17th Apr, 2005

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday
8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Acts 2: 42-47 apostles’ teaching & fellowship
1 Peter 2: 19-25 Christ the shepherd & Guardian of your souls
St John 10: 1-10 Christ the Good Shepherd

In St John’s tenth chapter we hear the familiar parable of Christ the Good Shepherd, a few verses of which we have heard set as the Gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday. In the context that we have heard about this morning faithful Jews would have been in the Jerusalem Temple worshipping at the Feast of Dedication, Hanukah, which they still observe to this day. One of the readings that was set for their liturgy at that Hanukah service was from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel that tells how God calls Shepherds to care for and look after his sheep, the House of Israel. With those words from Ezekiel still fresh in their minds and ears the Jews were prepared, at least in one way, to hear Christ’s discourse and statement that “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Now while those words are relatively familiar in Jewish hearing and easy, even for us, to follow, their ultimate meaning is not so immediately clear. To some degree the tenth chapter of St John with its subsequent long discourse about: sheep hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice; recognizing that voice; following him; having an intimate and close relationship with that Shepherd; and the Flock going in and out of the sheepfold as the Pastor Bonum leads them, is like another favourite story of mine from the Second Book of Samuel.
King David has sent Uriah the Hittite, after whose wife Bathsheba he covets and lusts, off to battle, to the front line of action knowing that he will be killed in action and leave his wife a widow and thus the King free to have his own wicked way with her. Nathan the Prophet hears of this and has the courage and tenacity to go to the Royal Court and tell the King an oblique and seemingly innocuous story.
The oblique story goes like this: two men lived in a certain city, one a very wealthy businessman with many flocks of sheep and cattle; and the other a poor, simple straight-forward man, with only a single ewe lamb to his name that he loved as his own daughter and brought her up with his family and children, even feeding the lamb with his own food from the table. Now, a traveler came to stay with the wealthy man and this rich man would not take even a single sheep from his own immense flock, but rather demanded that the poor man slaughter his own beloved pet ewe for food to entertain the traveler. And the rich man took the lamb, killed it mercilessly and prepared it for the traveler. As the story is told King David’s anger is kindled at this cruel act of outrageous injustice, the Shepherd King of Israel vents his fury and indignation and demands of Nathan that this wealthy and cruel man’s identity be revealed that the King may wreak vengeance on him, so King David cries out “who is that man, for as truly as the Lord lives he deserves to die for his lack of pity?”
Turning and pointing directly at David “thou art the man!” replies the courageous prophet. It’s a brave person that tells a seemingly innocuous and straightforward story to a King that reveals the King’s own injustice, lust, greed and wickedness.
Again, this story is very easy to follow and when I was a child we always loved all the extra embellishments and dramatic details our Sunday School Teachers would add on to make us remember the story. I suspect that us British have a particular soft spot for pets and domesticated animals, but that is beside the point this morning.
However, the point is that while King David listened to the story with interest and a growing amount of alarm, indignation and anger, and it was easy to follow at one level, he had no idea until the very last that it was about him. He is the man.
In the tenth chapter of St John’s Gospel none of the figures are properly identified, actually not even the speaker is named. Only in verse six, earlier on, is Christ mentioned. And here’s another peculiarity, isn’t it strange too that a Shepherd, however Good he might be, knows each of his individual, yet numerous flock, by name and has a close and personal relationship with each of them, and yet stranger still that despite being so well-known to the Shepherd, and despite knowing intimately and always instantly recognizing this Good Shepherd’s voice, the sheep for their own well-being have to be “put out.” This is the theology of 2 by 4. Literally, in Greek, the sheep are “thrown out” yanked by the neck or legs and forcefully [push out with arms] thrown out. The verb is ‘ek ballo’ from which we get ballistic and there is thoroughness, physical compulsion in that phrase. We don’t like theology in the 2 by 4. We prefer gentle nuance, Anglican ambiguity and Episcopal metaphorical allusion- there’s always a bit of wiggle room then. But, perhaps this Good Shepherd sometimes needs to give us, perhaps you, perhaps me, a mighty & hefty reminder as to who exactly it is that leads us, and where we’re meant to be going. The Shepherd needs to push us in the direction he’s leading- and generally those who complain the most about being told in an unambiguous fashion what they’re meant to do or not do are the very ones who most need that compulsion- it’s very alien to our culture, our globalized culture, where ‘I’m not comfortable with that’ is an almost persistent litany. In yesterday’s Gospel reading at Mass it led some of the disciples to turn back- they couldn’t face the challenge.
So the Jews at this Feast of Dedication or Hanukah also known as the “Feast of Reconsecration to God’s Service, the Celebration of Light,” the Jews surround Christ in Solomon’s Portico in the Temple while the elements madly around them were raging, the winter winds blow and freeze them to the very marrow of their bones. There in that holy place they press Christ to tell them plainly who he is, is he the Messiah, God’s Anointed and Consecrated Servant they want to know? What is your identity?
“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask, with a heightening sense of exasperation, that is literally in Greek, “how long do you take away our lives?” The author of the Fourth Gospel is clever in mixing the old, familiar with the new and life-giving words of Christ. While they are there in the Temple St John is saying that, just beneath the surface of the written word if we listen attentively, light and consecration belong not to the old established religious rituals and institutions, to the Temple and Altar, but they belong to this man- to Jesus. He is the light of the world. And it is he, rather than the Temple and its Altar, who will be spoken of as Hanukah, Consecrated to God.
I am the Good Shepherd. Ego eimi ho poimeen ho kalos.
Alas ancient usage has hallowed GOOD, but what Christ actually says is that he is the KALOS Shepherd, from which we get the word calligraphy, beautiful writing.
He says he is “the model or ideal shepherd”, “the noble shepherd of perfection.” There is attractiveness to him, he draws men and women and children to follow him. He is alluring; he is the Beautiful Shepherd.
And if you think that “beautiful shepherd” is rather too frivolous a title to describe Our Lord, King David, who, despite his sin and wickedness against Uriah and Bathsheba, was the great, great, great, grandfather of Our Lord and who is the greatest of the OT shepherds is described not just as the Beautiful Shepherd in Hebrew but also as the “Handsome Shepherd” in the Midrash Rabbah by those ancient, venerable and far from frivolous Rabbis.
All through the Gospels Christ encounters, takes to task, meets with, addresses, is addressed by, challenges and is challenged himself by men and women and children and draws them into a relationship with himself and God the Father with whom he is one, and that is the faith of the Church Universal, that Christ still draws us through the sacraments, through the love of our brothers and sisters, and through his grace that is at work into relationship with this Good and Beautiful, this Kalos Shepherd.
That is an amazing and miraculous realization; … someone was telling me about their concerns with their faith this past week, they are going through some problems and personal questions; but at root what they are concerned about is their relationship with God: is God angry with me? Is God not talking to me? Why doesn’t God show me what I should do with my life? Why doesn’t God let me do the very thing I want to do? Sometimes it is very difficult, sometimes there are deafening silences; sometimes it can be a painful and excruciating experience being in love… with God.
The teasing out of all these things, exploring this relationship is what Christian discipleship and the life of this Parish is all about, but there are no foregone conclusions, no promise that it will easy or plain sailing: however, there is a promise that the sheep that hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and recognize him will never perish and no one can snatch them out of the Good Shepherd’s hand; “My Father, who has given the sheep to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”


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