Seventh Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 16th May 2021 in the category Resources
Seventh Sunday of Easter, 16 May 2021
as given at St Peter’s, Plymouth
St John 17:11-19
Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
We have just listened to Jesus, at the Last Supper, with his disciples gathered about him, just a few short hours before his arrest. You remember, he also mentioned ‘those who will believe in me through their word’ (Jn 17:20). That’s you, and me! At the Last Supper Jesus prayed for us! the community of His disciples down the centuries.
St John, who gave us these words, listened intently at that Supper; his head resting next to the heart of Jesus (just as Jesus, says St John in one of his letters, rests next to the heart of God himself). The beloved disciple listened. And what did he hear?
‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I ask not for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17.17ff).
This then is Jesus talking to his Father about himself, and praying for us, his Church. As we pray for the Church’s renewal in the Spirit of Pentecost, at a time when the Church is under increasing pressure from our contemporaries, I want to draw from those words this morning what seem to me to be two very important insights into the real nature of the Church.
2 First, there is one particular word which captures our attention, perhaps because it is difficult to understand. Jesus says: “For their sake I consecrate myself”. What does that mean? Did not Peter call him ‘the Holy One of God’? (cf. Jn 6:69)? How, then, can he consecrate himself now?
To understand, we need first to clarify what the Bible means by the words ‘holy’ and ‘consecrate’. Holiness is a description of God’s own nature. God’s way of being, his nature, is unique to him, and it is holy. He alone is Holy One. All other holiness comes from him, and is a sharing in his way of being – light without darkness, truth without falsehood, good without any evil. When something or someone is ‘consecrated’, that thing or person is given to God as his property. It’s taken out of our context and inserted into his. It no longer belongs to human affairs, but to God’s will. To consecrate is to take something from the world and give it over to the living God.
Such a ‘giving up’ of something and ‘giving over’ to God we also call a ‘sacrifice’. It’s my property no longer, but his property. It is a transfer of ownership – taken out of the world: given to God. So being made holy consecration is in fact a two-way process. A thing or a person is set apart for God. But for that precise reason it doesn’t become isolated, taken out of use as it were. Quite the opposite! To be given over to God means being made available for others, indeed available for the greatest number of others. A priest for example is removed from worldly commitments and habits and given over to God, and therefore starting with God, he must be available for the greatest number of other people.
We can now perhaps understand what happens when Jesus says: ‘I consecrate myself for them’. This is the priestly act by which Jesus gives himself over to the Father, and, being God’s property is consequently given over to the whole world.
I consecrate – I sacrifice – myself, he says. It is a word that enables us to glimpse deep into the heart of Jesus Christ, his motivations and his commitments; and it is proof – yet again – that the Last Supper really is joined to the Crucifixion, it’s not just a sentimental farewell meal. At the Last Supper Jesus sacrificed himself, handing himself over to God and his disciples; on the Cross he was sacrificed by others, and handed over to the will of his enemies.
And now we can perhaps more clearly understand the prayer which the Lord prayed for his disciples and for us, ‘Sanctify them in the truth’ – ‘O Lord, draw them towards your self, your holiness. Take them away from themselves and make them your property, so that, living in you, they will spend their lives for the world.’ The disciples and we are to be immersed in God’s word, that creative power which unites our ordinary human lives to God’s mind and heart. And because we’ve been transferred to God’s world, our life becomes God’s mission. To be given to God, means to exist ‘for’ all those to whom God gives himself. The disciples’ the task will be to continue Jesus’ mission, to be given to God and thereby to be on mission to all.
3 That brings me to the second thing I want, in briefer words, to draw out of our Blessed Lord’s extraordinary prayer on the brink of his death.
As we listen to Jesus describing his sacrifice to God, we can hear emerging through these few words, all four of the distinctive marks of the Church.
Meditate on those few verses and you’ll see how in them the whole nature not only of Jesus but of the Church is expressed.
In those few verses, prayed in the white-hot centre of Jesus’s moment self-sacrifice, we hear the foundation charter of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and remember that Church is one not because we are one but because Jesus Christ is one; the Church is holy not because we are, but because Jesus Christ is holy; the Church is catholic not because we embrace all differences, but because Jesus Christ is the saviour of all; the Church is apostolic not because of our initiatives but because, as the Father has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.
This tells us that the more we are focussed on Jesus, and drawn into the mystery of his nature, the more that our concerns for the Church will cease to be matters we passionately struggle to decide about and master for ourselves. They will flow directly from our relationship with Jesus, ‘to whom be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, on earth as it is in heaven, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’ (Jude 1.25).
Ascension Day - Homily
Posted on the 13th May 2021 in the category Resources
Mass of the Ascension with Baptism and Confirmation
13th May 2021
As given at St Gabriel's Fulbrook
St Paul wasn’t the only one to write a famous letter to the Romans. St Ignatius of Antioch (who as a youth had known St John) wrote to them as well. He was trying to get a message to them before he arrived in Rome under guard destined to be killed. In that letter he wrote these startling words, ‘Now that Christ has ascended to the Father, he’s even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity.’ (Romans 3)
Even more visible? How? surely with His ascension Jesus’s life on earth has come to a close? Even during the forty mysterious and disorienting days after His resurrection, when as St Luke tells us (Acts 1.3) ‘he had continued to appear to [the disciples]’, He was more visible than after the awesome mystery we celebrate today.
It is certainly true that having commissioned His apostles to ‘Go to the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation’, He who now sits at the right hand of the Father has been far more widely and deeply proclaimed and known and followed for two thousand years than He was either before or after His resurrection. Was ever a command so obeyed, in word, in sacrament, in evangelism and service, through the history of the Church?
Our faith seems to depend on Him not being visible. Had Jesus simply remained on earth after rising from the dead, the faith of His followers in every subsequent generation would have still been focused on life in this world rather than on the next. The apostles’ very last question to Him proves the point: ‘Lord, is now the time you going to restore Israel’s kingdom?’ (Acts 1.6). But with Him gone from their sight, it became part of the spiritual growth of Christians (you and me, and Victoria and Tilly here) to long and desire to be with Christ whom, here and now, we can only see by faith. No less a person than St Paul said, ‘Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth.’ (Col 3.2). And of course, in heaven there will be no faith because the redeemed will see God; even better there will be no hope, because they will possess what they hope for. There will only be love, because God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28).
So then, how can we understand Ignatius’s words, ‘even more visible’?
Let me suggest what I think he meant. Remember he was a man under arrest, being transported across modern day Turkey and Greece, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and he was writing to the Roman Christians to say, ‘when I arrive please don’t stop my martyrdom’. ‘Only pray for me’, he wrote, ‘that I’ll not only be called a Christian but really be found to be one, so that when I’m gone my witness will live on’. A great and courageous saint.
But in the case of Jesus it is not simply that a witness living on, a memory of a person of great integrity. When Jesus seems to go from us, it is because He goes deeper in God: into what we call heaven, and what Jesus himself called the ‘bosom of the Father’ (Jn 1.18). He took human existence into God's heart. The Ascension means Jesus belongs entirely to God. And being thus with the Father, who embraces and sustains the entire universe, Christ is for ever inseparable from each one of us. Each one of us can share the intimacy of which Jesus spoke when He said, ‘[The Father and I] will come to him and make our home in him.’ (Jn 14.23)
Of course, we can draw away from him. We can live with our backs turned on him. But He always abides, and waits for us; He is always close to us. By His Holy Spirit He is always drawing the Church—and the world—deeper into the truth about our Blessed Lord Jesus.
You remember that increasingly at the end of His life, Jesus taught and prayed, and in supremely the Eucharist showed, how He would not simply be a memory, but would be a present, living and growing person within His disciples. That is the meaning of the parable of the true vine which Jesus told at the Last Supper: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ And with shocking clarity He had said of the Eucharist, ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, will live because of me.’ (Jn 6.56-7)
People who listen to sermons often want, quite right too, to have the connection made for them between the scriptures and their everyday life, they want the scriptures made relevant for current events. Well, dear friends, [dear Victoria and Tilly,] nothing could possibly be more relevant than this, nothing could affect your every day life more than this: that God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—lives in the members of Christ’s Body His Church, and makes himself visible in them. His Spirit is poured into us, lives within us, reminds us of Christ’s teaching, so that our minds and bodies may reveal God in all our words and actions and sacrifices. Christ is not distant from you: out of our hearing and out of our sight. He gives himself constantly and visibly in the scriptures, and His Body and Blood, in our fellowship, and in the poor. As St Ignatius said ‘Now that Christ has ascended to the Father he’s even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity.’ (Romans 3)
The puzzle of Ascension is not whether all this is true! The puzzle is why we are not more simple and willing, to let it happen in us. What are we so scared of?
In these days before Pentecost, let us seek the advice and help of someone who knows about openness to God’s presence and growth in us: the Virgin Mary … so that Christ’s Ascension into God may be the moment of His Annunciation into us, and that, like her, the whole Church may make Christ even more visible to the whole world now than when He lived in obscurity!
St John of the Latin Gate - Lectionary and Homily
Posted on the 9th May 2021 in the category Resources
St John, Clevedon 9 May 2021
The Passion of St John (St John at the Latin Gate)
Then the righteous will stand with great confidence
1 John 1: 1—4
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Him with her sons, and kneeling before Him she asked Him for something. And He said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
I am delighted to be with you on this first celebration of your patronal feast in summer, and grateful too to be with Fr Brendan so soon after his appointment as your pastor.
Dear Friends, the Church is not holy by herself; in fact, she is made up of sinners. We all know it. It is plain for all to see! She is made holy, every day and night, by the Holy One of God, by the purifying love of Christ. And that is what this feast of the Beloved Disciple, St John, is about. But it’s not only about him: it’s also about you, and about me.
Various important Christian writers in the second and third centuries testify to the fact that St John died, at a very great age, at the close of the first century, nearly 70 years after the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection. No one doubted these traditions. Some say he was as old as a hundred! He died at Ephesus (in modern Turkey) where it is said he wrote his gospel. And it is from one of these writers, an African called Tertullian (De praescript., xxxvi), that we also get the testimony that, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96) John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in front of the Latin Gate, one of Rome’s fortified southern gates, and that he emerged from the trial without suffering any injury. Unsurprisingly after such unexpected outcome, John was banished, to the Aegean island of Patmos, from which he returned to near-by Ephesus after Domitian’s death, to live out his final few years.
Now, I suppose that since none of those details are in the Bible, we’re free to take or leave the story, despite the fact that we regularly attribute much more astonishing things to God—like the Son of almighty God being born in human form. For nothing is impossible to Him who is the very source of all power and life. So let’s think a bit deeper.
John was the last surviving apostle. Having lived so long in one of the most well connected of the early centres of Christianity, John will have heard reports come in, one by one, from across the empire, about the martyrdom of his fellow apostles and their closest collaborators. His own brother, James had been the first (Acts 12.1-2). There was no reason for John to suppose that, in the long run, he would be an exception. The persecutions of the Church would catch up with him too, eventually. Over his long life surely he would often have remembered Jesus’s words to him and his brother James, which we heard in today’s gospel, when their rather pushy mother asked Jesus for places of honour for her boys in the kingdom of God. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ replied Jesus. With no idea what they were talking about, ‘We are’, they said, ‘You will’, He said: ‘oh! you will’. But only the Father can give you places in His kingdom.
And so—like the story in the book of Daniel of the three young men who emerged unharmed from the Burning Fiery Furnace—the story of John’s survival expresses an inescapable truth about the extraordinary collective witness of the Holy Apostles in the face of persecution. John met what was sure to be his own very grim martyrdom, and did not run away. He knew it was coming to him. He accepted it. Though God rescued him from it John made his sacrifice; he drank the cup that Christ drank, and for a few more years continued to serve the Church, exhorting persecuted Christians all over the empire to be steadfast in the faith and not to identify with the pagan world. He encouraged them to live the Death and Resurrection of Christ openly in order to make clear to the world the real meaning of human life and history.
All this makes us wonder how he would have approached the prospect of martyrdom and what we can learn from it. Surely we can recognize his mindset from his teaching in the new testament, and I want to draw out two aspects in particular.
First, the central content of John’s Gospel and his Letters is the work of divine love, charity. John is the evangelist who stresses the unquenchable strength of love that caused the Father to send His Son into the world of men; and the unfathomable depth of love that motivated the Son’s compassion for sinners, and His sacrifice for us all. ‘The bread I will give, for the life of the world, is my flesh’ (Jn 6.51) Jesus says. This God not only spoke, but He loved us, very realistically – loved us to the very limit of love’s sacrifice, the death of His own Son. So John’s first motive was divine love.
The second motive is his description of our response to that love. In his gospel he records Jesus saying to Nicodemus ‘He who does the truth comes to the light’ (3. 21). Each person who trusts the Lord, and does what He commands in His teaching, embracing any loss and suffering, draws ever closer and closer to the light that enlightens every person. In other words, it is our actions – not primarily our words – that reveal our grasp on Christ’s truth and the extent of our enlightenment by love. Deeds come before doctrine; understanding of the Lord, will come to you only if you carry out faithfully and sincerely the commands and good deeds the Lord teaches.
‘This is the love of God’, John wrote in one of his letters to the churches, ‘that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.’ (1 Jn 5.3—4). Several ancient writers mention that in his final years St John would constantly repeat Jesus’s words ‘Beloved, love one another’.
Being transformed by the love of God, and being united with the love of God, will then always involve the fundamental offering of our obedience to Christ if, like our Lord, we are to win souls for Christ, even if that obedience were to involve a vat of boiling oil. We shall never avoid suffering. But here we come face to face with a central Christian paradox, according to which suffering is never the last word but rather, a transition towards happiness; indeed, suffering itself is already mysteriously mingled with the joy that flows from hope. It is the means of our transformation and unity with Christ’s love.
So much of the suffering in our lives, and the lives of every other human being – our losses, our sacrifices – goes to waste. We should be offering it up obediently for God’s glory. As a consequence we would come to the light all the sooner, while also saving others around us. If, like St John, we were willing to use our sufferings, to help us to offer ourselves more profoundly, and more completely, more trustfully to Christ – to be offered with Christ, and to be transformed by Him – then it is we ourselves who, like the bread and wine we offer, would be transubstantiated by Christ, transformed into service so that through us man could know how sweet is the love of Christ!
Fifth Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 2nd May 2021 in the category Resources
As given at St Stephen’s Wolverhampton and Holy Trinity Ettingshall
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
St John’s gospel is regularly punctuated by a kind of canon fire, when Jesus suddenly claims some form of identity with the God who, early in the Exodus (3.14), reveals himself as ‘I am who I am’. Beginning in His conversation with the woman at the well of Samaria in chapter 4 (26), when we hear his first such claim, ‘I am He’, thereafter we hear ‘I am the bread of life’ (ch 6.35), ‘the light of the world’ (8.12), ‘the door to the sheepfold’ and ‘the good shepherd’ (10.9; 11-14), ‘the resurrection and the life’ (11.25), ‘the way the truth and the life’ (14.6); and, finally, in this week’s Gospel reading, ‘I am the true vine’ (15.1, 5). Jesus is picking up one of the richest and oldest metaphors in the whole of scripture about the relationship between God and His people: the vineyard owner and the vine.
To begin with I want you to notice three things about Jesus’s use of that image in this final ‘I am’ saying. First, notice that it is the only one of the sequence where God name’s (‘I am’) is linked to something that is clearly and intentionally corporate. The Gospel makes this explicit, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’. In all the others Jesus speaks only of himself. You notice He doesn’t say, ‘I am the vinedresser, you are the vine.’ No He is the vine, but a vine cannot exist without its branches – it certainly cannot be fruitful without them, and they cannot flourish without the central trunk which holds them all together, and roots them securely in the life of God?
Second, notice that this is the final such saying makes it the goal to which all the earlier revelations are pointing. Thus far Jesus has laid bare His unity with God, fed us with the bread of His word, shone as the light of truth, led us as a trustworthy guardian and guide, revealed the promise of resurrection, shown us the ultimate way of truth and life to the limit of sacrifice. All of this so that we may live a shared life with Him who, before His ascension, pledged ‘I am with you, to the end of the age’.
And third, notice where and when it is that Jesus makes this claim: the scene of this teaching is in the final minutes of the Last Supper, during which He not only points toward His suffering and sacrificial death, but also points beyond His cross to the totally new kind of existence in the Spirit into which He will pass over after His resurrection. A new way of living is revealed by Jesus to be the goal and purpose of death and resurrection – the life together of the One and the many, the head and the body, the vine and the branches.
As the branches are joined to the vine, so you belong to me! But in so far as you belong to me, you also belong to one another. This not a metaphor, a poetic way of talking. A man – much less the son of God – doesn’t offer himself to a brutal death in order to conjure up a consoling picture!! Nor is He describing an ideal, imaginary, symbolic relationship with the very people who are just about to abandon Him to death. He is describing the life-transmitting state of belonging that He and they (and in due course we) will share on the far side of the empty tomb and the ascension. ‘I am the true vine; you are the branches’ actually means: ‘I am in you and you are in me’ – an unprecedented identification of the Lord with His Church. The same sap – that is, the same strength and grace – that flowed through Him will flow through them, through us. That is what baptism and confirmation and communion means. We’re not copying a life, imitating an example, working from a template. The life of the Christian is a sharing in the same life with the Lord and with one another.
But in case we get carried away with the beauty of the image, Jesus also told how there would be those who would outwardly by united to Him, profess their faith publicly, but would be inwardly disconnected from him, branches bearing no fruit. There would be yet other branches that were weak and in need of purification by cutting out dead-wood to make new shoots sprout. And so He speaks of His Father as a vine dresser, wielding a pruning knife.
It is impossible to imagine sharing life with Christ, which is not a sharing in the same charity and holiness. The same organism simply cannot have both the sap of grace and the sap of sin coursing through it! This vine is a community of self-less love purified by the Cross, and it is to bear the fruit of charity and holiness. And for this there must be a pruning knife, so that dead branches, weak growth, diseased foliage can be cut away.
For this we must, dear friends, live lives of prayer and repentance for sin: for our own sins, the sins of those who do not know they offend and wound God, for the sins and injustices of all mankind. Do you seriously imagine that you can come every week to Mass, never making anything more serious than a quick congregational confession of sin, and expect to be healthy fruit-bearing branches of the vine of charity and holiness? Really? Why should the vinedresser not reach for His knife? We need it! We need Him to cut out the withered branches, and prune the fruit-bearing ones so they bring forth more fruit.
‘Abide in me’ says Jesus: ‘stick by me, learn to love and to do what I do. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … for separate from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4f). Saint Augustine says of these words: ‘A branch is suitable for only one of two things, to be on the vine or on the fire: if it is not healthy on the vine, it will be unhealthy in the fire’ (In Ioan. Ev. Tract. 81.3).
God has no desire to keep a person whose faith is withered, dead, fake or imitation. What’s the point of keeping life that is dried up and withered? But there is a great deal of reason to prune and perfect what is fruitful and alive, to nurture life that is joyful and self-sacrificing.
Dear Brothers and Sisters! My hope for all of you is that you may discover ever more deeply the joy of being joined to Christ in the Church, that you may find strength to confess your sins, and know the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘A disciple is not above His teacher, but everyone when He is fully trained will be like His teacher – in every respect.’ (Luke 6.40)
Fourth Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 25th Apr 2021 in the category Resources
Parish of the Good Shepherd, Chard, 25 April 2021
Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
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; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.’
A verse from the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd’ Revelation 7.17
In the name of the Father …
The image of the ‘good shepherd’ – which you have as the wonderful dedication of your parish – comes to us from very deep in the history in the Scriptures. It is a rich and evocative image, and has been used in many different ways. It was woven deep into ancient Israel’s experience of God. It appears over sixty times in the Old Testament. Gradually God himself came to be seen as the only true Shepherd of Israel. And later, God’s messiah was also described as shepherd of His people. Like God, He would feed, guide and protect them, and oversee their unity.
This is the background against which Jesus appears as a shepherd. He desired to share the condition of human beings, to give them truth for food, to give them life for drink, to lead them to salvation. His compassion was for ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mk 6:34). In one parable He was even prepared to leave the whole flock and go in search of one measly sheep that was lost (cf. Lk 19:10), in order to bring it back to safety through the Father’s mercy.
Thus in Jesus Christ these two Old Testament themes came together – God himself as the Shepherd of Israel, and God’s messiah as the true shepherd-king of all humanity. In time the good shepherd became one of the key images of Christ’s relationship both to the Church as a whole, and to the ministry of those, His bishops and priests, who extend His ministry in the world, which is why this Sunday is particularly given to prayer for vocations to the priesthood.
So far, so good: end of short lecture.
But we needed the bones of that background to be able to focus in on the gospel passage we have just heard, which we hear – or something very close to it – every year on this Sunday in the middle of Eastertide. In it the Lord identifies himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’ twice. After the first time He says He will lay down His life for His sheep; and after the second, He says He knows his own and they know Him.
Neither of those things is true of your average shepherd, now or in ancient Israel. Sheep then, as now, were a precious commodity and were the source of many different products to be bought and sold – for woollen cloth, for food, for drink, and of course, this being ancient Israel, for sacrificial animals – sheep and lambs. Nothing was wasted. But what kind of shepherd would die for a commodity, for their own livelihood; laying down his actual life was not a job requirement of a shepherd. And which shepherd knows each one of these notoriously herding animals by name? Why have a dog and bark yourself? Even less so what Jesus called a hireling – the kind who stole what they did not own. Israel had known too many false kings, and leaders and even false prophets like that!
But these two definitions of ‘Good Shepherd’ that Jesus gives – dying for the sheep, and knowing them intimately – are by contrast the hallmarks of Jesus’s attitude, signs of the responsibility that flows from His mission. He was sent by His Father precisely to seek and save the lost, and to gather together the scattered children of God. ‘Fear not for I have redeemed you’, says the Lord in Isaiah (43.1). ‘I have called you by name. You are mine.’ Therefore, Jesus’s behaviour turns the image of an ordinary shepherd upside down, or rather He turns it God’s way up! Jesus takes responsibility for God. Like God himself Jesus is the servant of His people’s welfare, the protector of His people’s safety, the guide of His people’s understanding, the feeder of their souls, the overseer of their unity. Jesus takes responsibility for God.
And then we notice deep in in the middle of the gospel passage a verse that takes us deeper into the reality of all this: ‘I know my own and my own know me’ he says, ‘in the same way as I know the Father and the Father knows me, which is why I lay down my life for them’. All of a sudden Jesus makes this stunning comparison: he lifts us up directly into the relationship and understanding that the divine Father and the divine Son have with each other! He is at the very least implying that the relationship between Him and us involves our discovery of self-giving love and our dedication to him. And we also see that it is because Jesus’s surrender of his life to the needs of the sheep is undertaken by divine love (not just a great human love) that is why He has the power to take up His life again in the resurrection.
We are now a long way from thinking how to look after sheep! So how can we have confidence to follow this path in our thinking? I have a clue.
Twice in the Gospel passage Jesus uses a rather unusual word to describe the sheepfold: αὐλὴν (aulén) in Greek. It’s not the usual word you’d use. In fact it means something like an architectural courtyard or an atrium, just like the portico inside the Temple precincts in Jerusalem where we’re told Jesus was teaching on the feast of Dedication (which incidentally gives its name to the altars in the Temple). Jesus appears to be making a distinction and drawing a parallel between the stone-built sheepfolds on the hillsides of Judea and the monumental precincts of the Temple (teaming of course of sheep and lambs for blood sacrifice). He is in effect saying not only ‘I am the door to the sheepfold’, but ‘I am the door to the Temple’ – the entrance to the way that leads through sacrificial death and resurrection to life with the Father. This this the way he wants us to walk, a way of safety, life and peace. That would also help us to understand His prophetic words in chapter two (vv.19-22) when He talks about ‘the temple of His body’, its destruction and its rebuilding.
In order to lay down His life, Jesus our high priest had to become the sacrificial victim. The Good Shepherd had to stoop and make himself a sacrificial Lamb. He ‘who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29) had to stoop and make himself like ‘the Lamb who was dumb before its shearers’ (Is 53.7). Only that way, by the power of His divine love, could He who had laid down his life to redeem us take it up again to sanctify us. Only that way could the Victorious Lamb become our Eternal Shepherd, and guide us to springs of living water (Rev 7.17).
Friends! we are to be receptive and trusting towards our shepherd, but we are not sheep! We are called to become like the good shepherd. We are raised up in the Lord to call others to know Him who laid down His life for them, and that their sins are forgiven! We are called to gather others into the one flock of Christ. All of us – whether bishop, priest, deacon; lay, married or single; monk or nun, whatever we are – need to become shepherds in the image of Christ, so that He can lead us all into the Temple of his glory.