Easter 4 - Good Shepherd Sunday
“I am the good shepherd,” says the Lord, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
I chose this as a beginning because it is a mystery to me how it is that we are known by God and how we know God.
It is easier for us to understand how God knows us, because, after all, God is our creator and must know us inside out. God is the almighty God to whom all hearts are open, to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hidden – we say so at the beginning of the service every Sunday – but what difference does it make? You might see God as the one who holds the keys to the gate of heaven, who records all our thoughts and actions in his book, a book which will be opened at the end of time when we will receive our just reward. Other people object very strongly to a “peeping tom” sort of God, who pries into every aspect of our lives, probing our thoughts and spying out our actions.
Still others will think of God as the one who watched over us while we were in our mother’s womb, the one who saw how our limbs were formed and how our thought and our personality came to be – this is the God we praise in Psalm 139 – the God in whom we live and move and have our being. We might say that God is the water in which we swim like little fish.
Today the readings encourage us to see God as the God who cares about us, like the good shepherd who cares for the sheep. St John, in his letter says, “God is love, and we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” Earlier in the letter John says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” What John is telling us is that God not only knows us through and through, but loves us and wants us to be whole and happy. The measure of love is that Christ laid down his life for us. God knows what we are and what we are like, and knows what we need and what sustains us, and because of this, gives us what we need.
Psalm 23 is a prayer that says this. Because of God’s love, we lack nothing good, neither green pastures and still waters, neither food nor drink nor a place to live. God’s gifts are with us in green pastures and still waters, but also in the valley of the shadow of death and when we are confronted by our enemies.
Now this is not new to us, we have heard this many times, how God loves us and cares for us – and it is good to hear it, because we do tend to forget and we do tend to disbelieve it when we hear it, but the second part of the quotation we began with is more difficult. Jesus says, My own sheep know me. Elsewhere he says, the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.
But I’m not a sheep and neither are you, and I do not know how a sheep thinks, if indeed, they can, for it would be hard to find sillier animals than sheep. But I want to know Jesus, I want to know God in the same way God knows me.
We know that it is possible to be mistaken or misled. Peter rebukes the rulers, elders and scribes assembled in Jerusalem. “Let it be know to you,” he says, “let it be known to all people that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” The rulers are accused of not knowing God and not knowing Jesus. The rulers confess their ignorance by asking questions, and they are answered by the Holy Spirit, speaking in Peter. And these people were the religious people of the time.
How, then, can we know God? John says that “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” It is not merely an observation that gives us knowledge of God, it is what we do as well. “Little children,” says John, “let us love, not in word or in speech, but in truth and action.”
The only way to know Jesus is to be like him, the only way to know God is to be obedient to God. St Paul said to the Roman church, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It is only by acting and living and worshipping as Christians that we can become followers of Christ. You could compare it to riding a bicycle, you only become a good rider by getting on a bicycle and actually doing it. You can look at a bicycle all day, and read books about bicycles all day, but until you start pushing the pedals you will get nowhere. It’s a bit like saying, the only way to know if you can swim is to jump in the water.
And this is exactly what St John is saying in his letter today. “By this,” he says – by our actions – we will know that we are from the truth. And if we have doubts – that is, if our hearts condemn us – then God will reassure us. The more we try to do what is right, the more confidence we have and the more we are affirmed by God.
St Peter is the example we have. Dragged before the Jerusalem courts because he and john had cured a lame man, Peter stood up and plainly declared what he was doing and in whose name he was doing it. His heart did not condemn him, his conscience was clear.
And, I quote, when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, they were amazed, and recognised them as companions of Jesus.
This was their affirmation, this was how they knew they were right – the very people who had arrested them recognised them as companions of Jesus.
What is so for them is so for us. If we want to know how God knows us and how we can know God, then we must love, not in word and speech, but in deed. And we will know that we are living the truth when we are told so – God reassuring us through other people.
All that remains for us is to go forward boldly . . .