8 May, 4th Sunday of Easter

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The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Very Rev Colin Sinclair, Minister of Edinburgh Palmerston Place, for his thoughts on the fourth Sunday of Easter.

Weekly Worship, based on the Revised Common Lectionary, is for everyone – in any capacity – who is involved in creating and leading worship.

It provides liturgical material that can be used for worship in all settings. Our writers are asked to share their approaches to creating and delivering this material to equip leaders with a greater confidence and ability to reflect on their own worship practice and experience and encourage them to consider how this material might be adapted for their own context.

We would encourage continual reflection on the changing patterns of worship and spiritual practice that are emerging from disruption and how this might help identify pathways towards development and worship renewal.

We may not all be gathered in the same building, but at this time, when we need each other so much, we are invited to worship together, from where we are – knowing that God can hear us all and can blend even distant voices into one song of worship.

Introduction

In this season we are living in the afterglow of Easter and in anticipation of Pentecost. After the traumatic events of Holy Week, the first disciples needed both assurance and teaching. In our readings today, the familiar image of the shepherd and his sheep fits those two needs perfectly. We also live in a time of uncertainty and change and this image can minister to us too.

The image is found explicitly in the readings from Psalms, the Gospel and Revelation. Even in the story from Acts, it can be seen implicitly, where one disciple cared for others and herself received God's care and deliverance in her hour of need.

However, two more things are required. We need first an understanding of the role of shepherds and sheep from the biblical world that will connect with our town and city-centred congregations to give both insight and relevance. Secondly we need fresh angles to look at familiar and much loved passages if they are to impact our lives and not just have a soporific effect!

However, never underestimate the power of story in these readings. If they can be brought to life with interesting insights, or if you can describe what is happening in such a way that your listeners feel they are eye witnesses to the events, you are more than halfway there.

For the disciples the experience of being lost and scattered on Good Friday was all too real. The wonder that Jesus came back from the dead to call them together by name, restore and empower them, promising never to leave them or forsake them was transformative. It still is today!

Acts 9:36-43

The story begins at the funeral of Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas (Greek). She was a bighearted person who made clothes for people who could not afford them, who were on the margins. It may well be that some widows were wearing the clothes that Dorcas made for them and spoke of these clothes to Peter. Widows had a difficult time financially. There were very few employment opportunities for them. If they did not have family to help them, they were often destitute and poor. What little money they could earn was used for the staples of life, so the provision of clothing was a mercy, as food banks and second-hand clothes outlets are today.

Dorcas is described as a "disciple" i.e. a believer who lovingly follows Christ and intentionally helps others to follow Him. Dorcas had made a tremendous impact on her community by her practical generosity and service and there were many mourners at her passing. Her faith made her do something for others worse off than herself.

After her death her body had been laid in the upper room. Whether or not the friends of Dorcas had expectations that Peter could perform another miracle we are not told. However, Aeneas had just been healed in a nearby town and perhaps they just wondered.

Peter seems to re-enact what Jesus had done in the raising of Jairus' daughter (1). He sent the mourners out and then prayed, and spoke words which were close to what Jesus had said on that occasion: "Tabitha get up," he said, and she opened her eyes and sat up. Can you imagine the joy of her friends when they were allowed to come and see? Once again women were the first witnesses to a resurrection. As a result many people around the city of Joppa became believers in the Lord. One changed life had impacted others, both through her service and in a crisis. There is more than one avenue to reach the human heart. The raising of Dorcas is a deed of compassion which subverts the existing order of the world, heralding a new age in which ‘reality is not based upon rigid logic or cause-effect circumstances but upon God's promise.' (2)

[1] Mark 5:21-43

[2] W Willimon, Acts,Interpretation;John Knox Press,1988, p86

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of, if not the best known and best loved texts in all of Scripture. It has brought comfort and strength to those on the battlefield, in the hospital, at a graveside, and to people going through almost any other kind of trial imaginable. It is also sung at weddings and times of celebration. It is a psalm for all seasons.

Its opening words highlight the dis-ease that lies at the heart of the human problem. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want". The problem is we do "want" and discontent seems to be built into our DNA and fed by the commercialisation of our society. In a cemetery there's a gravestone with this inscription: "She died for want of things." Alongside that stone is another, which reads, "He died trying to give them to her." Perhaps what we want is not what we really need and this psalm spells out the things that really matter.

Above all we need a relationship for all seasons of our lives with the God who made us, and one as close as a shepherd has with their sheep (v1). We do not want to be alone or abandoned, though we can often feel we are.

We can experience God's love vv2-3a: The shepherd is always one step ahead of the sheep, knowing what will be for their good, which includes their nourishment and rest. How often, in striving to get on, do we neglect our health or wellbeing and wonder why stress is ever-present? What we need is not just stuff or things, but a restored soul, right with God, with others, with itself and with the world.

We can put our faith in God vv3b-4: We need someone to stand by us in the dark moments of life – of disappointment, despair, danger and death. It is easy to get lost or overwhelmed when in the gloomy glen. To have the shepherd alongside you as your companion, striding out confidently as your guide gives you confidence for whatever lies ahead. The assurance of the shepherd's protection is as important as was the shepherd's earlier provision.

We can have reasons to hope v5-6: Paul says we cannot imagine the things "God has prepared for those who love Him" (1). Here the image is of having navigated safely through all life's perils, of coming home and plentiful food and care being provided for us. Here all longings are fulfilled.

No wonder we are called to focus on the Shepherd who, in the New Testament, is described as the Good Shepherd, and whose name is Jesus.(2)

[1] 1 Corinthians 2:9

[2] John 10:11,14

Revelation 7:9-17

For a moment the veil is drawn aside and John is given a picture of the multinational community that is the people of God: a cosmopolitan, cross-cultural, diverse gathering. They are all are united in drawing together to give their praise to Jesus. Perhaps it is echoing the joyfulness of the Feast of Tabernacles. Or maybe it is a Palm Sunday enactment. However, the people are not crying "Hosanna!" which means "Save us now!" but affirming the salvation that Jesus has secured for them and for us.

The angels, elders and living creatures also join in, falling on their faces and worshipping God. For the life of heaven is a continuous joyful oration, and earthly choirs and orchestras are rehearsing for the eschatological concert.

To help understand what is going on, a question is asked and an answer given. John is told that those robed in white have come through great trials, but have been cleansed, healed and delivered. They have endured so much but here they are, still on their feet before God. Such a journey has not been without its pitfalls. They too would have a catalogue of fears and failures to confess. They have taken wrong turnings and stumbled on the way, but God has never failed them.

God has cleansed them from their failures, healed them from their hurts, and re-commissioned them for God's service. The days of struggle lie behind them, and the journey's end has justified the hardships. They have found forgiveness through the death of Christ and were given the courage to endure to the end.

Now, in picture language, their future is spelled out. God's people will come through in the end, however battered they may be. The Church is called to fight and struggle with spiritual weapons while on earth, as what is sometimes called the Church Militant. And the Church Militant will become the Church Triumphant.

These people are immensely valuable to God. They will suffer no more; the lovely image of tears being wiped away in verse 17 (see Isaiah 25:8) confirming God's compassion and love for all people.

The Church will be triumphant. We all need something to look forward to, and someone in whom to put our trust. The vision given to John energises and inspires. It refreshes our hope.

When you see the finishing line, new energy comes into tired bodies. There is an end and it is assured. Keep on keeping on. Remember, in the end the Lamb wins and is also our Shepherd!

John 10:22-30

John tells us it was winter, at the time of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (also called the Feast of Dedication) when the successful uprising against Antiochus Epiphanes by Judas Maccabeus is remembered. This took place in the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. In 164BC, they finally prevailed and rededicated the temple to the Lord. Hanukkah was a celebration of this victory and a reminder of God's providence.

On this occasion Jesus was surrounded by a crowd in the temple who demanded that Jesus tell them plainly whether He was the Messiah or not. The leaders are trying to get Jesus to stumble and create a riot. They ask Jesus specifically if He is the Messiah. If Jesus says yes, they will draw the wrong conclusions because their idea of the Messiah was wrong. But, if Jesus says "No", He lies. Rather than either of those options, Jesus returns to a familiar metaphor … that of the Shepherd and their Sheep.

Jesus' response was that He had already told them, but they didn't believe Him. Jesus' actions had confirmed His claims but will only make sense to His sheep, who can recognise His voice, and respond in the obedience of faith by following Jesus.

Some people are not (and will never be) followers of Jesus. Those people will never believe, no matter how much evidence is put before them. The issue is not a lack of evidence; it is a hard heart that is unwilling to believe.

But there is another side to Jesus' statement that is wonderfully encouraging. He says that to those who are His sheep, who listen to His voice and follow Him, Jesus promises eternal life. Jesus says no one can snatch them from His hand and then doubles down on it and says that no one can snatch them from the Father's hand either, because the Father is more powerful than anyone.

What a wonderful promise this is! Jesus is promising us that if we are genuinely His sheep, then nothing can change that fact. If we are His followers, we will inherit eternal life. To put it another way, God is holding on to us, and won't let go! This is a tremendous promise that should encourage us when we fail. We cannot mess up so badly that we lose our salvation, because we're not holding on to God – God is holding on to us. If we are God's followers then this is a wonderful promise of assurance.

Jesus then ends this explanation with a bold declaration: "The Father and I are one." Jesus is making a clear claim of divinity with these words and hinting at the doctrine we call the Trinity.

Sermon ideas

Each of these passages lends themselves to stand-alone sermons. However, the image of sheep and shepherd is common to at least three of them, so here is some background you may wish to include.

Sheep have no sense of direction and easily get lost. They have no effective means of defence. They are easily frightened, and this can paralyse the sheep or make them run. They are dirty. They have a poor sense of smell so cannot easily find food or water. We too are helpless without our Shepherd.

Phillip Keller wrote (1) that sheep do not lie down easily. "It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behaviour within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger." The Shepherd brings His sheep to green meadows and a peaceful stream and has to "make the sheep lie down".

Sometimes sheep lie down in a little hollow or depression and may roll on their side slightly to stretch out. However, when they do this, the sheep's centre of gravity shifts so that it rolls more on its back and its feet are in the air. This causes the sheep to panic and kick, which only makes the problem worse. It is quite impossible to get back to a standing position. Gases can build in the body cutting off circulation to the legs. In only a matter of a few hours the sheep can die. The sheep need the help of the Shepherd to restore their soul and equilibrium.

Sheep are not very smart. They can easily wander away to where fields are barren and the water unfit to drink. The Shepherd leads along right paths.

Sheep have to travel from high pasture to the low valleys as they seek for rich pasture and water. At times they face danger. Wild animals lurk in canyon walls; storms sweep along valley floors causing flash floods. And deep shadows are scary and often hide danger.

The shepherd's rod and staff brought comfort to the sheep. The rod was an oak club about two feet long. The head was usually round and was often whittled from the knot of a tree.

The shepherd pounded sharp bits of metal into this tip. He would use this club as a weapon that could fight off any beast. In fact, most shepherds could hurl the club like a missile, with great accuracy, to pick off a predator from a distance. The staff was a pole that had a rounded hook on the end. It could be used to dislodge a sheep from a thicket or could help to retrieve a sheep that had fallen into a hole. It could also pull a sheep back from danger.

(1) A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W Philip Keller

Prayers

The challenge of Weekly Worship is that we have to prepare so far in advance we cannot respond to immediate needs and issues. However these prayers are meant to be adapted by the person leading in prayer. There can be room for specific items of praise, confession or prayer. There can also be built-in times of silence to allow others to make their own prayers and unburden what is on their hearts. My prayers were shaped by the readings for the week and the overarching theme of the shepherd and their sheep.

The language needs to be both general enough to allow to a variety of thoughts to find lodging, and specific enough to give focus and point to issues we face in our contemporary world. The language has to be dignified but not dated. Sometimes a turn of phrase can be arresting and lodge in the heart and mind of those praying.

You can of course have a musical interlude between petitions. Last Sunday we sang:

"With God all things are possible; all things are possible with God". Two voices alternating the petitions can hold the attention better than one. Or, if it is your tradition, a response after each section can also work. We invite members to lead in prayer from time to time and each brings their unique insights concerns and vocabulary, which can be very refreshing and insightful.

Approach to God/Call to worship

Lord Jesus Christ,
we come together because You call us.
Sometimes in the noisy bustle of life
Your call sounds faintly,
but somehow we have heard
and we are here.

We come in our weakness and uncertainty,
with our doubts
and our sense of unworthiness,
yet knowing Your voice
and trusting that our hope will not be disappointed.

Draw us closer to You.
Meet with us in our worship,
and lead us through the coming week.
Amen

Adoration

Living God,
we worship You.
We bless You for Your love
which will not fail us.

As a shepherd gathers their flock
so, Good Shepherd, You gather us here today
to feed and refresh us.

Some of us come rejoicing
because our path has led through green pastures;
some come battered and bruised by life
because our path has led through dark and frightening valleys.
We need to know Your strength restoring our souls;
some of us, like foolish sheep, come before You ashamed
because we have wandered astray instead of following You
and now we come seeking Your forgiveness.

Thank You that in Your grace
and through the Lord Jesus
You seek us out,
You find us,
You help us,
and give us now joy and hope.

We hear Your call
to care for others as You care for us,
to love as You love,
to give and go on giving,
to heal, to feed,
to nurture and reconcile.

Help us to show our thankfulness
not only in our praise and prayers,
but by following You
in the way of self-sacrificing love,
bringing others to give thanks and love You too.

Meet with us by Your Spirit.
Make us one.
Lead us in Your ways
for Your glory.
Amen

Confession

Father
Forgive us when we stray
and bring us back;
forgive us for all Your wandering sheep
that are not found;
forgive us for those who are driven from the fold
and scattered
because of something we said or did or failed to do;
for those who have been left hurt,
bewildered and afraid.

Forgive us when the hungry sheep look up
and are not fed;
forgive us when the sheep are tired
and we do not give them rest;
forgive us when they stray into danger
and we do not seek them out;
forgive us when we do not care
for others in the fold.

Forgive us and change us.
Oh let us be changed,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Amen

Intercession

We praise You for the living Christ
the Shepherd who knows His sheep;
not only those who are safe in His fold
but all who are far away
and have not heard His voice.

Today we pray for all who suffer and are not cared for –
the old who die alone,
the young who are neglected or cruelly treated,
young and old whose weaknesses are exploited,
and sensitivities abused,
all who are led astray,
all who are exploited,
for the vulnerable who are taken advantage of
and have no-one to stand by their side.

We pray for all who have grown hopeless
in their hunger and homelessness –
refugees from war and violence
trapped at borders or in makeshift camps,
those whose lives have been wrecked by conflicts
they do not understand
and cannot affect or change,
victims of military aggression
ethnic cleansing
or political ideology.

In a world of so much suffering
we pray too for the affluent,
comfortable and cared for,
who do not care;
for those who know what they should do
but do not bother;
for those who close their eyes and minds
and those who do not want to get involved.
And we pray for those who do care;
for those who accept the pain, cost and disturbance
that knowledge brings;
for those who want to help
but cannot see how.
Show them a way.

We pray for those who go
Where there is trouble, pain and poverty,
risking life and limb,
facing danger and fear.

Father, as we pray,
increase the depth of love in us
that we might give ourselves to others,
as You give Yourself to us.

Give us such joy
that the sheep may be found;
given health, strength, food
and hope for the future
and shown the way home.

Give us grace to follow You
wherever You lead
for Jesus' sake,
Amen

Musical suggestions

Our online music resource is on the Church of Scotland website; you can listen to samples of every song in the Church Hymnary 4th edition (CH4) and download a selection of recordings for use in worship. You will also find playlists for this week and liturgical seasons and themes on the Weekly Worship and Inspire Me tabs.

You can find further musical suggestions for this week in a range of styles on the Songs for Sunday blog from Trinity College Glasgow.

Songs for all ages

  • CH4 351 – "Jesus' hands were kind hands" – related to the Acts 9 reading
  • CH4 749 – "Soon and very soon" – related to the Revelation 7 reading
  • "Our God is a great big God" – readily available online
  • CMP 1 – "A new commandment" – related to the Acts 9 reading
  • MP 862 – "I'll go in the strength of the Lord" – related to the Revelation 7 reading

Psalm 23 or John 10

  • CH4 14-17 – "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want" – there is a whole variety of good tunes and sometimes it is good to choose a less familiar one
  • CH4 124 – "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"
  • CH4 181 – "For the beauty of the earth"
  • CH4 211 – "Today I awake and God is before me"
  • CH4 255 – "Father, hear the prayer we offer"
  • CH4 462 – "The King of love my shepherd is" – a paraphrase of Psalm 23
  • CMP 1008 – "The Lord's my Shepherd" – Stewart Townend (contemporary version)
  • CH3 90 – "Lead us heavenly Father , lead us"

Acts 9

  • CH4 251 – "I, the Lord of sea and sky"
  • CH4 259 – "Beauty for brokenness"

Revelation 7 – hymns about the Christian hope

  • CH4 738 – "Glorious things of thee are spoken"
  • CH4 739 – "The Church's one foundation"
  • CH4 740 – "For all the saints"
  • CH4 745 – "How bright these glorious spirits shine!" – a paraphrase of the Revelation 7 reading

Reflecting on our worship practice

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the way we worship has changed and we need to reflect on the changing or newly established patterns that emerged and continue to emerge as a result of the disruption.

We can facilitate worship for all by exploring imaginative approaches to inclusion, participation and our use of technologies in ways that suit our contexts. This is not an exhaustive list, but some things we could consider are:

  • Framing various parts of the worship service in accessible language to help worshippers understand the character and purpose of each part. This is essential for creating worship for all (intergenerational worship) that reflects your community of faith.
  • Holding spaces for reflection and encouraging prayer to be articulated in verbal and non-verbal ways, individually and in online breakout rooms
  • In online formats the effective use of the chat function and microphone settings encourages active participation in prayer, e.g. saying the Lord's Prayer together unmuted, in a moment of ‘holy chaos'
  • While singing in our congregations is still restricted, we can worship corporately by using antiphonal psalm readings, creeds and participative prayers
  • Using music and the arts as part of the worship encourages the use of imagination in place of sung or spoken words
  • Use of silence, sensory and kinaesthetic practices allow for experience and expression beyond regular audio and visual mediums.

The following questions might help you develop a habit of reflecting on how we create and deliver content and its effectiveness and impact, and then applying what we learn to develop our practice.

  • How inclusive was the worship?
    Could the worship delivery and content be described as worship for all/ intergenerational? Was it sensitive to different "Spiritual Styles"?
  • How was the balance between passive and active participation?
  • How were people empowered to connect with or encounter God?
    What helped this? What hindered this?
  • How cohesive was the worship?
    Did it function well as a whole?
    How effective was each of the individual elements in fulfilling its purpose?
  • How balanced was the worship?
    What themes/topics/doctrines/areas of Christian life were included?
  • How did the worship connect with your context/contemporary issues?
    Was it relevant in the everyday lives of those attending and in the wider parish/ community?
    How well did the worship connect with local and national issues?
    How well did the worship connect with world events/issues?
  • What have I learned that can help me next time I plan and deliver worship?

Up-to-date information for churches around COVID-19 can be found in our COVID-19 (Coronavirus) advice for churches section.

You can listen to samples of every song in the Church Hymnary 4th edition (CH4) and download a selection of recordings for use in worship in our online hymnary.

You can find an introduction to spiritual styles in our worship resources section

You are free to download, project, print and circulate multiple copies of any of this material for use in worship services, bible studies, parish magazines, etc., but reproduction for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Please note that the views expressed in these materials are those of the individual writer and not necessarily the official view of the Church of Scotland, which can be laid down only by the General Assembly.