Living with the smell of sheep – a sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

Acts 9.36-43 ; John 10.22-30

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”

What an extraordinary thing to say! What a striking image Jesus gives us for his closeness to God’s people.

And alongside it we get this equally extraordinary story of Tabitha/Dorcas being brought back to life through the faith and prayer of Peter.

I want to add one more extraordinary thing to the mix. It’s a quote from Pope Francis. Just over a year ago, speaking of the role of priests, ministers, leaders of the church, he said: “You must be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

So there we are: 3 extraordinary things, 2 references to sheep, but what does it all mean? And what has it got to do with us?

I wonder what it means to be a shepherd “living with the smell of the sheep”? I follow a couple of shepherds on twitter – mainly for the cute photos of lambs they post around this time of year – and that gives me some insight into the life of a shepherd… but it’s nothing like “living with the smell of the sheep”. To know what something smells like, you have to get really close to it.

Which is what Pope Francis was getting at when he preached that sermon – to lead well in the church, you have to get up close and personal with those you want to lead. Priesthood – in fact any role in the church – is, or should be, very much a hands-on thing.

And that is the sort of shepherd Jesus is. “I know my sheep” Jesus tells us, and that’s just what a Good Shepherd does – knows every one of his or her sheep, knows them intimately, gets close to them, close enough to live with the smell them.

That’s how Jesus knows us – more closely, more intimately than we can imagine. And it’s how he invites us to know him. We – each one of us – are invited to know and be known by the one who spoke the universe into being, who overcame death, who knows and cares for each sparrow and for the whole cosmos all at the same time.

We are invited into relationship with the one who is love, and that invitation is unconditional. That is the Good News.

That love, that relationship, that deep and personal knowing, that closeness is not on any level theoretical. It is a profound truth which touches every element and every moment of our lives – if we’ll let it.

Think how close you have to be to someone to know their smell. That is how close Jesus comes to us, and how close we can come to God, through Christ.

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”

Jesus speaks to us, Jesus knows us, Jesus calls us each by name to follow him. It is up to each of us to hear, to listen, to follow. That is our calling. Today is Vocations Sunday, when we celebrate all the many and varied things God calls us to, but this is as the root and heart of all vocations: we follow Jesus. Everything else comes from that.

And when we do choose to follow Jesus, extraordinary things happen. Peter, who featured in our first reading today, was an ordinary sort of person. But he followed Jesus, and when he did, extraordinary things happened. We see just one of them in today’s story – there were many more.

When we choose to follow Jesus, when we recognise ourselves as sheep of the Good Shepherd, so well known and loved by him, then extraordinary things happen to us too, just as they did to Peter. Prayer answered in ways we could never have imagined. Hope restored. Relationships mended. Love and grace found in the most unexpected places.

All this Jesus longs to give us. He is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture. Let us follow him.

Amen.

 

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