Sermon for The Second Sunday After Easteradmin | 26 April 2009
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd’”
It is one of the great and classic images of care. Much beloved by the parade of generations who have gone before us, it appears constantly in glass and stone, in tapestry and mosaic even as the Shepherd’s Psalm, Psalm 23, shapes story and song, prayer and praise. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is very much with us, even if, as the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, puts it, “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared/ with toil” and the world itself “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil/is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” And there is all that sense of unease and fear, alienation and loss because we will not “reck his rod”; that is to say, think or consider the rule of God; in short, his providential care for us so wonderfully captured in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.
But in the dominance of the therapeutic culture of our day, the all-too-comforting, cloying image of Christ the Good Shepherd, often viewed more like a teddy bear or a “Barney” figure, runs the risk of being co-opted to the religion of sentimentality and feeling, the religion of Hallmark cards and Happy Faces; in short, the religion of “Gentle-Jesus-Come-and-Squeeze-Us-Where-and-When-It-Pleases”! We too easily forget the radical nature of care that this image of Christ the Good Shepherd presents to us. The Good Shepherd, after all, “lay[s] down [his] life for the sheep.” The care of the Good Shepherd has death and resurrection in it. And so it is not by accident that this Gospel is read in Eastertide. The care is not so much comfort as it is challenge. It might even mean “drop kick me Jesus through the goal-posts of life!” Nothing particularly comforting about that!
Through the eyes of John, the Gospel writer and the author of several New Testament Epistles, we enter into the essential or creedal mysteries of the Christian Faith. Nowhere does this appear more clearly than in Eastertide, the season of the Resurrection. The Resurrection gives life and meaning to every other teaching. Through the eyes of John, we contemplate the mystery of Christ the Good Shepherd.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Through the eyes of John we learn just how radical an identification with us and with God that statement is. It involves an intensification and re-working of at least two Old Testament passages: the Shepherd’s Psalm, Psalm 23, and the story in The Book of Exodus of the revelation of God to Moses in the Burning Bush. The Psalm now takes on an added dimension. There is the inescapable and striking identity of Christ with the God who reveals himself to Moses in the Burning Bush as “I am who I am.”
“The Lord is my shepherd,” the psalmist says. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, takes that image upon himself and gives it a deeper meaning. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he says. Beyond the accompanying presence of God journeying with us through “the valley of the shadow of death,” there is the God who goes into the deeper darkness and loneliness of each and every death, the God who embraces our death as well as our life.
“Thy rod and thy staff” take on an entirely different meaning. They signify the cross and the rule of Christ. The God whom we have crucified by our sins and the follies of our wickednesses is the God who has conquered our sin and death. Christ is the Risen Lord and that makes all the difference. It intensifies the radical meaning of the psalm. Such is the “goodness” of the Good Shepherd, we might say.
The strong message is that God goes with us, that the mysteries of life and death are gathered up into the greater mystery of God. There is something more and something greater than death, something more than the waywardness of our sins that distances us from God. These matters serve to remind us that the root of care is cure. There is remedy in it. This goes a long ways towards correcting the moralizing and therapeutic forms of care as mere comfort. They recall us to care as challenge, the challenge to will the cure that has been accomplished for us.
In the wonderful Collect which graces this day and this week, Christ is identified as “both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly life”. The cure of the cross, radical and absolute, carries over into the pattern of holy life, the pattern of death and resurrection in us.
Such, we may say, is the care of the Good Shepherd that carries over into the proper forms of care. This quality of care shapes the pastoral ministry of the Church, properly known as “the cure of souls.” When it doesn’t, of course, then care easily becomes patronising, belittling and even abusive; anything but challenging, anything but respectful of human dignity.
This shepherding care is not limited to the ordained ministry but carries over into all the other forms of leadership and direction in Parish life. There is to be the same quality of shepherding care by Sunday School teachers, Wardens and Vestry, lay readers, guild members and so on. It extends into all of the other venues of our quotidian lives as well – schools, hospitals, nursing homes, workplaces, our homes.
The deep message of Christ the Good Shepherd is not moral correctness and self-righteousness so much as it is divine forgiveness which alone can restore, recreate and make new, if only we would have the eyes to see and the hearts to act upon what we see. The care is challenge. There is remedy in it. We have only to will the cure in the care. It is our greatest challenge.
What does it mean? It means to look upon the radical love of Christ for us and to let that love move in us. “There lives,” as Hopkins puts it, “the dearest freshness deep down things” that brings out the hopes and joys of something new and something glorious. After all, the Holy Spirit who breathes over the inchoate beginnings of creation also oversees the greater new beginnings of the Resurrection in the recreation and redemption of the “bent world.” We live in the recurring story of the recreation of our broken and bent humanity. Such is, we may say, “the grandeur of God.”
The shepherding care of Christ the Good Shepherd is also present in our worship and even in the architectural order of the building. We go up to God and God goes with us. Christ the Good Shepherd would gather us into his love for the Father even in and “through the valley of the shadow of death.” We come to the altar of his care by way of the rood screen; in short, by way of the cross. His cure is his care for us. The arms of the Crucified and Risen Christ are the arms of the Good Shepherd.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd’”
Fr. David Curry
Easter 2, ‘09