These are my scissors. This is my book. This is my watch. These are my scissors. I bought these scissors to sit on my desk so that when I need to have a pair of scissors to hand, they are there and available and I don’t have to go hunting for a pair. If anybody in the family wants to borrow my scissors then they know that they are meant to replace them straight away, and not just leave them lying around where they finished using them. These are my scissors, I bought them for me to use and they belong on my desk. This is my book in the sense that I own it, but actually it’s also my book because I wrote it. I didn’t physically make the paper, print the text, or bind it, but I did author the words. This is my book, it came into being because of my creativity and intent. There are a number of copies of this book around, not that many, but a few, and if I were to go to somebody’s house and see a copy on the shelf, I could still legitimately say, “I see you’ve got my book”. This is my watch, even though I didn’t buy it nor did I make it. This is my watch because I was given it. It was a fortieth birthday present from my wife, and because of this it is more precious to me than it’s material value would suggest. I was given it, and it carries meaning and significance for me.
I haven’t bought my wife with me today. I did think about bringing a photo, but I thought might be a bit cheesy, so you’ll have to imagine her, for this bit. Liz is my wife, but not because I bought her, or made her, nor was I given her. Liz is my wife because I asked her to marry me and she chose to be my wife, as I chose to be her husband. We made promises to each other, and we chose each day to keep those promises and commitments.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me”
Jesus calls us “my sheep”
In his letter to the Christians in the church of Corinth, the apostle Paul writes this towards the end of chapter 6, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We are still in Easter season, and it is in this season that we are reminded of the price that Jesus paid for us. As we come to communion later we will eat the bread, his body, and drink the wine, his blood. We remember his death, and not just the fact of his death but the manner of it – humiliated, tortured, estranged from his Father, battered to a cross. This is the price that Jesus paid so that he could say, “my sheep”
At the beginning of John’s account of Jesus’ life on earth we read this, echoing the creation poems from Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God … all things were made through him, and without him was not made anything made that was made.” As we read on through that introduction to John’s book we discover that the Word that was there in the beginning came to live on earth as a human being, the creator becoming part of the creation. We know him as Jesus. Jesus did not come into existence when he was born to Mary. He was there before time began, was instrumental in creating time itself, and all things that ever have been, or ever will be. It was because of Jesus’ creativity and intent that we exist. Jesus created us, and so he can say, “my sheep”
A few verses after we heard him say this in this morning’s reading, we heard him say something else, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” This idea that Father God in some sense gives us to Jesus is one that occurs repeatedly through the Scripture. We are part of a mysterious interaction in the Trinity that is an expression of love and generousity between the Father and the Son, that means that we have additional meaning and significance for the Son because we have been given to him by the Father. We are even more precious to the Son because we are a gift from the Father, and so Jesus is delighted to say, “my sheep”
In a later book, in an account of a vision that he was given, in Revelation 3, John writes this of Jesus, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” We have a choice. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve faced a choice. They were God’s, they had been created by God and were in perfect relationship with God. Would they be obedient or would they rebel? Throughout the Old Testament we hear of choices facing God’s people. Would they be faithful to God, or would they go their own way. When Jesus came to earth people faced a choice. Would they believe in him, receive him, trust him, or would they doubt him, reject him, refuse him? John describes that choice in his famous image of Jesus standing at the door knocking, calling out, giving us the choice, will we hear the voice, open the door and sit and eat with him? Will we choose to be those that Jesus can say of, “my sheep.”
As Christians, we have been bought, been created, been given and have agreed to be Jesus’ sheep.
Now I don’t have very much experience with sheep. I have a little bit more with dogs, and particularly with dog owners. At the one end of the scale you have people who, sadly, see dogs as their possession. When they say “my dog”, they mean the dog that they have the right to beat, to feed or not feed, to squeeze as many puppies as they can out of. It is pure ownership of a thing, not a relationship with another creature. At the other end of the spectrum there are dog owners who seem to be more owned than owner. The dog is often pampered, spoilt, and entirely ignores the owners instructions to sit, to get down, or to come. This is all relationship, but it has got badly out of balance. Between those two extremes there are a range of healthy relationships, from working dogs on the farm to family pets who are looked after, held in affection, are well trained and heed their master’s voice.
I do not believe that Jesus says “my sheep” about us in the first sense. He does not look on us as his possession, things to be used or abused. Maybe it should go without saying, but I do think that sometimes folk have a distorted view of God that leads us to think that maybe this is how we are seen. That might be because we’ve been caught in an abusive relationship, and that has made it difficult for us to trust any relationship, never mind one with Jesus. It might be that we’ve been taught that we have to useful to God, and that has left us feeling used by God or the church. Whatever it might be, I do not think it is what the Bible shows us of the kind of shepherd that Jesus is, and it’s not my experience of Jesus. We are not things, and Jesus does not mean that we are when he calls us, “my sheep”.
On the other hand, neither is Jesus our servant to provide us with treats and nibbles and to be totally ignored when we don’t feel like doing what he says. Again, this should go without saying, and I suspect that few of us would express our relationship with God like this, but I wonder if it isn’t sometimes seen in how we actually live our lives. When things don’t go our way, when we don’t get our own way, how do we react? When we come across a commandment from Jesus that is difficult or inconvenient to obey, what do we do? Are we willing to be trained? Jesus is our Lord and master, not one to be ignored, if we are truly willing for him to say of us, “my sheep.”
And so, there in the middle is a healthy relationship between master and dog, shepherd and sheep. One in which the sheep trust the shepherd to care, to protect, to feed, and to shelter. A relationship in which the sheep pay attention to the call of the shepherd and follow where he leads. Of course, on earth, even in the healthiest shepherd / sheep relationship the sheep ends up shorn and / or in the pot. This is where the illustration breaks down, and it is Jesus who breaks it, because this is not the destiny of his sheep. Instead, this is what Jesus promises “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”