The Good Shepherd, the Universal Flock

April 22, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using John 10.11-18 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 22nd April 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

In our household, we overuse a question washed up on the shores of our family traditions from the depths of teenage years. It is, ‘What’s the point’? Ideally this should be said less like a question with any reasonable prospect of an answer and more like a rhetorical retort, as in, ‘what’s the point!’ Actually, though, it’s not such a bad question to use to prise open some of the more polished passages of Scripture with which we are perhaps rather too familiar, such as today’s gospel reading.

In Four Marks in Hampshire, you’ll find a modern parish church called the Church of the Good Shepherd, and sure enough its central window is dominated by an image of Christ facing outward, arms outstretched in welcome, holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand. It could not give a more straightforward message: ‘we are his people and the sheep of his pasture’. Christ’s majestic robes are covered over, but not hidden, by a brown worker’s jacket; so we know he is equipped to shepherd us.

What’s the point of this image? Well, at first glance it’s comforting. There are many other, quite sugary images of Christ the Good Shepherd, carrying and sometimes feeding his lambs, occasionally with added layers of comfort supplied by texts like, ‘He knows your needs today’. But if this is what being ‘good shepherd’ is really about, I wonder how Jesus Christ could ever have been ‘the stone the builders rejected’, as we heard him called in the first lesson today, when Peter reminds his audience that they were prepared to execute this loving, caring type.

Let’s try again, then, to find the point of this shepherdly image. You’ll remember that the rulers of Israel were denounced by the prophets of Israel as bad shepherds. They had failed to stand with God’s people when they were threatened; rather they had sought their own self-interest. These leaders were under judgement; God himself would come to shepherd the sheep, showing up the imposters who cared only for themselves.

Christ the Good Shepherd is a pointed, polemical image. He doesn’t look after everyone equally kindly and gently. He judges those who don’t care and, as we’ll see, he makes demands on those he cares for, the so-called sheep.

Yesterday a group of us gathered to consider how we could step out as ambassadors for peace. How could we do something other than be drowned in the stream of the world’s bad news and instead make a positive difference in our own context? We were led by Fr Nadim Nassar, who came to preach here in Advent and who runs the Awareness Foundation, a charity whose tagline is Building Peace through Education.

We spent the beginning of the day reminding ourselves of our Christian identity. Being Christian doesn’t mean being nice and kind to everyone, like an even paler version of the good shepherd stereotype; being Christian means holding faithfully to, responding loyally to, a story in which we see God’s own face in the face of Jesus and hear God’s own voice in the voice of Jesus. We want to avoid extremism, but the way to do this is not by being dilute about our beliefs but by cleaving to Jesus and following in his way. Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies’, and as Nadim pointed out, this means that they cannot in fact remain our enemies, because you cannot love someone whom you hate as an enemy.

We can only become ambassadors of peace when we know where peace lies, and this abiding peace lies in the life of Jesus. It is not a peace that can ever be defeated because this life has been laid down as a gift and taken up again for our sake, so that death might be defeated worldwide.

The Good Shepherd leads his flock through the shadow of death, and he will lead his flock beyond death to everlasting life.

However, eternal life begins now. The life that lies beyond death is ours now in the knowledge we have of Jesus. Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’. Peace comes now.

This is a terribly compressed thought, which we can expand: Think of the relationship that Christ has from eternity with God his Father. It is this relationship that carries him through thick and this; it is this relationship that defines all that Christ says and does; what he knows of God his Father sends him on his way; what he knows of the Father fuels his passion and energises him to engage. And this same sort of knowing can be ours as we come to know the Son, as we respond to Christ’s knowledge of us.

To become ambassadors for peace we have to taste and know God’s peace, which doesn’t at all depend on circumstances, only on a relationship on which we draw in prayer and by exercising our faith.

I think that the Englishness in us reacts to this seeming exclusiveness of the relationship between the Father and the Son and between Christ the Good Shepherd and his followers. We want a more level playing field where everyone has a fair crack at the ball. However, we shouldn’t worry about fairness, because being in Christ’s flock is a way of being – more than we ever could be in our own strength and by our own means – people devoted to others.

We belong to Christ’s flock because we follow his voice. We are bound to recognise it wherever he calls us to and from wherever he is calling. It is never a constricting relationship, but always an expansive one. It takes us beyond our comfort zone to people who otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered with or would have steered clear of, because God loves them as much as he loves us and he is also speaking to them.

The Good Shepherd even tells us that he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. Originally this meant including people who weren’t Jewish, which again was pointed, as it meant crossing over boundaries which previously had seemed to define God’s favour. Christ the Good Shepherd not only judged those who ruled baldly; he also judged those who set false limits on who could know God the Father. Christ’s flock was and is universal.

We held the day yesterday because we believe that as Christians we have something positive to offer to the whole world. It’s far from exclusive as the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and takes it up again to establish pasture for a universal flock. In my own experience as we pass through a seemingly narrow door of believing in him and committing to his way, rather than any other of the religions, we are brought into a very spacious place. It’s like entering into this nave through the narrow NW door. And that spacious place is fundamentally a relationship, in which we can be guided by the voice of Jesus.

His voice will lead us into the paths of peace; his voice will tell us where we are going astray. It’s a voice that will tell us to love one another, as we ourselves have been loved by the Father. It’s the voice of the Good Shepherd who loves us and who encourages us to learn to lay down our own lives for others. Above all, it’s a voice that tells us not to be afraid: He has taken up his life again and made a peace which the world cannot give and can never destroy, which we can share with the world as ambassadors of his kingdom.