On shepherds, baptism and confirmation

This is the sermon preached on April 29, 2012 by Bishop Don Phillips at saint benedict’s table, at a Eastertide liturgy of baptism and confirmation. Or more accurately, it is a “best-recollection” transcript of the sermon, prepared by Bishop Don from his sermon notes.

If we were using the psalm appointed for today, we would have read Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd”, which is, without a doubt, the best known of the psalms, if not one of the best known pieces in all of scripture. And as a result, in “church circles”, between the Gospel reading we heard tonight from John 10:11-18 and this Psalm 23, today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Tonight, eight members of our community are being baptized or confirmed.  So in tonight’s context, it could be said that these eight persons are affirming that “The Lord is their Shepherd”; and by doing so in our midst, they are reminding us and inviting us to re-visit, or even visit for the first time, who we are as God’s sheep.

So what do we mean when we claim, “The Lord is my shepherd.”? For many of us who have hung around traditional churches for a good piece of our lives, we have seen a lot of artwork – paintings, needlepoint, stained glass windows, pictures … of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Often they portray a handsome, bearded man carrying a lamb, perhaps wrapped around the back of his neck with its legs draped over his chest, or maybe cuddled in his arms, as he takes it to safety.

For others, the notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may not conjure up a “picture” so much as a thought, a principle, a philosophy that is operative in their life – “I have someone who’s lookin’ out for me in this life – and I’m grateful!”

Both of these images are good and helpful to us in helping us to know that God loves us. But they come entirely from the perspective of you or me as individuals with us at the centre of our universe!  Jesus is my Shepherd – or my “spiritual doctor”, or my life coach!

I think it is more helpful and more truthful to see this from God’s perspective – with God and God’s world in the centre of the picture rather than ourselves.  And if we were to do that, then Psalm 23 might begin something like this:  “I am one of the Lord’s sheep; I belong to him and he makes sure I have what I need.”

Also, to try and get at the deep truth of this Shepherd and his sheep – it may not be that helpful to try and explore the notion of actual shepherding too much.  Sure we can draw comparisons from the fact that good shepherds are protectors and providers – loving and owning their sheep.  But we also need to keep in mind that Israel already had a strong biblical tradition of “God as Shepherd of Israel” and of Israel’s leaders as being “shepherds in God’s place.”  In the prophet Ezekiel, when Israel goes into exile – its peoples deported by armies of foreigners who had conquered their land – Ezekiel speaks of the “faithless Shepherds” of Israel – in reference to Israel’s leaders.

So it is against this backdrop (rather than pastoral scenes of frolicking lambs in the midst of strong and gentle shepherds) that Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd, and I will faithfully protect and provide for God’s sheep.”

So what does it mean to acknowledge that “The Lord is my Shepherd?”  First of all, it means that you are not your own!  Think what that means!   It means that there is Another – bigger, brighter, more powerful – whose wisdom and ways you and I cannot comprehend or control – laying claim to your life – attempting to lead you on a certain path.  Particularly in our culture where so many take pride in being in control of themselves – self made men and women – the idea of “not being your own” is not so comfortable.  But this “Other” is also one who loves you with a love that almost defies description!

Secondly, it means that you are part of a flock.  By definition, you are related to, and share your life with, all the other sheep.  (Look around at the people in the pews near you.  They are all your fellow sheep in this flock – even if you don’t know who they are.  All of humanity belongs to this flock.)  Much of our world doesn’t know that – this inter-relatedness of humanity.  The Christian Church is to model that reality for the world.  We are to treat each other as brother/sister.  Being immersed in, and accountable to, a local Christian community makes that real, and makes it real to the world.  It shows that it’s not just an “idea” or a “theory” – this is how it really is!

Tonight, eight of “God’s sheep” are committing themselves to the Good Shepherd and to his flock.  And we are joining them – recommitting our lives to the Good Shepherd – AND to them!  We are actively listening for his “voice” in the Scripture that’s read, in the prayers and hymns … and being fed by him at the Table of Holy Communion.  All of these we embrace to visibly remind ourselves of the Shepherd and of our fellow sheep.

So what happens for us when we accept being “sheep of the Good Shepherd?”  First of all, we are given a new name – a name of authority and power.  We belong to the Name of Jesus Christ.  Everything we do – we do in that Name – either to its glory or its shame!  It is not just a label, or a “religious choice”.  We are taking on and receiving a “life identity”.  That Name is more powerful than you or me.  To belong to that Name is not to be taken lightly.  And secondly, because of that belonging, we bear a “mark” – the mark of the Good Shepherd.  (I don’t know how many of you have seen herds of sheep in a field, but they always bear the mark of their shepherd – often a splash of brightly-coloured paint on their flank.)  Our Shepherd’s “mark” is symbolized for us in the cross on our foreheads.  We are marked as “Christ’s own forever!”

How are we here – tonight – connected to this action of Christ’s?  In teaching about Jesus Christ and his relationship to us, the author of the 1st Letter of Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) This is what Christ did.  Then the author describes the ongoing relationship to us in this way. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25). The word that is translated as “shepherd” is a Greek word – poimēn – which is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “pastor.”  And the word that is translated as “guardian” is from the Greek word – episcopos – meaning overseer.  In Middle English this word became “biscop” from which we get the word “bishop.”  So 1 Peter 2:25 could read like this:  “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the pastor and bishop of your souls,” which is Jesus Christ.

So Jamie and I are just “stand ins” tonight for the real Pastor and Bishop.  But, by the grace of God, we are called to be Christ’s hands and voice – so that, as we faithfully carry out this ministry, Christ himself marks and empowers these persons – and in fact – all of us, as his sheep – his flock.

The author of 1 John tells us, “This is his commandment – that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ – the One whose mark we bear. This means  believing that Jesus really is God in the flesh; that he came, lived, died, rose and ascended for us and for the whole world; and that Christ really is the Lord of heaven and earth. The author of 1 John continues, “and love one another, just as he had commanded us.”  We need to live that out here!  You need to offer yourself to giving and receiving that love with each other – here!  You need to give and receive love from your pastor Jamie (“I mean – what’s not to love?”) and you and I need to give and receive love with each other too – even if I’m not here much – because we’re sheep of the one Shepherd and we need to introduce that shepherd to all of this sheep in this world as we have heard in tonight’s Gospel.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be – one flock – one Shepherd.  Amen.



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