Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway at Palmerston Place Parish Church – Sunday 22nd January

Ezekiel 34.1-10; John 10.11-18

Jesus said: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’

It’s good to be with you, in this Week of prayer for Christian Unity. To practise something of that unity, that coming together, as we together pray for our world, and try and respond to the needs of our city and our time.

We just heard a reading from St John’s Gospel chapter 10. Palmerston Place – you are currently embarked on Sunday mornings in looking at the great ‘I am’ sayings of John’s Gospel – the series of claims, or better, disclosures, that Jesus makes about himself, his identity; a series of sayings that help structure John’s Gospel, and bring into focus who Jesus is. John chapter 10 includes 2 of the I am sayings – last week you were thinking about Jesus’ statement: ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ at the beginning of John 10. That section ends with what perhaps can be thought of as the summary of the whole of John’s Gospel, as Jesus says, ‘I came that they (my sheep) may have life, and have it abundantly.’

And this week, we take up Jesus’ rumination on the sheep, what keeps them safe, and provides life, and the role of the shepherd in that. ‘I am not just the gate through which the sheep pass into pasture, but I am the good shepherd’ declares Jesus.

I’m not sure if this was your intention, but I admire a Presbyterian church inviting its Episcopalian neighbour to offer some thoughts on Jesus as the good shepherd. The image of shepherd is, after all, the main metaphor upon which the understanding and practice of bishops is based. It’s not for nothing that bishops usually arrive carrying a crook. And of course, historically, the presence and practice of bishops has been one of the great matters of dispute between us. Even if, fortunately, those arguments no longer carry the weight and bitterness they once did, I shall resist the temptation, in this week when we pray for unity, to explore that particular avenue!

But I want to resist that temptation, above all, because I think the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and what that suggests about leadership and community that is rooted in him, is of very wide importance to us all. I would not want to miss that significance by narrowing this down to a sermon about bishops.

We should admit, first of all, that most of us are somewhat distanced from the agrarian imagery that Jesus draws on throughout this chapter. Not many of us are particularly familiar with sheep and shepherds in our day to day life, here in the West End of Edinburgh. Such imagery would have been more familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries and hearers, both in their daily life, which would have been much closer to the land and its produce, but also because Jesus is drawing on well-known images from the bible, that themselves have emerged from among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd, they would have instinctively known something of what that meant. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.

As I say, that’s an image with a long biblical history. We might think of Psalm 23 above all – that beloved psalm no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death. So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd he is explicitly linking himself with that understanding and image of God.

And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. You will already, no doubt, have explored the fact that the most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the gate; and now I am the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is not only in scripture an image of God, however. It also is used by the prophets to critique those who have failed to tend the flock as they ought, those leaders who have failed in their duty to nourish and sustain the people – whose leadership is in stark contrast to that paradigm of the Good Shepherd. We heard a classic example of that critique from the prophet Ezekiel:

‘The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds.’

So when Jesus proclaims himself to be the Good Shepherd, he is making a claim about the leadership he embodies, and that distinguishes it from how power and leadership is often exercised. The image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image in the early church – an image of how Jesus continues to exercise power and leadership. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, what  we are called to live out.

There are two key elements to what Jesus says about the himself as the Good Shepherd that need to be brought out however. The first is that he pushes the image further than most would usually take it. ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ Moat of his hearers, and the readers of John’s Gospel, would have known that that is not usually true. The shepherd would guard the sheep, keep them safe, be alert to danger, and seek out good pasture. But not many shepherds would think it was part of the role to give up their own life if that was called for. There is a going further, an excess, in Jesus’ self-understanding – a going further that is linked to the abundance we identified as central to Jesus.

And the second element to notice is that Jesus is the good shepherd because of the mutual knowledge and indwelling of the Father and the Son: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ The mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son is seen in the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep – we are known, and loved, to the very core of who we are. And that love enables us into offering who we are for the abundant life of our world, just as the love of the Father enables the Son to be that Good Shepherd in ways that go beyond the norm.

So what does all this mean for us? Well first of all that the image and understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd should continue to question and nourish our understanding and practise of leadership. Are those with power and authority more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good, a glimpse of that abundant life which is at the heart of John’s Gospel. That’s not just a stick to beat our politicians with, however; it’s a question about what has happened to the language of vocation more generally. In our somewhat cynical age it’s a word that seems to have almost disappeared from general use; or at least become shrunk so that it only refers to those who are interested in exploring a vocation to the ministry. But if the insight of John’s Gospel is right – that Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of the mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son, because of that love that flows between them, and into which we are invited to be drawn – so we discover who we are, what we might be, by abiding in that love. And we begin to find the strength to participate too in that excess, that abundance, which Jesus also displays: the language of vocation is about a life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others; that to be ourselves is only possible when that connects us with others.

And the challenge for our two churches is to go deeper into that mutual knowing, within the love of God, so that each of us is enabled to be more fully ourselves. For our unity is not found in becoming the same, but in that deepening mutual knowledge and love, that enables each to be themselves.

‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ To proclaim Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to be drawn into that love, and know it for ourselves, for the abundant life of our world. Amen.