John 10.11-18 The Good Shepherd

Fr Alec
Sunday, April 26, 2015 - 9:30am

My mother complained about the photographs for years afterwards. Even today if you were to ask her about them, she would cast her eyes heavenward, and wonder out loud why my father was such a skinflint that he had to use up an old roll of film instead of buying new one.


The pictures of my christening all have the tell-tale pinkish hue that testifies to the my father’s unwillingness to let the film go to waste. There he stands in his kipper tie, next to my sister looking pretty and my brother looking uncomfortable in a shocking shirt with cowboys on it. Beside him is my mother in a broad-brimmed seventies hat, holding a big bundle of white fabric and lace, which turns out to be me. In the background the young moustachioed curate at St Peter’s looks on with a happy smile.


I was put in mind of this a few weeks ago when Jim Robertson, the curate in question, an old family friend, retired. It was a peculiar feeling to think that thirty-seven years ago this man had held me in his arms and baptised me, and that these rather mediocre pictures, and a disintegrating cardboard box with a candle in it, were the only things I had to show for it.


But of course that is not all there is to show for it. Something changed for good on that day. As it did when each of us was baptised. Because in baptism, our lives our indissolubly joined with the life of Christ.


When we received the gift of the Spirit at baptism, I imagine most of us were too young to understand what was going on. It was not our choice. The question of choice came later, at our Confirmation. But we would be mistaken to deny that we had entered into Christ on that day. God is not dependent on us for our salvation. He doesn’t have to wait for us think in a certain way or understand a certain set of Christian principles before he fills us with His grace.


Being a Christian implies that we lead, or at least seek to lead, a certain kind of life: gracious, generous, humble, self-sacrificing. It implies that we believe in certain things- the Trinity for example, or the resurrection of the dead. But before all this, being a Christian is to have been christened - baptised into the Risen Life of Jesus Christ. All of these things, precious as they are, spring from a relationship that Jesus has first established with us. We have not found him, rather he has found us.


‘I am the Good Shepherd’ says Jesus, ‘The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’


This is why our baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Once Christ the Good Shepherd has claimed us for his own, he will never let us go. We might wander off at any time, of course. He has not locked us into an enclosure, or chained us to himself. He simply calls us, and we either follow his voice or we do not. And sometimes we don’t. Each of us can think of bad choices we have made, or are making, or could make. We are all vulnerable to the wheedling inner voice that competes with the voice of the shepherd.


But we know within ourselves, even as we go our own way, that we are wandering away from the green pastures, away from the living water, away from the comforting rod that protects us from the wolves. As his voice grows faint in the distance, we reassure ourselves that we have not gone too far right up until the time that we have gone too far, and we find ourselves lost and alone, or, worse, trapped, and prey to the predators who begin to encircle us.


But Christ the Good Shepherd sets no limits on how far he will go to find us and bring us home. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Now, if I were a shepherd and not a priest, I might be a little taken aback by this claim. To give up one’s life for one’s livestock goes, one might argue, far beyond the conventional demands of animal husbandry. But Christ is deliberately stretching his metaphor here to make a point. He identifies so completely with his flock, loves them so dearly, that he himself takes on the role of a sacrificial lamb.


Christ not only proves his love by laying down his life. But is present for us precisely because he has laid down his life. He is the one who is at once both crucified and alive; who has laid down his life in order to take it up again.


He is not simply the powerful keeper who rescues the helpless victim. He becomes the victim in order to change what it means to be a victim. We were baptised into Jesus death, in order that we should share his life. A new kind of life in which the rules of the present age do not hold.


If we, as sheep, understand our salvation to come when we wander off and are fetched back, that is understandable, because that is how we experience it. But it began with the establishment of a relationship long before. When we were baptised we put away the kind of existence in which we are herd animals – skittish, panicky, distracted and competing for pasture. We took on a new life in Jesus Christ in which we have the freedom to look beyond those narrow horizons and grow into the likeness of our shepherd.


At ordination, the bishop describes the task that lies before those who are called to be priests:


They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling. With the Bishop and their fellow presbyters, they are to sustain the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.


Likewise, Jesus calls us to be changed. He came among us as shepherd and laid down his life so that we might rise up with him and lead others into the freedom of a life in which we are no longer a herd, but a fellowship, a communion, made one with one another and with God.