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11th May 2014 - Sunday Morning - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Easter 4 2014
Acts 2. 42-end
John 10. 1-10

What was it exactly that brought so many new converts into the church in those first few heady years?

We are told that "day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." But I can't help wondering what they were being saved for or from?

Was it some sort of crowd effect? There has been quite a bit of research published in recent years about the behaviour of crowds. Being part of a crowd is different. People sometimes act in ways that are quite different to what they might do if alone. It seems that the crowd - if big enough and under some sort of external stimulus - can begin to behave like one entity - it becomes an organism itself in some mysterious way. So was there some sort of mass hysteria that affected those who were the first Christians?

Were they in short, behaving like sheep?

There has been a deal of argument since the middle of the last century - the 1960s onwards, that images of sheep and shepherding are really inappropriate for many people today. What may have served Jesus very well in the sort of agricultural economy of 1st century Palestine, no longer works so well in people who are welded to their mobile phones and computers. (like clergy who insist on bringing iPads to church!). What do we know of sheep and shepherds?

Well, many of us, not a lot - although there will be some here this morning who still do have direct experience of sheep and lambs (Chrissie?; Liz and Dave?; maybe others?). But we have to acknowledge, that is a rarity in most congregations throughout this country.

Yet we all have experience at some time or another of being part of a crowd - whether at a football match, music festival, demonstration, or even as a commuter. And increasingly we are hearing about Crowd funding. That phenomenon where companies, charities and individuals appeal for financial backing to help get something up and running - not by going to the bank or other financial institutions, but by appealing directly for investors or donations from the public. Of course this is only made possible by advances in communications and specifically the world-wide web - which now links and unites us in ways that only a few years ago we would never have dreamed. But that demonstrates that sometimes it can be a very good thing to be part of a crowd.

It was a crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem at the start of that final Holy Week. It was a crowd that bayed for his blood on Good Friday.
It was not wanting to stand out from the crowd that led Peter to deny that he knew Jesus during his arrest and trial by the High Priest.

We might be swayed by the crowd to follow a particularly charismatic preacher and healer and see for ourselves what he has to say. But I venture to suggest that faith is something for which we cannot simply rely on the crowd. Mary was convinced of the resurrection of her Lord when she heard his voice calling her name. Many of us may be able to empathise with that sensation. For it is when we feel the gentle pull of God calling to us - as individuals, that we can truly say - I believe. It is that calling to the deep essence of who we really are - in all our individuality and peculiar idiosyncrasies that time and again brings us back to the flock. To follow the shepherd and worship him. But it is undeniable that it feels comforting to find, when we follow and worship him, that there are others alongside us. That is why we gather on Sundays to share our worship. The crowd, the whole, is greater than the sum of its parts.

So we remain a curious mixture. On the one hand we need to respond as individuals to God's voice - and yet there is also a powerful force drawing us in to the crowd - to the flock. Wanting to seek out others that are like us - that think as we think. Look at the world as we look at the world.

And it is just at that moment that Christ turns the world upside down again for us and forces us to understand that his flock is not made up of people who are all the same. Look around you this morning. Even in Pattingham the flock is distinguished by its diversity - not by its uniformity. And in other places the differences would be even more noticeable.

It's a funny kind of shepherd that seems to take all sorts into his flock! Not just sheep and goats, but the odd bear and lion too it seems! But then this week I have seen films of two events that you would never think possible.... A chocolate Labrador nursing a young orphaned fawn and a mother cat nursing and cuddling three newly hatched ducklings along with her own kittens. Both events in nature that seem to go completely against the laws of Nature.(Oh the internet is an amazing thing sometimes!)

So why should we not be both sheep in the Lord's flock, but also his children and belonging to his family? Children, like sheep are vulnerable and need to be protected and guided, comforted and corrected. But unlike sheep, children need to pose questions and to ask why. To challenge authority and not always do as they are told, if they are ever to grow up and become independent adults. So we do not always follow the crowd unthinkingly - we are to be interdependent, not always dependent on our shepherd and guide. And although we can assert with Jesus that he is the the only way to heaven - yet still the gate of which he speaks may be in many places and look rather different at different times.

So yes, you can belong to God's family - you can hear him call your name - even if at times, you stand out from the crowd.