Sunday, 30 April 2023

In the community of the Good Shepherd

Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

1 Peter 2:19-25 You have come back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls

John 10.1-10 I am the gate of the sheepfold




The tasks of a parish priest - the role I have - can be distilled into three things:


1.       Celebrate the sacraments

2.      Preach the word of God

3.      Lead God’s Holy People, the Church


Now of course like in any role those three basics lead to a whole range of tasks and things to be done, and it’s not a role exercised in isolation but in partnership with others, flowing from the Bishop’s ministry, with fellow priests and working with and for the baptised people of God.


This task is set out in the Ordinal, the rite for ordaining priests, which says:


Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow priests, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.


That charge to the priest flows out of what our readings contain today which, at their heart, concern the nature of the Church.


As the Bishop reminds the new priest and people at an Ordination, ‘[Priests] are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling’.


Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday, when we hear in the Gospel Jesus setting out one of the key images of his ministry, that of the Good Shepherd, which draws on the images of the Lord our shepherd of the twenty third psalm.


The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, leads them to good pasture, protects them from ravening wolves - even laying down his life for them - shelters them in the sheepfold and, when necessary, says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to where they want to go. After all, like sheep we go astray, such is our human condition, but as St Peter reminds us in the second lesson, ‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.’ (1 Peter 2.25)


The pastoral staff, or crozier, of the Bishop, modelled on the shepherd’s crook, is a symbol of all that: a staff to beat off attackers; a staff to guide and point the way; and staff to be a marker of the boundaries.


Underlying this image of the Good Shepherd – the example the bishop or priest must set before himself - is that Christ came that all people may have life, and have it abundantly.


Life in all its abundance – life in Christ - is the priority and the touchstone: anything that detracts from that, the priest should not do.


So, the example of the Good Shepherd takes us back to those three tasks I have set out:


1.       Celebrate the sacraments

2.      Preach the word of God

3.      Lead God’s Holy People, the Church


Celebrating the sacraments and preaching the word of God are about feeding God’s people.


The sacraments feed us, replenish us, with the gifts of grace that they mediate, that they channel to us. This is most obvious in the Eucharist in which, echoing the psalm, ‘a table is set’ before us. (Psalm 23.5).


The priest has the ‘duty and joy’ of setting that grace before the Church.


The preaching of the word of God guides and leads us, as another psalm says, ‘your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path’ (Psalm 119.105).


The third task, to ‘lead God’s Holy People, the Church’.


As it happens I have spent a time in prayer and reflection recently reflecting on the nature of the Church both globally, nationally and in our parish.


Globally the Church is growing, getting younger, is vibrant and passionate.


That is not how many of us might describe the Church of England, or much of the Church in this nation, where it feels depleted, getting tired and jaded and getting older.


And what of locally, this Church? Who are we? What is our vision, what is our mission, who are we called to become in the here and now? They are big questions that we should always pay attention to.


I find myself going back to a beautiful vision for this church expressed when many of us came together in June 2019, before Covid struck, to consider these questions, and it holds good today.


We said that we want to be ‘a church that is welcoming and open, where people find life, joy and belonging in Christ’.


We said our mission is ‘to be the Parish Church at the heart of Croydon, faithfully offering worship to God, intelligently growing in Christian faith and, looking beyond ourselves, compassionately serving our locality and human need as Christ serves us’.


That is good stuff!


There are echoes of our first reading, which describes the quality of life of the first Christians. Take another look at that passage.


It’s a growing church, rooted in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, with the breaking of bread and prayer at its heart


It’s an organism not an institution; it’s a shared household not a club; it’s the Body of Christ.


It’s tempting to go down the route of strategies, mission action plans and such like, and believe me the wider church desperately hopes those things will make a difference. And certainly we need plans with clarity and strength of purpose.


But we’re not making widgets on a production line; we’re seeking to live the kingdom of God – together.


That’s why I love the vision expressed that we should be, ‘a church that is welcoming and open, where people find life, joy and belonging in Christ’, it’s about our culture not our outcomes.


In the Acts of the Apostles, the community of the Good Shepherd, is shaped by words like, devotion, awe, belief, praise, gladness, generosity, goodwill: they’re words of culture not production.


Let’s measure all we do in those terms. In every little thing we do in the church, whether we have a formal role, or not, in the life of the church we can test all we do by asking ourselves,  ‘in what I am doing now am I helping people find life, and joy, and helping them belong, in Christ?’


If that’s how we live our life as a church then we have the example of the Good Shepherd before us, so that all who come to this place may say, ‘Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life : and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’.





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