Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The Good Shepherd
April 29, 2012, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 29th April 2012

“I am the good shepherd,” says the Lord. Five words (six in the Greek, four in the Latin), each one of which is full of meaning. St Anthony of Padua rightly points out that this is one of the great “I am” sayings in St John’s Gospel, along with “I am the Light of the World”, “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and so on. The pronoun “I” is emphatic: our Lord points at himself, as it were, revealing something that is true of himself, and no other. It echoes the word of the Lord to Moses, at the burning bush. The Lord identified himself, saying “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.” When Moses asked further, “What name shall I say,” God replied simply, “I am who I am.”

In the Book of Revelation, John heard our Lord proclaim, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who is and who was and who is to come.” You might say that God is the great Fact, the great Reality, which underlies all the other facts and realities that we experience. There are no ifs and buts, no perhaps or maybe, about God. He just is.

It is this great cosmic Fact that has come among us in Christ. In his life and teaching, Jesus sought to show us what that Fact means. Today he says, “I am the good shepherd.” St Anthony goes on to explain, “A shepherd or ‘pastor’ is one who feeds; and Christ feeds us daily with his body and blood, in the sacrament of the altar.” There is a real linguistic link between the word “pastor”, and the Italian word “pasta”- they come from the same root. The Lord is my shepherd: he shall feed me in a green pasture (another word from the same root).

The image of the shepherd is frequent in the Old Testament, our Lord’s own Scriptures. The righteous Abel, the first to die from human malice, was a shepherd. Both Abraham and Moses tended flocks, and David was a shepherd-boy before God called him to be king. The psalms are full of this image: “But as for his own people, he led them forth like a sheep: and carried them in the wilderness like a flock” (Ps 78); “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps 95); “Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep” (Ps 80). Ancient Israel was familiar with this, not least because the worship of the Temple culminated in the offering of sheep in sacrifice, and therefore the care of sheep was inextricably interwoven with religion. Jesus is not just a shepherd, he is the good shepherd, the ideal, the perfect shepherd of his people.

Jesus is, of course, both good shepherd and Lamb of God. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is one of what G.K.Chesterton called the paradoxes of Christianity. In the old dispensation, sheep were offered to God in sacrifice, sometimes in thanksgiving, sometimes in atonement for sin. The shepherd cared for the sheep, certainly, but the sheep were destined to die. Jesus the good shepherd turns this upside down: he, the shepherd, dies in order that the sheep may live!

Our Lord contrasts himself with the hireling shepherd, who has no personal concern for the sheep. In the old Israel and in the new, God committed the care of his people to human pastors, whom he called to be his representatives. Sadly, in both the old Israel and in the new, many who have been called to this work have proved unworthy of it, many have exploited their position of trust to serve their own ends. Not only have they failed to protect the flock from thieves and wolves, they have been thieves and wolves themselves.

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus, “because I know my sheep and they know me.” Our Lord knew that he was known by God, in the very depths of his being; and that gave him his own insight into God his Father. In the same way, he tells us, he knows us and we know him. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is, or should be, deeply personal. He is not far away, in space or in time, he is with us at every moment, he sees our hearts, he sees our hopes and fears and even the things we are ashamed of. If we grasp this, it will give us some insight into him. “The Lord is my shepherd,” sang the Psalmist. Not just a shepherd, any old shepherd: my shepherd. He is our Lord, not just the Lord. Many years ago, when George Carey was Principal of Trinity College, he brought some students along to my parish, one of them to preach and the rest to listen and learn. At the “debriefing” in the vicarage afterwards, I had occasion to ask him why he thought Catholics tend to speak of “our” Lord, while Evangelicals tend to speak of “the Lord”. George said he had an idea about it, but he wasn’t going to tell me what it was. I could tell he was destined for higher things.

I have thought about the matter since, and my theory (for what it is worth) is that Jesus is, objectively speaking, THE Lord, whether anyone recognises it or not. The Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour, and all that. But when we call him “our” Lord, we are recognising ourselves in relation to him. We are accepting him, expressing the fact that “we are his people and the sheep of his hand.” It is personal.

Jesus is the only shepherd in his own right. Bishops and priests are, like it or not, only hirelings, people he employs on his behalf. The best we can hope for is to be good hirelings. A lot of nonsense (in my opinion) is talked about priestly ministry in terms of leadership and authority. Some people, poor souls, even think it is about power. What a mistake! The leadership, the authority and the power belong only to the Lord, to our Lord. Priests and pastors have no authority, except to point people towards Jesus; and they are called to do this much less by their words than by their example. We lead, in other words, only by being foremost in following.

It is because human shepherds are as human, weak and fallible as those they are called to watch over, that the sheep must always look beyond and behind them to the Good Shepherd himself. In the Gospel, it is Jesus who speaks. At the altar, it is Jesus who gives himself. The best any of us can hope for- in relation to other people- and this holds good not just for priests but for every Christian- is to be as transparent as possible and let Christ shine through us with as little impediment as possible. Let us forgive one another when we fail!


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