Easter IV, 3rd May 2020
Preacher: Fr Rimmer | All of us are known, and know others by a multitude of names, phrases, and titles. Some affectionate, some legal and professional, some derogatory, some descriptive. We’re perhaps mums and dads, brothers and sisters, we’re our Christian names and our nicknames, we’re teachers and taxpayers, maths champions and artists, nurses and patients, we’re good girls and naughty boys, if we’re lucky we’re ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ if we’re having a bad day we’re – well, something else. Walking down the High Road in my cassock I’ve been called ‘priest’ and ‘preacher-man’, ‘white pastor’, ‘father’, ‘vicar’ – as well as some things I best not repeat in church. To begin to understand each one of us, there are a host of labels that, at different times, in different places and to different people, will be applied to us in order to approach what we truly are.
If we need so many labels, then, it isn’t surprising that Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God and the Principle of all time, all places and all people, should begin to make himself known to us by all manner of different names and titles – some at first mention apparently contradictory. Son of God and Son of Man, the True Vine, the Light of the World, Emmanuel, Master, Servant, King. One of the most familiar – and one close to our hearts in this parish is the Good Shepherd. One of the most familiar Christian images is and long has been the Lord as shepherd, a lamb across his shoulders. It always makes me think of those pictures in Victorian children’s Bibles. Because of course each of Jesus’ different names each themselves are meaningful on different levels too. The Good Shepherd communicates immediately and very accessibly that essential truth of our Faith that is as readily approached by children as it is by the wisest of elders – that God loves each of us in a very special way. The Good Shepherd is no 19th century creation either – long before the crucifix became the central Christian image, the image of the youthful shepherd was perhaps the most common representation of Jesus – the catacombs in Rome are full of such depictions. Partly through persecution and partly through the perceived shamefulness of the cross, the Good Shepherd is prevalent in the first 500 years of our Church. And it remains appealing – even in our post-agricultural society, relatable, attractive, kindly. But there’s more to come – or rather more to unpack as we get deeper into understanding that central tenet of faith.
Today’s gospel passage ends just before St John puts, in verse 11, those famous words into Jesus’ mouth – ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. What we have just heard certainly prepares the way for this analogical field – but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the precise analogy, that is the symbolic name that Jesus takes upon himself in order to make himself known to us all. For in this passage the Lord refers not to the shepherd but to the gate of the sheep. Some have put this down to an error in translation of the original Aramaic. Another lovely solution is that it refers to the near Eastern custom of the shepherd sleeping over the gate in the sheep pen and so himself forming the boundary between safety and peril. That certainly fits with the image of servant leadership that is another essential truth about Our Lord. But we mustn’t be too keen to iron out or sew together the names and labels that the gospels ascribe to the Lord. The same Jesus Christ is both Lamb of God and Shepherd of his sheep – both images provide us with truth about our saviour but neither tells the whole story – how can it, in human terms. And so both gate and shepherd – the means of access to salvation and the type of leadership that the Church is to emulate are both things we can take away.
This apparent conflict also reminds us that, as comforting and familiar as the image of the Good Shepherd is, there is a huge danger in settling on one, essentially human, metaphor for God. This is so important in our lives of prayer. Important that we don’t, when we pray, think of God as some sort of improved version of ourselves. A person who is very very very good. He is a person. And he is good. But God is not a thing as we are. God, by definition. Catherine of Siena, whose feast we kept last week, wrote of how, like fish are in the ocean and the ocean is in fish, we are in God and God is in us. He is the very essence of what it is to be, the rule of what is true and right, and not merely one thing in existence.
So the image of the Good Shepherd shouldn’t allow us to become over-familiar with who Jesus is, or to make him merely a sugary holographic crutch of comfort – as much as he always is that crutch of comfort. He is the Good Shepherd – on plain terms but also in ways that play with, subvert and expand that human image to make it speak of divinity.
It’s always struck me that part of an earthly good shepherd’s duty is, as well as caring for the sheep, the production of wool, or milk or cheese or, dare we say it, meat. This isn’t of course what the Lord is about. God isn’t interested in us because of any gain it will bring to him. Again, we have illustrated for us the problem of taking any one name of the Lord to absurd extremes, but we also have an insight into the way that the gospel uses and then reshapes and expands expectations. Jesus Christ is not only the Good Shepherd, the best shepherd that there ever was – he is the fulfilment and promise of a pastoral economy that looks very different from the one into which the shepherding metaphor fits. The ultimate love of God goes far beyond the economic motivations of the shepherd. It subverts more or less all the ways in which our economy and society work. It speaks of a kingdom in which lamb and lion lay down together. The staff, the crook, of the Good Shepherd is not merely about organisation and control and order and care, it points to a transformed world.
Second, we can’t miss the resonance that Christ the Good Shepherd has with Israel’s past. To the promise in the Psalms and in Isaiah of the tender, self-giving leader, to David, the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath. And back into the misty but powerful origins of God’s people – to Abraham and the shepherding nomads of the ancient Near East. John’s account of the Good Shepherd is often seen to represent a deliberate instance of the division between the Jewish and the early Christian communities of his day. But it speaks too of a more wholehearted unity, an appeal to common ancestry and a call into universal community. It seems that by the time of Christ shepherds had actually picked up rather a bad reputation. Associated with, at worst, brigandry and crime, at best, rootlessness, the edge of decent society. That’s partly what makes so wonderful the shepherds’ pioneering place at the nativity. In identifying as the Good Shepherd then Christ also characteristically reclaims and redeems that ancient mantle – at once showing solidarity with the outsider, wiping the record clean, resetting expectations and taking us back to the origins, to what matters. At a time like that we live in – if there is indeed comparison to be had – we realise something of the importance of the simple things in life and realise that many of the preconceptions and expectations of what we’ve called ‘normality’ might not be the right ones. Jesus the Good Shepherd is our inspiration and our guide in these new, and yet infinitely old pastures.
And finally, all this strengthens rather than obscures that initial insight into what the image of the Good Shepherd shows us about our God – the one that speaks to infants as it does to their grandparents. It informs us about the sort of leadership we might all need, at times and in places, to aspire to. But more fundamentally it communicates to us all the ultimately indescribable sort of love that he has for each one of us. The Good Shepherd points beyond its human correspondent and in doing so confirms to each one of us, young and old, that we are safe when we affirm that we are the people who belong to his pasture – the flock that is led by his hand.