Preached at Croydon Minster on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Readings Acts of the Apostles 4.5-12; Psalm 23; John 10.11-18
‘I am the Good Shepherd’, says the Lord. Alleluia.
At my ordination as a priest I was told, ‘Keep the example of the Good Shepherd always before you’.
The person who spoke those words was the Bishop ordaining me who was himself holding a shepherd’s crook, otherwise known as a crozier or pastoral staff.
That symbol reflects the call to the pastors of the church to be shepherds of God’s people.
The image of the shepherd, and associated pastoral care, is deep at the heart of the church: after all, we are referred to as ‘the flock’.
As St Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles to the bishops of the early church, ‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.’ (Acts 20.28)
Shepherds and sheep feature throughout the Old Testament. Moses is watching over his father-in-law’s flock when he encounters God in the intense mystery of the Burning Bush. David is a shepherd and a king. The prophet Ezekiel rebukes the negligent shepherds. The psalms speak of God as our shepherd, most notably Psalm 23.
And shepherds feature from the beginning of the gospels, watching over their flocks by night. Called by angels they come to behold and adore the very Lamb of God, who is also their shepherd (Luke 2.8-20).
Jesus draws on the image of the shepherd in his parables to express the deepest care and attention that the shepherd gives to the sheep so that they are safe, nourished and alive!
I am the Good Shepherd. The English word ‘good’ slightly dilutes the original force of the Greek word καλοσ kalos. ‘Good’ just sounds a bit limp to us now. καλοσ translates better as ‘noble, wholesome, beautiful’. That is a shepherd with purpose a shepherd to protect, guide and nurture.
And the determining characteristic of this Good, noble, wholesome, beautiful shepherd is that he will lay down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is totally invested in that care. This is in contrast to the ‘hired hand’ the one who turns up for the money but has no commitment to the wellbeing, safety and health of the sheep.
In this sense Jesus is not the only good, noble shepherd. King David was one too. Remember when Goliath, like a ravening wolf, threatened the safety of the flock of Israel David stepped forward to protect his people, highlighting that King Saul was like a ‘hired hand’ who would run away. The shepherd boy David stood and said to the king,
34‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ 37David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’ (1 Samuel 17.34-37)
David was no hired hand. He was a good and noble shepherd. So where does that leave us with Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd?
Jesus is stretching the image of the shepherd even beyond what is good, noble, wholesome and beautiful.
St John’s gospel reflects this beautifully. The phrase ‘I am’ is used by Jesus a lot in John’s gospel: I am the Bread of Life; I am the True Vine; I am the way, the truth and the life; and so on.
Hearers will make the connection that the little words ‘I am’ - in Greek ἐγώ εἰμι ego eimi - is how God reveals his name to Moses when he was out shepherding: ‘I am that I am’. That is God’s name: ‘I am’: Being itself, all that is, visible and invisible.
The Name is the Name in whose power the Church brings healing and forgiveness on sins, as we heard in the reading from Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4.7-10).
The Good Shepherd is leading us deep into the heart of God, because Jesus Christ is the deep, loving heart of God.
This Good Shepherd is the knowing shepherd. ‘I know my own’ (John 10.14). As the psalm says ‘O Lord you have searched me out and known me’ (Psalm 139.1). And the knowing shepherd calls us to know him more and more deeply and intimately: ‘my own know me’. This is the call of the Good Shepherd for us to search out and know the ways of God. It is calling us to prayer, to intimacy with God, in Jesus’ words, ‘just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’ (John 10.15).
St John’s told us this before. In the preface to his gospel we read, ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1.18)
The Good Shepherd knows the Father, and knows you, as our Great High Priest. Christ calls you deeply and insistently to know the Father where you find life in all its abundance.
Listen. Hear the call of the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God.