Who *Are* the Lost Sheep?

Who Are the Lost Sheep?

Sunday Evening Vesper Service

Copeland Oaks, Sebring, Ohio

September 11, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

This morning at Christ Church I shared a message about welcoming sinners the way that Jesus welcomed sinners, and as a part of that discussion I read a passage from Luke 15 that most of us here are likely familiar.  In that passage, Luke 15:1-10, we hear these words:

15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins [each worth a day’s wage] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

In our story, we know that the sinners that the Pharisees are talking about are the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other people who were generally excluded from polite society.  These were the people who didn’t come to the Temple or make an appearance at the synagogue although some, if not many, of them had likely grown up in good Jewish families, had gone to Jewish school, attended synagogue services, and had their bar mitsvah (or bat mitzvah).  Some of them, of course, were not.  These might have been Samaritans, or Roman soldiers, or others who had never been a part of the church but, for the most part, in the story, the vast majority were almost certainly ethnically Jewish. 

And that’s a kind of a weird problem.  These people that Jesus calls God’s “lost children” were family.  They literally shared DNA with the people who were critical of Jesus.  They had grown up in the church, but now they were outcasts and found it almost impossible to come back to the church even if they wanted to do so because of the stigma that they bore as, quote, “sinners.”

Obviously, those of us who have gone to church for any length of time, or who have read this story with us, know that Jesus, and God, were of a different opinion.  Although Jesus told them that they needed to stop sinning, he still went out of his way to find them where they were, to be friends with them, and to make them feel welcome.  Jesus wanted to be sure that they knew, and felt, that the door to rescue, reconciliation, and redemption was wide open to them.

But if we skip ahead twenty-one centuries, we find ourselves asking the same question…

Who are the lost sheep?

When we attend a Gentile church and few of us even know someone who is ethnically Jewish, it seems obvious that the lost children that we know aren’t Jews.  But we’ve learned that while Jesus’ mission on earth was to seek and to save the lost children of Israel, the mission that he left to his disciples, and to his church, is to seek and to save all of God’s lost children, that is, all of humanity.

With that in mind, let’s look again at the people that Jesus was criticized for hanging out with, talking to, and to whom he offered grace, mercy, and friendship.  The people that Jesus invited in, were the people who the church liked to discredit and write off.  They were the people that didn’t fit in, didn’t have enough status, had the wrong status, who chose the wrong side, had the wrong kind of job, or otherwise fell through the cracks in the society of New Testament Israel.

Many of the people on that list are the same people in our communities today.  Churches full of Democrats can find it hard to minister to Republicans, and vice versa.  We look askance at people who don’t dress like we do, or who don’t smell like we do, let alone prostitutes, drug dealers, drug users, gamblers, smokers, folks covered with tattoos and piercings, single mothers, teen mothers, fussy babies, bikers, the poor, and a bunch of other people who just don’t fit into our idea of church membership.  And let’s not forget the difficulty that we sometimes have welcoming people of color, the deaf, the blind, the mentally handicapped, the disabled, or people whose first language isn’t English.

But the parable that Jesus told says that “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  And so as mixed up as we might get, or whatever it is that makes us think that we know who belongs and who doesn’t belong, at the end of the day Jesus says that everyone belongs.  And every one of those people that we might be tempted to discredit or write off are exactly the lost sheep that Jesus was talking about.  Every one of those people that frighten us a little, or anger us a little, or make us cringe when they come through the door, are exactly the people for whom we should drop everything, leave behind the ninety-nine, light a lamp and sweep the house, or whatever it is that we need to do to make them feel welcome, show them mercy and grace, so that they can hear the message of Jesus’ rescue, restoration, and reconciliation.

Jesus’ message of the lost sheep was never an easy one, and it isn’t easy now.  But our mission isn’t to make the ninety-nine sheep inside our church comfortable and well fed, our mission is to rescue the one that’s missing.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Sinners Welcome!

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Sinners Welcome!

September 11, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28                   Luke 15:1-10              1 Timothy 1:12-17

In 1781, famed preacher Jonathan Edwards presented a message to his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  He preached that same sermon again in Enfield, Connecticut later that same year and, by many historical accounts, triggered the beginning of what is now considered to be the First Great Awakening which brought countless waves of people across the new United States and England to faith in Christ.  In that message, Edwards proclaimed the horrors of hell and forwarded the idea that it is only the grace and the powerful hand of God that holds back the demons of hell and allows sinners to remain in this world so that they will have an opportunity to repent.

Present day preachers tend not to preach with that kind of style or fire, though many of us would agree with much of Edward’s message.  What’s worse, however, is that somewhere along the line, our churches established a reputation as places where you needed to get right with God before you came in, or as places where sinners, the unclean, the tattooed, bikers, persons of color, the poor, the homeless, smokers, gamblers, and any other kind of outsiders aren’t welcome.  And, in many churches, that characterization is unfortunately true. 

But that isn’t the message that we find in scripture at all.  Yes, God does have a problem with some people, but God’s list almost never seems to overlap with the people that our churches like to exclude.  In Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, we hear this:

11 At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; 12 a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”

22 “My people are fools;
    they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
    they know not how to do good.”

23 I looked at the earth,
    and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
    and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
    and they were quaking;
    all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
    every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
    all its towns lay in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

27 This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined,
    though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
    and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
    I have decided and will not turn back.”

God condemns Israel not because of everyday, ordinary sin, but because of their conscious decision to act in ways that they knew were in opposition to God’s will.  They had known God… but forgot God and had become so desensitized to wrongdoing and injustice that they only did evil and entirely forgot how to do good.  God had created Israel to be a light to the nations but whatever light that they had… was gone.

God’s intent is better demonstrated to us in the actions and the teaching of Jesus such as we find in the story contained in Luke 15:1-10.

15:1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[each worth a day’s wage] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The accusation against Jesus was that he must be a bad person because he welcomed “sinners” and shared the relationally intimate act of eating meals with them.  As I noted last week, during communion, a shared meal is an intimate act.  Only an exceedingly small number of people will be invited into our homes and in the even smaller inner circle that sits at our table and shares food with us.  Even in a group setting with larger numbers of people, there is still a decision-making process by which we choose who will be given access to that level of closeness.  The Pharisees and the teachers of the law would never do such a thing and they thought that doing so cast doubt on Jesus’ authority, credibility, and likability. 

But the parables that Jesus uses to craft his reply reveal that these are exactly the people that God wants to welcome.  When you have one hundred sheep, and lose one, you use all your time, talent, and resources to find the one that is lost, not to nurture the ninety-nine that stayed home.  And when you lose a coin that’s worth an entire day’s wages, you don’t just keep counting the nine that you have, you expend all the effort that you can to find the one that you lost.  The people who were in the Temple and who worshipped in the synagogues weren’t lost.  The lost people that God wanted back were the people that had left the church and had left God’s family in one way or another. 

And as the Apostle Paul writes to his friend Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:12-17, he writes from the perspective of a person who was once lost, but has been found, welcomed, and redeemed.  Paul says…

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Too often our churches are so laser-focused on the chaplaincy of our church, which is the mission of caring for the day to day needs of the congregation, that they completely ignore, and sometimes are downright unwelcoming, to the lost people that God wants to rescue.  How often do we hear stories or jokes about people who felt unwelcome because they visited a church and accidentally sat in the spot that Mrs. So-and-so had sat in for sixty-three years?  Or folks who were angrily stared at because they wore the wrong kind of clothes?  Or had the wrong color skin?  Or belonged to the wrong political party?  Or were shown the door because they were divorced or remarried?  Or were single parents?  Or drank too much, or smoked, or swore, or… well, you get the idea.

When God condemned Israel in the story we read from Jeremiah, his condemnation wasn’t for any of those things.  God’s condemnation was for the church people who forgot how to do good and couldn’t stop doing evil.  Instead, what Jesus is trying to teach us is that the people we need to spend our time, talent, and resources on, are those lost children that we so easily overlook or condemn because they don’t go to our church, or don’t look like us, or talk like us, or vote like us, or move in the same social circles as us.

Bear in mind that Jesus never told sinners that it was okay to keep on sinning.  But Jesus most certainly did say that sinners should always be made to feel welcome in his house so that they could hear… and feel, the message of love, rescue, and transformation that is contained in the gospel message.  Our mission isn’t to keep out the riffraff.  Our mission is to save the lost, to welcome the riffraff, the outsiders, and the outcasts so that we can be agents of rescue, restoration, and reconciliation.

But in order to accomplish our mission, in order for us to do what Jesus has called us to do, requires us to do what Jesus did.

And that… is to make sure that sinners are welcome.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Leaders: Shepherds or Thieves?

Leaders: Shepherds or Thieves?

May 10, 2020*

Mother’s Day

By Pastor John Partridge

 

John 10:1-10              Acts 2:42-47                  1 Peter 2:19-25

 

There is a common theme in the movies, in literature, and even in computer hacking that should sound familiar.  If you can impersonate one of your enemy’s leaders well enough, you can fool them into giving you all kinds of information.  And you might even be able to take control of something valuable.  Computer hackers have been known to call in to the information technology or computer department at a company headquarters pretending to be the CEO, or the president, or some other corporate official, act as if they forgot their password, and try to convince someone to either give them the password over the phone or reset their password in a way that gives the hacker access to the company computer network with the access of that corporate officer.  Likewise, we’ve all seen movies where someone masquerades as a military general, or someone else in order to steal something, to rescue someone, or to save the world or something. 

 

In short, if you pretend to be someone’s leader, and can fool them well enough, long enough, you can do a lot of damage and can steal almost anything you want.  And as familiar as that theme is to us in literature, in movies, and real life, it ought to make sense when we read almost that same story in scripture, and we do in John 10:1-10, when Jesus accuses Israel’s Pharisees of impersonating real leadership.

 

10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

 

Jesus’ accusation is that the leaders of Israel are only masquerading as leaders so that they can steal what they want, destroy what they want, and kill whomever they want, so that they can benefit themselves rather than offer leadership that genuinely cares for the people for whom they are responsible in the way that a true shepherd cares for their sheep.  Jesus explains that this is why many people do not follow the example of the Pharisees.  It is because the people, also known as the sheep, are smart enough, and sensitive enough to the calling of God, to know that these are not true shepherds.  Likewise, this explains the popularity that Jesus has, because the people recognize the care of the true shepherd in him.

 

But recognizing Jesus as our shepherd, and as the true shepherd of God, has implications for every one of us not only in what we believe, but in how we act and how we respond to the actions of others.  In 1 Peter 2:19-25, the Apostle Peter says this:

 

19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

That means that, as followers of the true shepherd, we are called to do what is right, and what is best for everyone, regardless of the cost (much like many of our Mother’s sacrificed what they wanted so that we could have the things the we needed and wanted).  There is, of course, no commendation if we are punished for doing wrong, but we our actions are commendable before God if we are punished for doing what is right.  Because we were once lost, and because we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, we are called to be like him and to do what is right regardless of what it costs.

 

Well that sounds nice, and it certainly applies to those of us who find ourselves in leadership, but what does it mean otherwise?  Most of us are not being persecuted for our faith.  What does it look like to bear the cost of doing what’s right?  How does doing what is right apply to the ordinary business of day-to-day living for ordinary people?  And Luke offers an answer to that question in Acts 2:42-47 where he says:

 

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

 

Simply put, the followers of Jesus Christ made it a habit to be together, to share meals together, to share the stories of what they had seen God do in their lives, in the lives of the apostles, and in the lives of others.  And they not only shared these things, they shared all that they had.  They used what they had to meet the needs of others, not just the needs of those who belonged, but the needs of “anyone who had need.”  I know most of our parents taught us to share, but this is different.  This takes sharing to another level.  This kind of sharing costs something.  The followers of Jesus Christ sold some of the things that they had, and they sold off property, just so that they could give it away and care for those in need.  They invited people with nothing to eat, to eat with them, in their homes because their faith was sincere. 

 

Clearly, this goes far beyond giving from our excess, or even giving a tithe, or a tenth, to the church.  This was truly sacrificial, costly, giving.  But the end result was that their hearts were glad, they praised God, the people of their communities noticed what they were doing and universally thought well of them, and God blessed what they were doing.  “The Lord added to their number… daily… those who were being saved.”

 

As we read scripture, both today and any other day, we often find that we are both sheep and shepherd.  We are sheep because we follow Jesus as our shepherd, but whenever we have leadership over others, whether that is over employees at work, over students at school, over our children at home, over volunteers at church, or anywhere else, we are called to lead like Jesus.  Because Jesus sacrificed to do what was right, we are called to lead sacrificially as he did.  We must do what is right, and good, for those under us, and those around us, even when doing what is right costs us something.  We are called to be loving, …and giving, …and caring, even when doing so costs us something. 

 

Because, in the end, Jesus says that there are only two kinds of leaders… shepherds… and thieves.

 

We are surrounded by examples.  As we open our newspapers and watch the evening news it often isn’t difficult to find people in positions of leadership that seem to use their authority to enrich themselves and get what they want regardless of who gets hurt.  But occasionally, we see people who stand out in stark contrast to that kind of leader.  Occasionally, we see people who are willing to take a stand for what’s right.  To stand up for the people that work for them or for the people they represent.  Unfortunately, that kind of selfless leadership shouldn’t be so unusual.  It’s something that every follower of Jesus Christ has been called to do.

 

We each get to choose for ourselves, every day, what kind of leader we will be.

 

Will we be shepherds? 

 

Or will we be thieves?

 

It shouldn’t be that hard, but I pray that we will all choose wisely.

 

 

 

Have a great week everybody.

 

 

 


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/zVDiugvyzu4


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Easter Sheeple

TRAVELER DIGITAL CAMERA“Easter Sheeple”

(Easter, So What? – Part 4)

May 14, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Acts 2:42-47                           John 10:1-10                            1 Peter 2:19-25

 

Sheeple.

In in the midst of our polarized and inflammatory political debate, if you are on the internet you have probably heard the derogatory and disparaging term “sheeple.”  The word “sheeple” is intended to refer to people of an opposing political viewpoint and accuse them of blindly following the leaders of their political or religious organizations without giving any thought to whether those leaders are right, wrong, just, or unjust.  The difficulty for us, as the followers of Jesus Christ, is that Jesus, as well as the writers of the Old and New Testaments, often describe the followers of God as sheep.  And so, as we conclude our examination of the meaning of Easter, I want to spend some time today struggling with how being a sheep can be such a bad thing, if that is almost the same sort of language that Jesus used to describe us.

We begin this morning with a fairly typical statement of this type from John 10:1-10 where we hear Jesus address the leaders of Israel saying:

10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus describes his followers as sheep but he also draws an important distinction by saying that he is the only good shepherd.  Others will act like shepherds, portray themselves as shepherds, describe themselves as shepherds, insist that they have been elected as shepherds, and even demand that the sheep follow them, all so that they can attempt to steal the sheep from the one true shepherd to whom they belong.  These false shepherds, Jesus said, only come as thieves and their goals amount to no more than theft, murder and destruction.  In stark contrast, Jesus, the good shepherd, came so that his sheep might have life to the fullest.

In his pastoral letter to churches in the Mediterranean, Peter touches on this same theme.  Peter teaches and encourages the followers of Jesus whose beliefs are in the minority and who they have begun to face increasing persecution. (1 Peter 2:19-25)

19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are called to live our lives according to his example.  Because Jesus was insulted, abused, and even killed, without any retaliation on his part, despite his total innocence, we are expected to do the same.  We are called to do good no matter what.  We are called to do good, even when we suffer because of it.  Regardless of our suffering, regardless of the criticism we might receive, we must not stop doing good.  Peter understands that it is possible, even easy, to stray from the flock like sheep but he is clear that being a sheep, or being sheeple, can be a good thing but only if we follow the one true, good shepherd.

But so what?

That’s the question we’ve been asking for the last four weeks.

What difference does any of this make?  What difference does Easter make in our lives two thousand years later?  What does the Easter story tell us about how we should live our lives?  And again, we return to the book of Acts where we can learn from the eyewitnesses who watched the crucifixion and who saw Jesus, and ate with him, after his resurrection.  What they did tells us everything we need to know about what we should do. (Acts 2:42-47)

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Because of what they had seen, what they had heard, and what they had experienced, the followers of Jesus dedicated their lives to four things; the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Let’s review that list for a moment.  The followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and, as simple as that sounds, we remember that what the apostles were teaching was nothing more than what Jesus had taught them and nothing less than what they have recorded and passed down to us.  What the disciples taught is what we find in the gospels, the Old and New Testaments, and what we regularly study today.  They also devoted themselves to fellowship, to simply being together, to friendship, to worshipping together, to studying and learning together.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.  This might be interpreted was sharing communion together, but what is more likely is that it means that they shared meals together.  Sharing meals is something that we do with people with whom we are both friendly and familiar, and in ancient societies this familiarity is implied even more strongly.  There are few things in the time of the New Testament that demonstrated closeness better than sharing meals together.

And finally, they devoted themselves to praying together.  Two things stand out in that one simple phrase.  First, they prayed whenever they were together, which we often do, but second, their prayers were not simply cursory, or routine, or a mere formality, they devoted themselves to prayer.  Their prayers were common, deep, frequent, fervent, and filled with dedication and devotion.

All of the believers were together, they shared what they had… together, and they even shared with people who were in need, even if they weren’t believers.  Every day they spent time… together in the temple courts worshipping, teaching, studying, and learning… together.  Over and over and over we hear this story about people who not only followed Jesus but whom together, created a place where everyone could… belong.  You didn’t need to be rich, the poor could belong.  You didn’t need to be Jewish; Greeks, Romans, foreigners and other Gentiles could all belong.  Both the educated and the uneducated could belong; both men and women could belong.  One of the substantially distinctive elements of the early church following the resurrection of Jesus was that it was a place of belonging.  The things that they did together were so well known by the people of their community that everyone who knew them, or who knew about them, had a favorable opinion of them.  Everybody liked them because they did good for everyone.

So, as we live in a culture where behaving like sheep, and being criticized as “sheeple” is clearly not a good thing, how are we to understand it when Jesus himself refers to his followers (and everyone else) as sheep?

First of all, Jesus described people as sheep because it was a handy metaphor that everyone could understand.  More often than not, throughout history, our human nature causes us to behave in ways that are much like sheep.

We’ve earned it.

We wander away from the truth.  We lose our way.  We follow politics, political parties, and political leaders, Democrat and Republican and everything in-between, when they lead us in directions that aren’t good for us, and even when they follow paths that run contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  We follow religious leaders even when what they teach is not based upon, and sometimes totally contrary to, the teaching of Jesus or anything supported by scripture.

However, there are those people who act like wolves and the results, among humans, can be just as dangerous and just as deadly, as they are in the animal kingdom.

So are we sheeple?

Is that a bad thing?

Yes, it’s bad.

And yes, sometimes we earn the criticism that is directed at us.  But here is the difference: Jesus described us as sheep because it was a handy metaphor to describe how prone we are to wander away but also to describe our need for leaders that care for us at the risk of their own lives.  At the same time, Jesus recognizes that we are a lot smarter than sheep.  We make poor choices because we simply aren’t thinking.  We get into trouble because we aren’t careful and because we are not using the intelligence that God gave us.  We are capable of making good decisions and we can return to the right path when we make mistakes.

 

There are three lessons from today:

 

First, there is only one good shepherd.  Our real leader is not an elected official, or a country, or even a pastor or bishop.  The one person, the one example that we trust, is Jesus.  Everyone else should be followed with significant skepticism and regularly compared to Jesus, and what he has taught us, to make sure that we are staying on the right paths.

 

Being a sheep is not a bad thing, as long as we follow the right shepherd.

 

Second, do good always. Even if people criticize you, or persecute you, or harass you, or cause you suffering and pain, do good anyway.  Everyone around you should know who you are because of the good things that you are doing.

 

Third, we must dedicate our lives to learning what we have been taught, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer.  We must dedicate our lives, together, to creating a place where everyone can belong regardless of where they came from, what they may, or may not, have done in the past, or anything else.

 

The church must be a place of belonging.

 

If we can do these things, then I don’t care if someone wants to call us sheeple…

 

Because when do that, then we will truly be…

 

…Easter sheeple.

 

And that’s a good thing.

 

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.