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Shepherd and Bishop

Easter 4, 21st April, 2002
The Rev'd Nick Mercer
Assistant Priest, St Mary's Bourne Street, London

Ezek 34.11-16; John 10.10-20; 1 Peter 2.19-25

Ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (1 Pet 2.25)

Two priests decide to go to Hawaii on holiday. They're determined to make this a real holiday by not wearing anything that would identify them as clergy. As soon as the plane lands, they buy some outrageous shorts and shirts. The next morning sitting on the beach, enjoying a drink, a gorgeous blond in an imaginative bikini walks by. She smiles at them and says, "Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father." They were both stunned. How in the world could she have known?

The next day, they bought even more outrageous outfits and wore sandals instead of black socks and Oxfords, and sunglasses. Well after a while, the same gorgeous blonde comes walking along the beach, turning heads as she goes. As she passes she turns again and says "Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father." Astonished one of the priests shouts out "How do you know we're priests?" The blonde turns with a puzzled look and says, "Father, it's me, Sister Monica!"

Greetings from England where if I get asked one more time who I think should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury...

There are of course a number of parallels between church and state. For just as democracy is the safest way of preserving social freedom, so episcopacy is arguably the safest way of maintaining Christian liberty. Good bishops and priests are able to curb excesses among themselves and their people; and are able to nurture and protect themselves and those in their charge. And both democracy and church order are necessary because of the Flaw in every human being. The Flaw that produces the atrocities that mark each succeeding century; the Flaw that sometimes mars our families and relationships; the Flaw that is able to draw us spiralling down in self-hatred. And it's because of that Flaw that Peter is able to state quite simply: "Ye were as sheep going astray;"

A common theme, and not a very flattering one, runs through many biblical metaphors, from Genesis to Revelation: we are wandering children, roaming sheep, stubborn mules, deserting disciples, straying lovers. This is not only the reality of the human condition, but it is the reality of our Christian condition. We are even selfish and self-centred in our approach to God. It is in our nature to want God when we need him and to want the freedom to go our own way and do our own thing at all other times.

But in that paradoxical way that God deals with us, as we really are, this is a converting condition for us – it drives us to God. Because we do truly want God, when we need him, so our deepest needs drive us to our deepest beliefs. When we recognise that we are needy, then we understand why we must believe. The cynic of course will always say that we 'make up' what we believe in order to give us comfort in our need. It is the cynic's right to believe this, and ours to doubt it.

This morning's OT lesson from Ezekiel was certainly in the mind of Jesus, John and Peter as they spoke and wrote. The prophet expands the understanding of our human need in the words of God, the shepherd and bishop of our souls to which Peter is alluding. So God says:

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ez 34:16)

Here is insight written two and a half thousand years ago, but describing our frail mortality.

We are lost – we sometimes do not know who we are, or what we believe, or who loves us, if anybody.
We have strayed – although we knew the way to go, we have deliberately, or neglectfully, wandered away.
We are injured – life, with all its unexpected and sometimes unwanted twists and turns, has left our minds and bodies in need of repair. Our consciences are scarred.
We are weak – for we know what noble creatures we should be and yet so often we dabble in the mud.
We are arrogant and unjust – we dare to play at god and even to oppress others, physically or psychologically.

So will God punish us? No!

You know the story of the guide who was explaining to the Holy Land pilgrims how an eastern shepherd always leads his flock from the front, gently guiding the sheep who trustingly follow. Unlike the western shepherds who drive the flock forward from behind. Just then they drove past a dozen sheep being herded from behind by a man with a large staff and a loud voice. The guide immediately jumped out of the coach to investigate. He soon returned, and obviously relieved he declared: "He's a butcher, not a shepherd!" There is that common view of God as the Bad Butcher rather than the Good Shepherd!

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ez 34:16)

Jesus, whom John characteristically casts as God in replaying the Ezekiel passage, echoes the words of the prophet: "I will feed them with rich pasture." So Jesus says in the verse before where our Gospel started today: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." Peter's message in the pastoral epistles is the same: that God cares and wants us to live full lives. When we grasp this reality of our faith in the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will want to return to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, to find rich pasture for our life.

St Ignatius of Antioch was around in the first century at about the same time that this letter of Peter and John's Gospel was written. He once commented: "A bishop never more resembles Jesus Christ than when his mouth is closed." Beyond the humour, there is deep wisdom in this, and imagery which was common in the early church: an allusion to Christ who is both sheep and shepherd. So the early church applied Isaiah 53 to Jesus when the prophet uses the image of the Suffering Servant: "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth."

The Good Shepherd, or ideal shepherd, or Jesus's words can even be translated 'beautiful shepherd', perhaps harking back to Samuel's description of David, Israel's Shepherd King: ' he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome' (1 Sam 16.12)... The Good Shepherd meekly lays down his life for the sheep. He knows them and they know him. There is mutual confidence, trust and mutual responsibility.

The word Bishop, which means overseer or guardian, speaks of this mutual responsibility. And it hints that we have it not just towards our Lord, but towards all those who care for us: our bishops and the priests to whom they have given the cure of souls. It also reminds us of another heavy theme of Scripture: care for one another; love of God and neighbour.

I was on the edge of a conversation the other day when the vicar of a struggling church was accusing a leader from a big evangelical church of sheep stealing. The vicar was a difficult man, who may have missed his calling as a bear tamer. In the end, the evangelical, rather exasperated, remarked: "we don't steal sheep, we just grow good grass." [For a moment I thought I had uncovered an evangelical drug cartel...] And of course it is true, that if we do care for one another – not with that smothering, overzealous care, that in the free churches is called 'heavy shepherding' – wonderful imagery – if we do care for one another, and for the other sheep who are not of our flock, not in our clique, then we will grow in grace and the likeness of Christ, and perhaps even in numbers.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, as it is sometimes called, let us be encouraged to believe that Christ, our Shepherd and Guardian, wants to lead us in green pastures, to restore our souls. He is a shepherd not a butcher. And let us remember our responsibilities to him and to each other, to be loving and careful; to speak and to act in such a way as builds up the Body of Christ. We are shepherds, not butchers. And as we come to this altar we remember that the Good shepherd is also the Lamb that was slain, and as we come to receive the Bread of Life, we remember with Peter that

We were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. (1 Pet 2.25)

The Revd Nick Mercer
St Mary's Presbytery, 30 Bourne St, London SW1W 8JJ
Voice: +44 20 7730 6607 Fax: +44 20 7730 7455 Mobile:+44 7973 226153


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