Jesus the Good Shepherd: Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee.

ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς

Why, when we are in the middle of the Great Fifty Days of Easter – why in the midst of all of the wonderful stories of Christ the Risen One which we have heard over the last few weeks – why, suddenly, this morning, does the church call upon us to listen to our Lord’s words wherein the Fourth Evangelist has him speak of himself as “the good shepherd” – or, as we more accurately might translate the evangelist’s Greek – “the beautiful” or “the noble shepherd”?   Why now?

First, I think it is precisely because we are in the midst of these wonderful stories of the Risen One that the church believes we need also to remind ourselves just who the Risen One is. After all, the mere fact of someone coming back from the dead might not in itself have been especially good news. He might have been a vengeful Odysseus coming back to his house to take vengeance on those who have betrayed him, as the disciples surely had done, and as we too have all done, in our own way! Or this might have been a demonic rising from the dead, the birth of a vampire, in which case perhaps Mary Magdalen and the others might need to send for Buffy!

Yes, it might have been. But it wasn’t.

This Risen One is our noble shepherd who has loved us unto death. This Risen One is the noble shepherd who, even though the male disciples were all traitors and failures, still calls them his brothers.

God, the LORD, is the shepherd of God’s people. We have long known that – David sang of it centuries ago, as the psalm we hear in the Proper for the 4th Sunday of Easter reminds us. So now we hear that Jesus, too, is the shepherd of God’s people, and since, as he points out, there is only “one shepherd,” we know who Jesus must be! But wait! As the TV commercials often say: there is more! What a very extraordinary shepherd and what a very extraordinary shepherding this is! Shepherds indeed take care of their sheep: but it is, after all, for the shepherd’s own benefit. Shepherds take care if the sheep so that they may profit from them. But this shepherd takes care of the sheep for their sake, so that they may dwell in his house for ever! However caring shepherds may be, in the end, we know, many of the lambs will die for them, so that the shepherd may earn a living, and we may have our roast lamb for dinner. But this shepherd dies for the sheep!

Again, I think that we are reminded today of Christ the Noble Shepherd in order that we may keep in mind what it the resurrection is actually about, what it actually means. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I sometimes feel that some of my dear Roman Catholic friends and my dear Evangelical friends, in their anxiety to defend the reality of the empty tomb, of the one who ate and drank with his disciples after he had risen from the dead – in their anxiety to defend the reality of all that, for which I applaud them – are nonetheless sometimes in danger of seeming to talk about the resurrection as if it were simply a historical event whose mere historicity is to be defended, as one might defend the historicity of the battle of Waterloo or Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain, and then go on to speak, perhaps, of its results or its importance. But a theology that is truly Catholic and Evangelical must surely make clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just like that. Yes, the appearances to Mary Magdalen and the other disciples, the empty tomb, the eating and drinking together – yes, these are real events in the past, and they are important events for us to remember and celebrate. But they are important precisely because the resurrection of Jesus himself, if he is what we say he is and that resurrection was what we say it was, is not merely an event in the past and can never be merely that. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is also a factor of the present. As the Lord of the Dance song has it – a song that I was taught to sing when I was quite little – “they knocked me down, but I leapt up high, for I am the life that can never, never die!” Exactly! The resurrection and the risen one are important precisely because the Risen Christ is not just the One who rose but also the Living One who enters my life and confronts me now!

There is, of course, one little problem, and it was there from the beginning. You will remember how, even with the first resurrection experiences, even with the disciples who had lived and worked with him, at first, they generally have some difficulty recognizing him. Even those who have been closest to him, even Mary of Magdala, who at first took him for the gardener. Invariably Jesus has to call them by a well known name, to break bread as he always done, to open the scriptures to them as only he could – in a word, invariably he has to act in some way by which they suddenly do recognize him for who he is, and identify him as Jesus, the same Jesus who lived and died for them.

We too have this problem. When Christ comes to us, we, too, do not always recognize him. And that, of course, is where the church comes in. That, if you like, is what the church is for. We might even define the church as that organization which is competent to enable us to see and recognize the Risen Christ for ourselves.

How does the church do that?

Basically, by its witness: by reminding us of the story and telling us the story in such a way that when the risen Christ enters our lives, as he surely does for each one of us, when we experience him in grace and glory and goodness, or perhaps, in pain and suffering, then nonetheless we may recognize Him with whom we have to do, and identify him. That is why, at the end of mass, we pray for grace to be faithful witnesses to Christ our Lord – so that we in our turn may do the work of the church, and enable others to see the Risen One, and likewise distinguish Him from all the many counterfeits that offer themselves to us in life. In addition the church has, of course, certain covenanted acts – most notably the Mass, wherein Christ himself, the crucified and risen one, has promised to be present to us when do them: and thereby we may regularly seek his presence, to be strengthened and fed by it and also, of course to be enabled by it and to have our eyes opened by it, so that we may recognize Him when he meets us elsewhere in the world, outside of the boundaries of the covenanted sacraments or even the church. And to what end? The end is and was, of course, always joy! Joy in heaven, and joy on earth – that joy which our Lord tells us there us among the angels over one sinner that repents.   The purpose of it all is the unfolding and enabling of that unity with the shepherd and with each other for which we were actually created – that unity with the shepherd and each other that in our folly we have so often and so easily thrown away. As our Lord tells us, “other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

When we all participate together in that general resurrection, in the life of the one flock with the beautiful shepherd, then will be the final fulfillment of Calvary – and not just of our Lord’s Calvary, but of all the millions of other calvaries that litter our history, right down to the latest violent death in Iraq or Syria – or, come to that, in a school in this country. Then and there, by God’s grace, all will find meaning and glory, just as the wounds of Christ are glorified in his resurrection. And then and there, I think, our real life will begin, our real life, for which everything before will be seen as preparation – never wasted, of course: indeed, precious and glorified – but still only preparation, a prologue, a tuning up of the orchestra for the great symphony of eternal life, the true drama of heaven, which will then begin.





Ghosts? Text of a Sermon preached by Fr Robert MacSwain on the 3rd Sunday of Easter 2018 at St Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

For the Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

I’m not a fan of most supernatural horror movies, but there are some good, well-made, thought-provoking ghost films out there, by which I mean films that are less about scaring you witless and more about making you think about what it would mean to either be a ghost or to interact with one.

Haley Joel Onsment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, dir. M Night Shayamalam (Hollywood Pictures 1999)

Perhaps the best-known example of this genre is The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan, which came out in 1999, starring Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who—as he famously puts it—“sees dead people,” and Bruce Willis as the skeptical child psychologist trying to help him. Aside from one of the most talked-about plot twists in cinematic history, Shyamalan’s distinctive take on ghosts is that—as Osment’s character again puts it—“they don’t know they’re dead.” Ghosts are stuck between this life and the next due to some trauma or unresolved problem, and although they think they are still alive they can’t move on until they are somehow healed or released from whatever is holding them back. It’s a powerful and moving film.[1]

Another film in this category is The Devil’s Backbone by Guillermo del Toro, which came out in 2001. Set at a boys’ orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, del Toro’s distinctive take on ghosts is that they are as afraid of us as we are of them. But, as in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone are also stuck. The film begins with a monologue which asks:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.[2]

Of course, the reason I am focusing on what these films suggest about what it means to be a ghost is because our gospel lesson today is also concerned with the precise same question. When Jesus first appears to his disciples after his death, their initial response is not joy and excitement but shock and horror: as Luke puts it, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Jesus then does everything he can to reassure them, and even explicitly addresses the ghost question:

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Jesus did everything he could to assure them that he was not a ghost, but they still took some convincing.

A more recent film than either The Sixth Sense or The Devil’s Backbone is Risen, which came out just two years ago.[3] I don’t like most supernatural horror movies, but I also don’t like most so-called “faith-based” movies either, as they tend to pander to their intended religious audience and the faith they present is usually both simplistic and sentimental. Risen is a partial exception to this critique: it’s a big-budget sword-and-sandals biblical extravaganza like they used to make, with high production values and a strong cast. The well-known English actor Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune in Jerusalem who is charged by Pilate to oversee the crucifixion of Christ but who is then faced with the serious problem of finding his body when it goes missing three days later.

The film critic Matt Zoller Seitz explains:

And so Clavius has to act like a detective, questioning people who knew Yeshua or were in His presence during His final days, in hopes of figuring out what happened to the body. It couldn’t be an instance of the Son of God coming back from the dead, after all, because that would be a miracle! During his travels, Clavius hears one witness after another describe Yeshua as a benevolent prophet with supernatural powers. And he starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side.

Joseph Fiennes in Risen, dir. Kevin Reynolds (Columbia Pictures, 2016)


Fiennes’ performance sells the transformation. With his attentive stare and subtle reactions—by turns mortified, judgmental and cynically exhausted—he makes Clavius seem more attentive and skeptical than his countrymen. When the tale begins, the character already seems aware that Roman dominance of the region can’t be sustained. All this business with the messiah and the cave jump-starts a spiritual crisis that builds within him. Fiennes’ expressions are just right. We see the character being rattled by other peoples’ astonishment and gradually deciding to give in and join it.[4]

Where Risen overplays its hand and eventually unravels as a film is that Clavius actually meets the resurrected Christ. In a crucial scene, the Roman soldiers are hunting through the streets of Jerusalem for the disciples-in-hiding so they can find the body and end this religious movement. Clavius kicks open a door, sword in hand, and there is Jesus with the eleven in the upper room, sharing the very meal that our gospel lesson describes as they touch his wounds with wondering hands. Recognizing the man he saw die on the cross with his own eyes, Clavius drops his sword, puts his back against a wall, and slowly slides to the floor. Even more problematically, Clavius then joins with the disciples, helps them escape the Roman legions, gets them safely to Galilee, participates in the miraculous haul of fish, and even witnesses the ascension.

The problem with all this, both cinematically and theologically, is not so much that Clavius is an imaginary addition to the biblical narrative, but rather that what Seitz described above should have been sufficient. The character of Clavius, a cynical and skeptical Roman soldier, more plausibly represents us instead of the disciples. That is, he represents not the immediate inner circle but those who came later, those who come to believe in the resurrection not because of a visible encounter with the risen Christ, but because of the witness to that resurrection by his closest followers in their words and deeds, and the way in which that witness resonates within. It is in the chaos and confusion of Jerusalem after the body disappears, it is in the relentless brutality of maintaining empire, it is in the spiritual emptiness of his existence that the radiantly transformed lives of the disciples open Clavius to the inconceivable possibility that the Nazarene is really the Son of God after all. And so it is in the chaos and confusion of our own lives as well. The additional elements in Risen are not just implausible, they are unnecessary.

Back to The Sixth Sense and The Devil’s Backbone, in both of them ghosts are stuck, stuck between this world and the next, unable to move forward until what binds them has been loosed, their trauma has been healed, their problem has been solved:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Jesus is not a ghost, but we often find ourselves stuck in similar ghostly loops from which we cannot extricate ourselves. When something doesn’t work in our lives we try to move on, and often do, but then when the next thing doesn’t work either, we are tempted to go back to what didn’t work earlier, just because it is familiar, and then we just repeat ourselves ad nauseam. This is actually a famous definition of insanity, namely doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But how much of our lives can be described this way?

Jesus is not a ghost, but he sees us in our ghostliness and offers a way out. The eternal life he shares with us is not a ghostly existence, like an insect trapped in amber, but real life in all its fullness. So let us pray:

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.[5]

[1] The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Buena Vista Pictures, 1999).

[2] The Devil’s Backbone [El espinazo del Diablo], directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras (Sony Pictures Classics, 2001).

[3] Risen, directed by Kevin Reynolds, written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello (Columbia Pictures, 2016).

[4] Matt Zoller Seitz, Review of Risen:

[5] Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week (BCP 223).