Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 29th April 2007
” . . .you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:26-27
During my days at theological college, Pat Semple, one of our tutors, used to try to teach us about adult education. I never remembered much of what Pat used to teach about education, but I do remember his stories.
One of the stories Pat told us was from when he was a young boy. He lived in Co Wexford and early one morning his mother woke him to say that the war was over. This meant nothing to him. “Did Wexford win?, he asked.
The telling of that simple little story was a defining moment for me. It made it clear that the memories of the community to which I belonged and the memories of the communities of this country were different.
I grew up on stories of the Second World War from my parents and grandparents. I still have my grandfather’s fire service helmet, a constant reminder of the memories of the community in which I grew up.
One of the things about memories in England was that they were shared, they belonged to everyone. No-one would have presumed to claim that a particular piece of memory belonged to them alone. Occasions like Remembrance Sunday were moments when everyone gathered to recall shared experiences. No-one would have sought to make political capital out of such occasions. On one occasion in the early-1980s, Michael Foot, who was leader of the opposition Labour Party, arrived for the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall wearing a duffel coat. Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said, “Michael, you are not really going to wear that coat, are you?” At no time, then or afterwards, did she attempt to make political capital out of the occasion. Remembrance Sunday was an occasion when memories were shared, it was not a moment for divisions.
When I moved to the North, I discovered for the first time that different communities had different sets of memories. Not only that, but certain groups tried to claim certain sections of history for themselves. Living in the North forced me to look again at how I read history. History wasn’t so much about what happened as it was about how communities remembered what happened and retold the story. The fact that the Pope supported William of Orange because the Pope saw William as a bulwark against the power of Louis XIV of France was never allowed to get in the way of the Twelfth of July celebrations.
Jesus knew the power of shared memories. As far as we are aware, not one of his disciples was a shepherd, but he is quite at ease in using memories of the shepherd’s life to describe his ministry in John Chapter 10. Jesus uses the picture of the shepherd to describe how he is known to those with whom he shares his story, but unknown to those who reject the story he tells.
The Pharisees would have been furious with him when they heard his words. The Pharisees would have been familiar with the picture of a shepherd from the Psalms and the Prophets; they would have been unfamiliar with real shepherds because they would have regarded them as a coarse and unclean group of people.
“You do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” Jesus tells them. They are so concerned with their own version of the story, with their retelling of the past, that they have lost sight of God; they no longer hear his voice and are no longer his sheep.
It is a dangerous way of thinking that we can easily slip into, assuming that our way is God’s way and assuming those who don’t share our views are not God’s people.
When I was ordained, my motivation was to tell people about Jesus, but I had to come to realise that my picture of Jesus was very coloured by my background. My Jesus came along with medieval churches and choral evensong; he came in the words of Blake and Shakespeare; he came with the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. He came with hassocks and candles and vestments and wafers.
Jesus was a very different figure in the memories of rural England from what he was in the memories of Ulster Protestants. I could never quite adjust to the picture of Jesus that came along with tin mission halls and Orange banners, with the harmoniums and the accordion bands, with the dark suits and the bowler hats; but what it made me realise was that we have different pictures of him. Our view of Jesus will be shaped by the memories we have, something we must realise if we are going to communicate our faith to others.
To have tried to talk about Jesus in the North by bringing the Anglo-Catholic traditions of south-west England would have been like trying to minister in Dublin with the stridency of an Orange Parade.
We have to accept that each tradition approaches Jesus in its own way; not to say that one tradition is right and another is wrong, but just that we’re different.
Where a tradition turns against Jesus is where it puts itself in the place of Jesus, where it stops listening to him and claims that it is exclusively right. Jesus is very clear about those who claim for themselves a monopoly of God, “you are not my sheep”.
We have been entrusted with the story of Jesus to pass on to succeeding generations, but let’s be careful to try to pass on the story of Jesus rather than the story of Jesus so wrapped up in our community memories that Jesus has disappeared.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, Jesus has told his followers at an earlier point. What are we prepared to sacrifice from our own community memory, from our own tradition, from our own identity, to ensure that we tell the story of the Good Shepherd?
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me”, says Jesus. Hearing Jesus’ voice, may we follow him and allow that voice to be heard by others.