Jesus said, ‘I am the good Shepherd’
It is one of the great and classic images of care. Much beloved by the parade of generations who have gone before us, it appears constantly in glass and stone, in tapestry and mosaic even as the Shepherd’s Psalm, Psalm 23, shapes story and song, prayer and praise. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is very much with us.
But in the dominance of the therapeutic culture of our day, it runs the risk of being co-opted to the religion of sentimentality and feeling, the religion of Hallmark cards and Happy Faces; in short, the religion of “Gentle-Jesus-Come-And-Squeeze-Us”. We too easily forget the radical nature of care that this image of Christ the Good Shepherd presents to us. The Good Shepherd, after all, lays down his life for the sheep. The care of the Good Shepherd has death and resurrection in it. The care is not so much comfort as it is challenge.
It is largely through the eyes of John that we enter into the essential or credal mysteries of the Christian Faith. Nowhere is this signalled more clearly than in Eastertide, the season of the resurrection. The resurrection gives life and meaning to every other teaching. Through the eyes of John we contemplate the mystery of Christ the Good Shepherd.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd”. Through the eyes of John we learn just how radical an identification with us and with God that statement is. It involves an intensification and re-working of at least two Old Testament passages: the Shepherd’s Psalm and the revelation of God to Moses in the Burning Bush. The Psalm takes on an added dimension. There is an inescapable identity with God who reveals himself to Moses in the Burning Bush as “I am who I am”.
“The Lord is my shepherd”, the psalmist says. Jesus in the Gospels, takes that image upon himself and gives it a deeper meaning. Beyond the accompanying presence of God with us in “the valley of the shadow of death”, there is the God who goes into the darkness and loneliness of each and every death, the God who embraces our death as well as our life.
“Thy rod and thy staff” take on an entirely different meaning. They signify the cross and the rule of Christ. The God whom we have crucified by our sins and the follies of our wickednesses is the God who has conquered our sin and death. Christ is the Risen Lord and that makes all the difference. It intensifies the radical meaning of the psalm.
The strong message is that God goes with us, that the mysteries of life and death are taken up into the greater mystery of God. There is something more and something greater than death, something more than the waywardness of our sins that distance us from God. Such things serve to remind us that the root of care is cure. There is a remedy in it. They go a long ways towards countering the shallow therapeutic forms of care as comfort. They recall us to care as challenge, the challenge to will the cure that has been accomplished for us.
In the wonderful collect which graces this day and this week, Christ is identified as “both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly life”. The cure of the cross, radical and absolute, carries over into a pattern of holy life, the pattern of death and resurrection in us.
Such, we may say, is the care of the Good Shepherd. This quality of care is intended to shape the pastoral ministry of the Church, properly known as “the cure of souls”. When it doesn’t, of course, then care easily becomes patronising, belittling and even abusive, anything but challenging.
This shepherding care is not constrained to the ordained ministry but carries over into all the other forms of leadership and direction in the life of the Parish. There is to be the same quality of shepherding care by the Sunday School teachers, the Wardens and Vestry, the lay readers, the guild members and so on.
The deep message of Christ the Good Shepherd is not moral correctness so much as it is divine forgiveness which alone can restore, recreate and make new, if only we would have the eyes to see and the hearts to act upon what we see. The care is challenge. There is a remedy in it. We have only to will the cure in the care. It is our greatest challenge. It means to look upon the radical love of Christ for us and to let that love move in us.
In a way the shepherding care of Christ the Good Shepherd is signalled in our worship. We go up to God and God goes with us. Christ the Good Shepherd would gather us into his love for the Father even in and “through the valley of the shadow of death”.
Jesus said, ‘I am the good Shepherd’
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne