Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Good Shepherd

John 10.7 Jesus said, "I tell you the truth: I am the gate for the sheep."

Living in the countryside of England as I do, any text which talks of sheep, as today's gospel reading does, has an added poignancy. Where I live, there are sheep all around - except for last year when the foot-and- mouth epidemic took them all away.

When my grandmother died, I claimed for my own a picture which hung on her bedroom wall. It was a photograph, presumably posed, of a shepherd standing amongst his sheep. What makes it so delightful is that the shepherd has his head bowed in prayer and all the sheep (actually nibbling the grass) looking as if they are doing the same. It was taken around the turn of the 19th century and has all the hallmarks of the sentimentality of the era.

The point about sheep is that although they may sound a little dim they have traits honed by years of survival. They stick together and if one senses danger, all do. They are obedient (up to a point) and will go or be driven at will. And if one is lost, it is a pitiful sight and is unlikely to survive. Sheep fare best with other sheep. That is why the word �sheep� in English is both singular and plural. It should come as no surprise that the first cloned animal was a sheep!

It is thus no wonder that Jesus aligned himself as a good shepherd. I suspect he truly saw his fellow human beings as lost and vulnerable, in need of the guidance of a loving shepherd, and of the companionship of each other. In the words of John, they needed to hear his voice.

It is probably true that most of my friends and acquaintances would certainly not see themselves as lost or vulnerable but rather as successful and focused. In fact, any suggestion otherwise would be rather an insult. As for needing to hear the voice of Jesus - forget it!

And there lie the ills of much of our Western society - not so much that few wish to "hear the voice of Jesus", but that we increasingly shun the voice of any authority. Witness in Britain a breakdown of family life and of discipline in schools, a decline in spiritual guidance from the churches, and even a declining influence of democracy as a presidential style of leadership is pushed upon us.

It was Margaret Thatcher, past Prime Minister of Britain, who uttered the words, "There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families". The country has been in gentle decline ever since. Thatcher's ministerial ethic was to encourage the rights and hopes of the individual. Since then, the rights of the individual have been paramount in Britain. A "compensation culture" has been born.

For many people, two phrases dominate their thinking: "Who is to blame?" and "How much is it worth?" This greedy, self-centred and unforgiving way of life is slowly strangling the Western world. We are breeding a planet where people from all walks of life live in fear of transgressing another's individuals rights, to the extent that it is difficult to exercise compassion or commonsense.

Jesus was a strong individual who knew too well the needs of society as well as of the individual. He understood the need of fellowship and community, of shared values and ethics. Note the word "need". Humans need fellowship and community. It is part of our ancient lineage to be tribal and to have a common purpose. Religion (any religion) is part of that process. We hang together by our shared precepts, beliefs, and ethics. True, we will clash with other, different, beliefs, and there will always be disagreement and sometimes war. That is awful, but it's part of being human.

Jesus saw a different society. He cared for the individual, but in a collective sense. He healed individuals but he taught the masses. He brought people together (feeding the five thousand), he preached to the crowds (the Beatitudes), and he taught them that their neighbour was anyone in need. He instilled in his followers an awareness of each other. He taught that humility and sacrifice were greater attributes than greed and selfishness. His own life, he said, was the gateway to true life.

Certainly when we look at the reading from Acts 2 - probably as accurate a picture as we are likely to get of the early church - we see a closely knit band of disciples living an almost communist way of life. Everything is shared, each receiving according to their needs. Our world today has let the word "need" be supplanted by "want", and we collectively suffer for it.

John warns us through Jesus that there will be many who will rise up to lead people astray. How right he was. Successive generations of all nations have had leaders corrupted by the corridors of power. I suppose the trick for the Christian is to listen very carefully to the voices before them, and to question closely whether or not they are hearing the voice of Jesus. We must question whether we are listening to common sense and justice, or to ideology and revenge. Discernment seems an old fashioned word whose decline has impoverished society. Jesus discerned real needs and did his best to satisfy them. That is our prototype.

Are our leaders wanting to pander to our wants or satisfy our needs? Are we, as Jesus would wish, being shown fresh pastures? Or are we being led like sheep to the slaughter?

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