Sermon for High Mass – Easter 4 Sunday 22 April 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Easter 4: Good Shepherd Sunday
What are you playing at?
Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.
So Tom Stoppard’s Guildenstern replies to Rosencrantz (or is it the other way round) as they try to decipher the mission entrusted to them by Claudius and Gertrude.
These days preachers sometimes denigrate the unpacking of scriptural words and their meanings, as if information is somehow beneath the notice of the people of God. It is difficult for us 21st-century urbanites to feel the force of the ‘good shepherd’ vocabulary and imagery. So I persevere with the words, because the words are what we have to go on here. We must of course move past them, and not get stuck at bibliolatry.
So, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. All three elements of that over-familiar phrase could occcupy a sermon; I’ll leave ‘I am’ for now (apart from reminding you that the ‘I am’ sayings are a distinctive element of Jesus’ teaching in John). I’ll start with the shepherd…
Because civilisation in the time of the Patriarchs, and that of Israel until well after the conquest of Palestine, was largely pastoral, imagery of shepherding is frequent in the Bible. Even when agriculture became dominant in Israel, a nostalgia for the pastoral economy remained. Yahweh might be pictured as the tender of the vine and the planter of the seed, but he remained more familiarly the shepherd of the flock [Gen 49.24; Ps 23; Ps 78.52f.]. The Patriarchs, and Moses and David were all shepherds, so ‘shepherd’ became a figurative term for the rulers of God’s people, a usage common throughout the Ancient Near East. Impious kings were scathingly denounced as wicked shepherds. We find this in 1 Kings [22.17], Jeremiah [10.21; 23.1f.;] and especially Ezekiel 34: there God denounces the shepherds or rulers who have not cared for the flock (his people) and have plundered it, neglecting the weak, the sick and straying. God promises that he will take his flock away from these wicked shepherds and that he himself will become their shepherd. He also promises that he will judge between the sheep and the goats and will set his servant David (the anointed King, or ‘Messiah’) as the one shepherd over the sheep. I hope this all sounds very familiar to you as hearers of the Gospels. That chapter concludes
‘And you my sheep, are the sheep of my flock, and I am your God’
We’ll need to return to the shepherd in a moment, but first a word or two about the epithet ‘good’. Here John chooses his word carefully. The shepherd is kalos [καλá½¸ς].
Fr Raymond Brown, the great commentator on John, translates this as the ‘noble shepherd’, or possibly the ‘model shepherd’. Kalos means beautiful, in the sense of an ideal or model of perfection (as in the ‘good wine’ of the wedding at Cana); it is that element of goodness which in Homer relates to heroism and bravery; it is used of genuine and flawless metals and jewels (the ‘fine pearls’ for which the merchant was seaching in the parable at Mt. 13.45); the cognate noun relates goodness to ‘wholeness, health and order’.
So the word has nothing to do with the Romantic conception of the Good Shepherd. It expresses, rather, the claim of Jesus to uniqueness and authenticity. He is the true shepherd who has an absolute right to the title. The primary point of this chapter of John is to set him above the many contemporary claims to be shepherds, e.g. those of the many shepherd gods of Hellenism. And the basis of this authenticity and uniqueness is that he acts, he gives his life for the flock. He overcomes the wolf and and saves the sheep from being lost on the basis of his fellowship with the Father. He takes his people into this fellowship through the mutual knowing of flock and shepherd, through the fellowship based on this knowing. It is because he brings this fellowship, and gives his life to overcome the lostness, that he is the true shepherd, competent and good and worthy of praise: kalos.
Once again, the unique feature of the shepherd for John is his willingness to die for the sheep. This is not characteristic of the Old Testament shepherd imagery. And we should also not ignore another pastorally-based image of which John is fond, familiar at the heart of the Mass: the Lamb of God, slain to take away the sins of the world. This image has much in common with the shepherd who lays down his life so that others my have life to the full, combining Old Testament shepherd imagery with that of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.
Jesus is a shepherd in this lineage, but unique
because his shepherding involves radical self-sacrifice not only, as the ‘shepherd and flock’ picture would suggest, for the sake of those who are already his, but also for those who ‘do not belong’, a clear reference to that breaking down of social, religious and ethnic barriers which the spread of the gospel demands.
Our second reading, also from John (or at least John’s church), picks up the self-sacrifical theme and gives us an application for it. Already by now some Christians have died for the faith, but not all are called to that form of witness. We know that Christ died ‘for us’, but once that has happened do we just keep repeating that he did so (as some preachers still do), or do we see some implications for ourselves. Here, in 1 John, the implication is enacted discipleship, as Fr Alan reminded us in the parish email:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
… And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
1 John 3.16-18, 23
Love is the difference between mere existence and truly living, because it is the application of grace, the enactment of faith, a whole of life engagement with those around us. Without love we are not Christians and should occupy ourselves not with people but with things, as Tolstoy once famously suggested.
Those of us who were at yesterday’s Mass of Our Lady heard the gospel in which Jesus, told that his mother and brothers are trying to speak to him, replies,
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
The important thing about love is action; putting flesh on the words.