A sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Readings: Acts 2.42-end; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-end; John 10.1-10
The image of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is one that many people hold dear.
Today is often known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday because of the Gospel reading of the day, and is associated too with prayer for vocations to the priesthood because each priest is charged by the bishop at ordination with these powerful, inspiring and humbling words, ‘keep the example of the Good Shepherd always before you’. That is the charge to pastoral care.
The ordination rite is peppered with shepherding images.
Some people find the imagery of the priest, or bishop, as shepherd to be unhelpful or even patronising, because of the inference that they, as part of the flock, are somehow dumb, bleating and stupid creatures like sheep. It’s worth noting though that the word congregation comes from the Latin con meaning ‘together with’ and gregis meaning ‘flock’. We come together as a flock even if sometimes we have dumb, bleating or stupid shepherds at the head of the flock!
It is though an image Jesus uses liberally, including charging St Peter with care of the flock, saying ‘feed my sheep’ (cf John 21.15-17) and in our second reading, ‘for you were going astray like sheep’ (1 Peter 2.25a)
Pastoral care is something bishops and priests are particularly charged with – bishops carry a shepherd’s crook, after all – but pastoral care and contact, within the Body of Christ, the flock, is the responsibility of everyone. I hope that you are using this lockdown time to keep in touch with those people you know from church, encouraging them in endurance, faith and hope.
Pastoral care is about being connected in the Body of Christ. And the role of the shepherd is sometimes about showing compassion; sometimes about showing direction; sometimes about nudging or cajoling the stubborn onwards to good pastures; sometimes about making huge sacrifices for the flock, after the example of the Good Shepherd, not like a hired hand, but as a priest, passionate about the safety and well-being of his flock, as today’s gospel implies.
The first letter of Peter speaks of the flock going astray. Flocks go astray when individuals are cut off in some way. And don’t we know that feeling now. The flock is dispersed. We can’t come to be ‘together, with’. We are like sheep scattered across hills and valleys not able to be in the sheepfold of our temple.
Yet Peter also speaks of the scattered flock returning ‘to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2.25b). The return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls is the promise held out that the flock will congregate again, and will be able to know the promise of the Good Shepherd: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10.10).
What a promise. In times where our lives are impaired and limited, because we can’t congregate, the promise of the fulness of life, abundant life, is one for which we yearn, hanker, desire and long.
And this is the great gift of Psalm 23, the Lord’s my shepherd. That deeply loved psalm is like a compass that will guide us on the path to abundance of life. It narrates for us our predicament, sets the bearings of our route out of this and sets our sights on our destination.
Of course the opening line causes some confusion: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want’ can all too easily be interpreted as ‘I don’t want the Lord as my shepherd’, when of course it means, ‘Because the Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I can lack, I shall not be in want for anything’. That in itself is a powerful message of assurance.
And I shall not be in want because he helps me rest in green pastures and leads me on my journey beside still, rather than turbulent waters.
One paraphrase of the Bible renders it like this:
God, my shepherd!
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from. (Psalm 23.1-2. The Message)
That’s all very well at the moment as we are locked down, locked in and socially isolated. I can’t go into a park, whether a lush meadow or not and lie down, and if I wander around at Waddon Ponds for more than an hour I’ll be moved on.
But there’s something even deeper, ‘he revives my soul’. At the moment many people know the feeling of another psalm, psalm 42 (which begins by describing the desire to drink from living water): ‘why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?’ (Psalm 42.6 passim). Our souls need reviving, ‘like a dry and thirsty land where there is no water’ as another psalm puts it (Psalm 63.2).
Reviving, literally means bringing back to life, and that is a huge flag waving to say this is about resurrection. Christians are people brought back to life through the silent pools of the water of baptism, with souls revived.
And here is the compass for thirsty travellers: ‘he guides me along the right pathways for his name’s sake’. This is the job of the shepherd with the shepherd’s trusty staff bringing strength and protection.
Even walking through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ evil is no longer to be feared, not viruses not nothing. ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18): perfect love is abundant life and fear has no hold there.
And then the destination is in sight. Not for the Christian light at the end of a tunnel, for we walk as children of the light, with the light of the Risen Lord, in this Easter Candle, illuminating our way: ‘for once you were children of darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…’ (Ephesians 5.8)
The destination and fulfilment of the promise of life is found at a table, the table of the Lord. Here is the anointing, healing love of the Good Shepherd, here a cup is poured to overflowing: this is the abundant life of Christ the Bread of Life, Christ the True Vine.
Psalm 63 says ‘so would I gaze upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory’ (Psalm 63.3). That is our yearning - not simply to be in a magnificent building; not simply to enjoy fellowship with one another; not simply to enjoy the splendours of our choral tradition – but to be in our holy place, our place of encounter where the Good Shepherd becomes again the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’
We yearn to gather at that table, our altar, once again for it is where abundant life and hope is brought to us and it points us to a deeper hope beyond, that we might dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life.
O God, our sovereign and shepherd,
who brought again your Son Jesus Christ
from the valley of death,
comfort us with your protecting presence
and your angels of goodness and love,
that we also may come home
and dwell with him in your house for ever.