally means that we’re "like King Jesus." And what's really amazing is that the believers in Antioch didn’t call themselves “Christians.” They didn't say, "Look at us, we're like Christ". It was the other way round. People looked at them and drew their own conclusions.
Being a Christian, then, is something that shows. I'm sure the Antiochean believers weren't shy about talking about how Christ had impacted their lives. And so it should be with us. Our neighbours and co-workers should see the way we live, the way we make decisions, the way we respond to life’s joys and sorrows, the way we handle sickness and death, the way we handle the current lockdown, and they should think, “Now, that person is different. Why? What is it about them?”
Christianity is more than just humanitarianism and a way of seeking the common good. It's about living up to our full potential as being made in the image of God. It's about being filled with a peace and grace which is not a value of this world. Yet, so often, humanitarianism is all it has been reduced to in the popular mind. I remember an incident many years ago when a national news anchor innocently asked why Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel couldn't settle their differences in a Christian manner.
Before Jesus ascended back to heaven, he commissioned Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. But, the work of shepherding God’s flock was not restricted to him, or even to the bishops and clergy. For, unlike ordinary sheep, the sheep of God's flock are not merely followers. Each is him or herself also a shepherd to the community around them. Shepherding is a task entrusted by Jesus to the whole Church in general and to every Christian in particular.
So, we need to ask ourselves some important questions today. Am I a good sheep of the Good Shepherd? Do I hear his voice and let his standards, his expectations, rule my life? What can I do to be a good shepherd to the world? How can I be known as a Christian?
In the Name...