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Thought for the week - 21 April 2024

This is Good Shepherd Sunday and I would like to ask one of the philosophical questions of the ages that maybe any one of us who has walked in the hills ask as well: Do sheep have free will? We usually understand “free” as in “free will” meaning free to do anything one wants. Then yes, sheep seem to have free will: on their own, they will do whatever they want and so they easily get lost and prone to the thief and the robber. Yes, sheep, if not guided, led, called, cared for, do whatever they want and that can mean injury and death – and interestingly, even though sheep appear to move together in a flock, you only ever encounter an individual sheep in trouble, or being stolen. So do sheep have free will? Maybe so, because a flock is able to abandon an ailing member, which involves free will, or is that abandonment a flock, rather than personal. Instinct? We all like sheep have gone astray, everyone to their own way, the inspired prophet Isaiah preached centuries before Christ. Yet, the will, the heart can be set free in the sight and care of the shepherd, trusting in Him alone: to feed, to give drink, to be cared for, to be protected from enemies, from wolves to the weather. Unlike their fellow sheep, the good shepherd does not abandon his flock.

There is only way to enter the sheepfold, that is the Church: going through the Good Shepherd. He invites, guides, and lets us in, night after night, day after day, every time that in your heart, you truly ask. Sheepfolds were low stonewall enclosures which did not have wooden gates, which would rot if exposed to the elements, but the shepherd himself was the gate, the door. The shepherd night after night, laid his body on the proverbial line for his flock. He would not flee when they were attacked. A shepherd’s voice would reassure them in the storm raging in the night. The Good Shepherd does not flee the sheep, nor fleece them, like the pastors peddling false doctrines of wealth and material success who smile and talk about your best life now, that is your own life, not the Lord’s eternal life He gives freely to His sheep. Jesus promises the abundant life, His life, His flesh, and His blood, not our flesh getting everything we ever wanted. The Good Shepherd’s hand is imprinted with the mark of the nails, not a chip and pin device, and this shepherd laid down His life for the sheep, for you and for I. King David was first a shepherd as a boy and I do not think even King David would have laid down his life by being crucified for his bleating, needy sheep, continually getting lost and making misguided decisions, or saying ‘I like church, but I hedge my bets’. The Good Shepherd has died so that you do not have to hedge your bets, but also so that you should come to thank Him in church even when it’s raining. Like a sheep on a shepherd’s shoulder, you do not have to lug your sins around or pretend they do not exist or minimize their infection on the rest of the flock. They are on the good shepherd’s shoulders as He was nailed to the Cross. Jesus is quite clear; He is not any shepherd. He and His Father are one. He alone has carried the full brunt of the just Law of God and its punishment for our sake. If you want to know where you should be going, follow the Shepherd – even when you know you really don’t want to go there. He will go with you.

Jesus tells us what His Church is really like, and it’s like a sheepfold. It’s not a grand, awesome building, it doesn’t need much in the way of restoration or painting or decorating. We may reflect on the beautiful cathedrals of the world, even our own parish church here, and reflect on the oft heard words ‘but they are full of hypocrites’ or maybe we get angry about having to pay admittance to keep them going, or maybe we like to complain about the heating or any number of things to distract us from the fact that we are sometimes just snivelling little sheep who need to accept our sinfulness and ask the mercy and forgiveness of the shepherd who is looking for us – looking for us as we wander around His sheepfold complaining about the decoration! Sheep today think they smell pretty good and look good and think ‘I’m a really good thing, I’m better than the other sheep’ but it’s only the sheep who abandon the lost one when they are in trouble, never the shepherd! These are wolves in sheep’s clothing, or wolves making pretend sheepfolds to lure the flock into with money and other trinkets.

In the parable of today’s Gospel, the Lord Christ compares the church to a sheepfold. He compares the Holy Spirit to the Gate-guard, and Himself to the Door into this sheep pen, as the Shepherd of the sheep. It is precisely for these reasons that these two items are placed side by side in the Third Article of our Christian faith, where we say: I believe in the Holy Spirit, one holy Christian Church and the communion of saints.

The Good Shepherd has the wounds of the Cross and His sheep have wounds, but He has marked His sheep with His Cross, and in this Easter season, in that cross we find freedom from death, freedom from fear and our only hope. But in it we do not find money and status and personal gain. We find freedom by following our Good Shepherd, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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