Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Good Shepherd.

A circular Sheep Pen in Caithness, Scotland.
I can never find an adequate picture of the good Shepherd, most of the ones I find show Jesus in a sort of 'Janet and John' fuzzy glow, with suspiciously clean looking sheep around him, clad in bright white gowns holding a thinly disguised Bishops Crozier. This is quite at odds with how a Shepherd, both good or bad would look, then or now. The job of Shepherd at the time of Christ was a very lowly one indeed, normally done by outcasts, thieves and undesirables. That the Angels rent the sky asunder and sang 'Glory to God in the Highest' to them at the Nativity of Our Lord would be politically and socially shocking indeed, as if to us, now, the second coming was first sung of by celestial forces to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. I do not exaggerate for convenience. I would also not be surprised if the Second Coming taught us a thing or two about the true cosmic order of the universe, but more of the Primum Mobile another time.
So, naturally, Jesus calling himslf the Good Shepherd was a typical example of the way He taught through personal example. To talk of setting the prisoners free, of redemption for sinners, of eating with tax collectors, he actually had to walk the walk as well. And calling himself, the Son of God, the bright Morningstar, a shepherd and making his home with the outcasts made his social justice mission bright and clear. (And remember that we need to reciprocate as ardently as well, Andrew did not call the Police when Jesus said 'leave everything and come with me', he just left everything and went. I have left something very dear to myself to be here today, doing what I do, but it is still little compared to many others daily sacrifices).
He said he was the shepherd, who will look after his sheep. Now look at the picture above. You see a circular sheep pen, the wall needs mending on this side, but imagine that it is all fixed and secure. Apart from, of course, the gate at the other side. Why, you may wonder, is the gate so short? Why not just have a gap in the whole fence? This is because thieves used to steal the gates, so when the Shepherd eventually fell asleep, the sheep could escape. The hole was left small because that is where the good shepherd would sleep, in front of the exit, so the sheep were kept safe from wolves. His body was their protection, so the good shepherd literally would lay down his life for his sheep. So when Jesus says in John10, 7-10, that He is the gate and that whosoever enters by Him will be saved, He means it quite literally. His body, as the good Shepherd was literally laid down for us on the Cross, after whose trials He opened the door of the sheepfold (Heaven) to allow us entry. The cross, Christ Crucified, is the gate of Heaven. Belief in the Son of Man dying for our sins and the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, instituted on the night before He died, is necessary for entry, as is following His commandments, given so gently by so gentle a Man. Be merciful, confess your Faith publically, Do This in remembrance of Me, Love one another. I am not advocating that you join me in a life of Damson Wine, sandals and folk music, but acceptance, love and forgiveness are at the centre of His teaching.
I am now goin to say something contoversial and some of you will go off me for a time for saying it. This is that I am not sure that we are going about it in the right way. I am not sure that we express Christs life and teaching in our Churches in the way in which He would wish. And I am not sure, furthermore, that we carry that word out of our Churches into our lives as well as we ought.
We have the eternal truths of the Word of God and the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic Species into the Body and Blood of Christ, and I think that sometimes we fight over how we celebrate those mysteries. We all have different faith needs, I agree, but we all have the same faith. Within the divinely ordained (male) priesthood, there is too much argument, too much division. I see websites daily attacking fellow Christian churches because they do not like the Architecture, the Vestments, the shape of the Tabernacle, for crying out loud. We need to pray for the Christian faith, we may need to remodel ourselves for a new world, a world where Islam and secularism are creeping threats. We need to 'stand up and raise our heads' more, because we need to keep our eyes fixed on the Morningstar. Change is not bad. What is bad is modification or denial of the word and Sacrament of God. Christ knew we would be here, now, in this mess and He has given us the means to defend His Church. We, particularly us Catholics in the Church of England, need to stay and fight, peacefully, gracefully and sincerely.
Later on in John10, Jesus tells us that 'I have other sheep that do not belong to this (your) fold. I must bring them also'. What a beautiful sentiment, all the better for being Divine Truth. There are others who do not belong to our fold, and we must bring them also, by example and love and by living our lives in the way in which Jesus wishes. For others and for Him. One day there will be one flock and all the world will hear His voice, but we need to pray earnestly with our hearts and voices and lives that this state of Grace will happen sooner rather than later. The Escatological Jerusalem, the kingdom of God on Earth starts with individuals responding truthfully, bravely and honestly to God's love. Not falling out with one another, not walking away, but confessing the truth of Christ Crucified and being grateful that we have a Good Shepherd, and the message of eternal life. He knows us, you see, and we know Him, even when he seems far away or when we distance ourselves from him.
'Whoever enters by me, they will be saved'