From Fish to Sheep
22 Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
Last week we went all of a sudden from Peter catching fish to being told to feed Jesus’ sheep. Peter has had a quick change of career, and I feel that the whole of the Christian faith has shifted focus with him.
What is the difference between trying to catch fish and feeding sheep? Being an under-shepherd, looking after the boss’s sheep ( which is what we are called to do, by the way) is SO different from catching fish.
The difference between these two pastimes represented a paradigm shift in the early church, and it is still one that causes problems for us today.
What is the difference between schools of fish in the ocean, and flocks of sheep, especially in the biblical days of shepherds, with no fences?
It is simple: Fish are wild, and sheep are domesticated. Fish are free to swim anywhere, and catching them is entirely against their will, while sheep will follow willingly. Fish don’t know the fisherman. Sheep knew their shepherd. Today, they still know the cruiser ute or the 4 wheel motorbike, when it means feeding time.
Fishing is an out-there frontier-style, looking outward, seeking and finding sort of venture, one that we might equate to mission in the church, or evangelism, out on the edges, out in the unknown uncomfortable places, and it is very different from the looking inward, protective, sheltering against outward influences work of the shepherd.
When Christianity went from an outlawed movement, sweeping the known world with excitement and change, to a state religion, where there were members, and church buildings were allowed, and people had to look after them, and it became okay to be Christian, and it was safe, and kind of nice to be in a big cathedral or church building, people became comfortable. The sheep settled down, liked the look of the pasture, and got to know the shepherd, and no-one felt much like wandering out to the dangerous frontiers any more. In fact, they considered the pasture theirs, and every fight in every church ever since has been about who gets to have control of the pasture. The sheep think they own it.
The fish had become sheep.
The pendulum swing has been far too far from one side to the other.
As I always say, a reaction against an abuse caused by too much emphasis on something, is never equal. It always seems to swing back following Newton’s third law. It is an equal and opposite RE-action, but then you are left with an opposite abuse because the swing has gone too far the other way.
What we need is for the pendulum to come back to the centre, to have, as is so often the case in Lutheran theology, a balance, a “both-and”, rather than an “either-or.”
People need to hear the voice of the shepherd, but they also need to be pushed out to the edges to keep fishing.
We need to be fed, as Jesus’ sheep, but as Pastor David Schmidt from Ministry and Mission has pointed out to me, why do we feed up sheep? To be slaughtered! This is where the analogy breaks down! Our shepherd was slaughtered for us, not we as his sheep!
So can we combine these two? Can we make new disciples where we are in our lives, being fishers for people, and at the same time, look after the sheep of God’s pasture?
The answer is yes. It is possible for new people to hear and get to know the voice of the shepherd through us.
Martin Luther, in his struggle with the voice of Jesus, once said that Jesus has no hands but our hands, and no feet but our feet. I will extend that quote and say that Jesus has no voice but our voice.
I went to a seminar about 20 years ago that was called “the child in our hands”.
One of the things that we were encouraged to do was to think of the first time we ever heard the voice of Jesus.
One of the main speakers related to us that he heard the voice of Jesus as a very small child, and boy it sounded like his mum, but it was Jesus.
And he told us a story.
The story was about a friend of his who lived in a small town in Iowa. When she was a little girl she remembers that she would often walk to her Grandmothers house to spend the day with her. Normally at night she would get a bit sleepy, as young children do, and Grandma would lay her down in the middle of her own bed, and tell her stories until she went to sleep.
Now it was only when this girl became a woman in her twenties that she realised that all
those stories were about the faith.
They were about how her Grandmother had lived in the Lord, and how it had sometimes been hard, and sometimes it had been wonderfully blessed.
When that young woman’s grandmother passed away, can you guess the only thing she wanted from her Grandmother’s estate? Her bed.
It was the place where she had first heard the voice of Jesus. Boy it sounded like her Grandma, but it was Jesus asking her to follow him.
He also told us that the first time he ever told this story a woman had come to him tearfully afterwards and said that she now understood for the first time why it was so important for her to have her Grandfather’s rocking chair. Boy it had sounded like Grandad, but it was Jesus. These were the first altars these women had ever had. It was where they had first met the Lord.
I’m going to be quiet for a while now and let you think. What did the voice of Jesus first sound like to you? Was it a Pastor’s voice or a teacher’s? A Mother’s or a Father’s? A friends? Think for a minute.
Even though Jesus lived and died and rose and ascended 2000 years before I was born, I have heard the voice of the shepherd in my life. I have heard it first in my parents and then every day of my life through the mouths of Christian brothers and sisters.
I have heard it in the mouths of people who are here with me in this church right now. I have heard it in the happy nonsensical voices of children who are too young to talk a language we understand. That, too is the voice of Jesus.
Through you and through other people I have heard Jesus say what the shepherd says to his sheep.
“Follow me. Follow me. Eternal life. Nothing can snatch you out of my hand.”
Can you hear the voice of the Lord in each other?
Now here is a harder question. Can your children hear the voice of Jesus in you? Can your work-mates hear it?
When your children or grandchildren grow up, will they look back on the first time they heard Jesus’ voice as being in your home, or will it only be when they reach school? They hear it in baptism, but few remember that day.
I pray that what they remember is the voice of Jesus all their lives. Jesus saying follow me when you call them for breakfast. Jesus saying follow me when you drive them to school. Jesus saying follow me when you tell them that you love them.
There was a man who was probably the greatest preacher in the history of the Christian Church. He preached thousands and thousands of sermons in the most beautiful language and with the greatest skill. His name was John and he was given the title of Chrysostom. Chrysostom means Golden mouth.
What a glorious title. The Golden mouth. What a joy and a responsibility. Right here and now, I bestow that title upon each and every one of you. When we speak the word of the shepherd it is more precious than gold. I pray that I can be the same to you, as I pray that we can be to the children among us, as they are to us. I pray that we can be the mouth of Christ to those that have not yet heard the voice of the shepherd.
“Follow me. I will give you eternal life.”