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The Good Shepherd

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Easter

by Dr. Robert Crouse 

St. James Church, Halifax,  AD 1987

"The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing." (Psalm 23.1) 




The language of the word of God in Holy Scripture is not often the language of precise theology; and that, no doubt is just as well, because such language has very limited accessibility.  The language of the word of God is more commonly the language of metaphor and parable, the language of poetic images, which have direct, immediate appeal to our imagination, and are inexhaustably rich with layers and levels of meaning and implication.


One such image is the theme of today's Gospel lesson.  Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.  It is an image which has immediate appeal, and has an impact which is direct and powerful.  All through the centuries of Christian devotion, all through the centuries of Christian art, this has been a favourite symbol and title of our Saviour.


It is an image which has immediate appeal; but is also an image replete with rich levels of meaning and implication, which deserve careful and thoughtful meditation.  Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd; and when he does that, he is echoing the language of the prophets of ancient Israel, who spoke of God as the shepherd of his people.  "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd!', says Isaiah, "he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." For the prophets, the image of the shepherd is the symbol of God's care for his people, watching over Israel, nourishing them with the word of his truth, and delivering them from every peril.  "The Lord is my shepherd", cries the Psalmist, "therefore can I lack nothing.  He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort It is even he that shall keep my soul."


All this Jesus takes up in his image of the Good Shepherd: he is Son of David, Shepherd-King of Israel.  But he is more; and he goes on to extend the implications of the image: "Other sheep I have", he says, "which are not of this fold; them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock and one shepherd".


He is Son of David, Shepherd-King of Israel; but God's new Israel, God's new kingdom of the Spirit, is universal, and therefore Jesus is the universal shepherd.  When early Christian artists adorned the catacombs with pictures, one of their themes was Jesus the Good Shepherd.  What they had first in mind, no doubt, was Jesus as shepherd of the dead.  But, remarkably, they represented the Good Shepherd as shepherd of the stars.  He is the cosmic shepherd, the universal shepherd, whose watchful care infuses and governs the whole order of creation, and brings it to its final redemption in himself: "there shall be one flock and one shepherd".


When we celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd, as we do today, what we celebrate is the universal providence of God, made manifest to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and that is, of course, why this Gospel lesson belongs to Eastertide.  We celebrate the universal providence of God, that watchful care, that unwearied love which governs all creation, from the highest angel to the least atom.  "Not a sparrow falleth without your heavenly father." By ways mysterious, past our finding out, the world is shepherded.  Even from our evils, he makes good to come; even from our dying, he makes resurrection.  "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and staff comfort me".


We celebrate the providence of God, and it is profoundly important that we do so, because that is the basic principle upon which our moral and spiritual life as Christians must be founded.  The ultimate truth of things is not evil, but good; the power which truly governs at this and every moment is the love of God.  "O God, thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down-sitting and up-rising: thou understandest my thoughts long before".  That all-embracing providence is sure and steadfast, and surely manifest in Jesus Christ.  He is the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.


The hireling, the time-server-perhaps our own selves in our moments of worldly calculation-would persuade us otherwise.  The hireling would persuade us that the world.  is governed by blind fortune, or by chance, and that the principle of our life must be expediency.  But, "When the wolf cometh, he fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep".  That hireling has about him a very plausible air of common-sense and practicality; he seems to know how to deal with this world, and get out of it what he can.  He seems a fine, worldly sort of fellow, who knows his way around: just the sort of guide a silly sheep might think he needs in a very complicated and confusing world.  But, alas; the wolf does come, and "the hireling fleeth".  Nor should we blame him, really.  His principle is expediency, and he simply follows the principle for which the silly sheep admired him.  There is nothing surprising about it, except, perhaps, our own capacity for such folly.


But we celebrate today the shepherd, and not the hireling; we celebrate the good, not the expedient.  We celebrate the providence which shepherds our life with watchful care, despite our sheepish foolishness; which shepherds our life with watchful care, even "through the valley of the shadow", even when "the wolf cometh".  And it is profoundly appropriate that we celebrate this in Eastertide, for it is in the miracle of Easter that we see expediency decisively overthrown, and God's good providence decisively manifest.  God brings good from our evil; God brings life from death.


And that is what we celebrate each time we celebrate this holy sacrament.  For here, Christ dies: his body broken, and his blood outpoured.  "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep".  But here Christ lives, and gives himself to be our own new life.  and thus, this sacrament is sign and pledge of that good shepherding which brings us to the fold of God's eternal Kingdom.


"The Lord is my shepherd Surely, his loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."