There is an understanding in our culture that says you should never discuss religion or politics. As a vicar I surely have a free pass to talk about religion, but I am no better prepared to speak of politics than anyone else. Being entirely at odds with our cultural norms, however, I am about to combine both, and discuss both religion and politics.
Don’t fret. I am not about to overwhelm or berate with sloganeering and propaganda. I am not about to piously and righteously expand on some ideological overlap between any political theory. I am not even going to mention any party or movement, left right or whatever. Instead, my approach is that we need to be aware of how our world can be made just, kind and safe, all of which are aspects of governance and power. And I want to put this into the framework of shepherding.
To begin with lets not forget that Jesus was very much a political figure in his day: challenging the way the world was shaped, and questioning how those who held power exerted that power authentically or not. Our reading from Acts has Peter saying,
“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’"
Perhaps that doesn’t sound especially political to our 21st Century ears, but this is in response to a question from the religious leads as to what power Jesus had in late Iron Age Palestine, where regimes of power and colonialism were substantially different. Peter is clear that Jesus has power over all. Remember that Peter has spent the previous days and weeks before this exchange coming to terms first with his denial of his friend and master, then his execution and then his mysterious resurrection. It must have been a pretty fraught time for Peter. He blurts out from this angst the strident notion that Jesus is the cornerstone of all existence, a man not to be ignored. This is the man whom the powerful politicians had put to death. If that isn’t a political act in regards to the power of the world I am not sure what is.
Where does this come from? Where does Peter find the courage and rhetoric to stand against Earthly powers who seek to oppress and colonise? How does he know what to say, this humble fisherman who so often opens his mouth and puts his foot in it? I wonder if even peter knew.
From this distance, and listening to the words of Jesus in John's Gospel, it’s all about the sheep. It usually is in the gospels, whether the shepherds at Christmas or the lost ones in any number of parables to the ones Peter is told to love by Jesus after his resurrection. When I was licensed to the Athelney Benefice, back in February, I chose as my text for the service a passage from John chapter 21 where Jesus commands Peter three times to “tend” or “love” my sheep. And Peter in all his belligerent enthusiasm is slightly wounded; he thinks Jesus somehow doesn’t know how much Peter will do what he is asked.
— Of course I will, Lord, says Peter, trying not to rant.
I was told after my licensing service that around the Athelney neighbourhood I should have chosen dairy herds as a metaphor rather than sheep, and for sure I have come to notice just how bovines are more prevalent than ovines. So, with all due apologies to cows and there herders, I do have to say that sheep make a far more appropriate symbol for this parable today, and throughout the bible. I am not saying that aspects of the human condition do not resemble cattle, but the behaviour sheep helps us enormously when we are trying to unpick religion and politics.
Sheep are everywhere in the Bible. From the days of Abraham through to the days of Jesus and beyond, sheep appear in ways that are often equated with how we humans behave. So often Jesus employs the symbolism to point out how we need to remember that we behave as we do, as sheep, and to not get too carried away with thinking we know it all.
The problem is that sheep get a bit of a bad press. We consider them a bit daft and we hear the parables of sheep and internally we all think, “Hey, I ain’t no sheep! I’m not that daft...” We refer to people as sheep when we consider them easily led. We suggest they are dim and prone to wandering off and we imply that being a sheep is weak and foolish. Well, folk, I’ve got some news for you. People — including every one of us — has a propensity to live as sheep. The life we lead, whether political, cultural, financial, educational, you name it, involves each of us looking at others and following them. We love doing this. Let's call it followship. We are social creatures and we decide how to live by looking around and seeing what others around us are doing. We grow by following, learning how things go, and finding our paths across our mountain sides according to what has gone before. We might find things unsettling, but we know that we are not alone. Jesus in his gentle parable in John 10 reminds us that above all this, beyond all the Earthly fellowship and followship, is a divine shepherd who is looking out for us. A good shepherd who not only cares for but nourishes us.
Parables do not tell us exactly how things are. They are a window into the deeper things in our lives and this parable of Jesus as the good shepherd is a window into how God cares for us. There are a handful of key things worth noting.
For one, Jesus is GOOD. The GOOD Shepherd: we all seek goodness, and the goodness we seek is like that of Jesus. Goodness is shown through his CARE: the second feature. Jesus does not wander off. God does not wander off when things get difficult and dangerous, when the wolves are circling. Jesus cares for us in our distress and vulnerability. Jesus is Good and Caring and, thirdly, COURAGEOUS: standing firm, laying down his life for us when the wolves attack. He cares for each of us personally, but each of us is not all there is. The parable has Jesus speaking of other sheep. Fourthly, EVERYONE, in fact, is one of Jesus's sheep. He looks out for all his sheep, whether we know them or not. All creeds, all kinds, all people, no matter what or who: One flock, one shepherd. This is the political bit. All people, no matter who, are part of the one flock. Even (and this is difficult) the ones we might not think should be part of the flock.
Fifth and last, he CHOOSES to do all this. He has power and he lays down his power. The power of Christ comes through his being the cornerstone. Jesus is God, and has all power given to him: in Heaven and on Earth, but he chooses to step up as the good shepherd. We too choose to respond. Others might reject Christ, but we have not.
When we notice the power of Christ in our lives, we can choose to live like Jesus did, and to seek out, to be courageous for others and to care for others, no matter who, or we can walk away from the wolves and save ourselves.
Which we choose depends on how we know God and how we walk towards the dangers, knowing God cares for us as the Good Shepherd: a figure who governs our lives through care, kindness and courage.
Religion and Politics: not so tricky, was it?
Please start giving some thought to your favourites. The Sunday worship at Stoke St Gregory on 18th July will be a combined “Songs of Praise” with the Baptist church. It will be outdoors and so we will be able to sing openly and without masks… O Joy! There will be a suggestion form in church in Lyng on 13th June and subsequently in Stoke St Gregory.
We are gathering tomorrow (13th June) for our monthly united benefice Eucharist. This month it is at St Bartholomew's, Lyng. Parking is available in the "Old Pub Carpark": thank you!
It is not fully formed, and there are some odd gaps but as of this week (10th June 2021) it is going live. Please be patient as we continue to develop it and add many more features. Thanks!