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