Do we trust God enough to jump aboard?
Liz Stuart, 25 April 2021
Acts 4: 5–12; 1 John 3: 16–24; John 10: 11–18
There is a famous story about the tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who was about to attempt to walk across the Niagara Falls. ‘You can do this, you are the great Blondin’, shouted somebody from the crowd. Blondin then produced a wheelbarrow and placed it on the tightrope, and a slight breeze began to blow. Blondin started to be slightly cautious. ‘You can do this, you are the great Blondin’, shouted the same man from the crowd. ‘Sir’, said Blondin, ‘Yours is the voice I needed to hear today. Please, get in the wheelbarrow.’
I was reminded of this story when considering our gospel reading today, because in ancient Israel a shepherd guided their flock from behind. (We replicate this in our ecclesiastical processions, where the bishop is always at the back and so is their representative.) God has our back, but does he have our front?
Jesus describes himself in our gospel reading as the Good Shepherd; the Greek word kalos can be translated as beautiful or skilled. What makes this shepherd beautiful or skilled is his willingness to lay down his life for his sheep, in contrast to the hired hand who runs away rather than confront the wolf. Shepherds were ambiguous figures in ancient Israel, absolutely vital to the economy, but because of their need to be with their flock, unable to fulfil all their religious duties. I am sure it was that ambiguity that lay behind the description of kings as shepherds in the Hebrew scriptures. The ancient Israelites had very realistic expectations of their monarchs – they were not high, particularly on the faithfulness-to-God front. A shepherd was a good image for them.
But what then do we make of the fact that the prophets foresaw that God would shepherd his people, and what do we make of the fact that Jesus claimed the title of shepherd for himself? I think it tells us where God chooses to situate himself: not at the centre, not among the pious, not with the unambiguous; but at the edge, in the mess of human life. Further, a shepherd was always on the move, always seeking fresh pasture for their flock. Jesus as the Good Shepherd reveals a God of energy and movement who is nudging us ever onwards.
The most extraordinary part of this passage that we heard read today is the words, ‘I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’, for they reveal that we – you and I – are caught up in the divine life of mutual knowing between the Father and the Son. It is a paradox of the Christian life that we only come close to knowing God by being conscious of being known by him.
The most extraordinary part of this passage: you and I are caught up in the divine life of mutual knowing between the Father and the Son.
Think of the resurrected Christ when he appeared to Mary Magdalene. She did not recognise him until he demonstrated that he knew her by calling her by her name. The development of that consciousness of being known by God requires us to be more honest than we usually feel comfortable with being in prayer. I waste so much time in prayer not being myself, pretending that I am not known by God, pushing God away with my piety rather than getting to know him better just by accepting that I am known in the deepest, darkest muddle of my life.
Jesus goes on to talk of other sheep that do not belong to this fold but who nevertheless belong to his flock. I read a beautiful book over Lent by a chap called Tom Greggs – The Breadth of Salvation – in which he points out that salvation is not about us turning to Christ; it’s about Christ turning to us. And we have absolutely no control over who Jesus turns to. This is our salvation; he is our Good Shepherd. But we should never make the mistake of thinking that others do not have an equal claim on him because he chooses to turn to them.
No less than five times in this short passage Jesus speaks of laying down his life. We lay down our lives when, like him, we allow ourselves to be conscious of being known by God, because being conscious of being known by God is to known ourselves as his, made for his love and his service. And it is to begin a conversation that will end up in an invitation to sit in a wheelbarrow as he takes us where he wants us to go. The question is: do we really trust him enough to jump in? And if we really believe what he tells us, that we are known as Jesus is known as a child of God, at one with God, there is nothing to be afraid of. God has our front as well as our back. Amen.