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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 7: “I am the Good Shepherd” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 10.11-18
The good shepherd is perhaps the best-loved of all Jesus’ I AM sayings in St John’s Gospel. There isn’t a more tender image in the gospel than this, linked as it always is in our minds with the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore shall I lack nothing”. It’s the kind of language that elicits our trust and confidence. We feel we could go anywhere, do anything with the Good Shepherd by our side. 
Of all the sayings we have been looking at in Holy Week, this one brings us closest to Good Friday and Easter. No fewer than five times in these few verses, Jesus speaks about “laying down” his life. He lays down his life for the sheep, just as later on, in the upper room, he will speak of laying down his life for his friends. It’s important to catch the decisiveness inherent in these words. Jesus’ death is not an accident, not even something that happens to him. He is in control of events, and his dying is an act of will, in obedience to his Father. “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” 
This saying is closely linked to one we looked at earlier this week, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I said then that we need to imagine the sheepfold as a circular stone enclosure with an open gap on one side for the sheep to pass in and out. It’s said that shepherds in Jesus’ day would themselves lie across the gap at night to close the circle and protect the sheep by keeping out bandits and wild animals on the prowl for the precious sheep. This was, in an almost literal sense, to “lay down” your life for the sheep both as gate and shepherd. 
Like all the other images we’ve explored this week, the good shepherd has a long history in the Hebrew Bible. We need to know that the shepherd was a familiar way of speaking about authority and kingship, both human and divine. God is called “the shepherd of Israel” in the Psalms, while the kings of Israel and Judah who ruled on his behalf were also familiarly known as shepherds. (Given the disdain with which shepherds were regarded in ancient times, this is a title worth pondering.) The shepherd’s role was to tend the sheep, feed and nurture them, and above all protect them from harm. 
And these were precisely the things that the kings of Israel did not do. The people were likened to sheep that had no shepherd: uncared for, undefended, wandering about as easy prey for predators and villains. The prophets roundly accused the kings of being self-serving in scattering God’s flock and driving them away. By contrast, God himself would come as the true shepherd who would search for his sheep, gather them up, protect them and look after them. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Which is to say, that where human kings had failed, God himself would come as the king and lord whose just and gentle rule would mean, at last, the freedom and flourishing of his beleaguered people.
This is why Jesus has so much to say about the thief who comes “only to steal and kill and destroy” – and the hired hand who sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. Beware of false messiahs, he says elsewhere, establish the credentials of those who claim authority over you, who promise good things without the power to deliver them, who are, in his own words, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. What is the test of the true shepherd? How would we recognise the one who has our interests in his heart? That he is willing to do anything to keep you safe, even if it means laying down his life for you. 
This is what we commemorate on Good Friday. No, I want to go further and use an even stronger word. This is what we celebrate today, this “greater love” with which the Fourth Gospel overflows. For into our world of fantasy and illusion, false hopes and failed promises, into our midst to live and die among us the Good Shepherd comes. We hear his voice and we recognise him, for even if he comes to us as one unknown, we sense that he knows us and loves us and asks us to know and love him in return. We gaze at the cross today and viewing it through the lens of St John, we see not the helpless victim of human cruelty, not the subject of a terrible tragedy, not bright hopes dashed against the rocks of abject failure and calamity. What we see is the shepherd-king who has chosen to lay to down his life because that is what he came to do. And precisely because he was obedient to his calling to love the world in all its chaos and confusion, we say of him that he reigns there on the cross of Golgotha. We acclaim him as our king, and as the world’s king enthroned in glory. We behold his glory, full of grace and truth, the truth and grace of the only power that he knows, the power of a life laid down, the power of self-giving love. 
Celebration, not lament, is the tone of a Johannine Good Friday. You could not get it more wrong than the hymn we used to sing when I was a child, “O come and mourn with me awhile”. At least, not when we read John’s passion narrative. There is a kind of piety that makes us feel sorry for Jesus in his suffering. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t walk a via dolorosa today, or sing a Stabat Mater in recognition of the pain that lies at the heart of mercy. Love is always costly because it demands so much of us. For God who so loved the world that he gave his only son, it cost not less than everything. 
But I think we need to look deeper into the movement of divine love that we honour on this holy day. What strikes us about St John’s vision of the cross is its sheer generosity. Its scope is nothing less than global. “Other sheep I have 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.” Who are these other sheep? Our companion Christians from other traditions? That gives us a ecumenical vision of a church brought back into union through the shepherd’s tender care. Jesus prayed that we might all be one. 
But we should think in even larger ways, I believe. When Jesus says of his death that “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself”, it is all humanity that is at least potentially in his mind. So here. As the Good Shepherd exercises his rule of love and peace, it has a benign effect on all who feel after God, all who long to find happiness and contentment – which, at some time or other, surely means the entire human family, each of us. So the cross has the whole of humanity in its sights, because God’s love is offered without limit. The only constraints we put on it are of our own making. The shepherd’s arms extended wide on the cross are an invitation to all humankind to recognise love, embrace it, receive it, a summons to find there a hope and a promise that is global in its scope. If ever our world needed to hear good news like this, it is now. 
Can we glimpse today, with the help of St John, that Golgotha really is a place of promise and hope for the world? Because love is its meaning, and Amor vincit omnia, love overcomes all things. “King of love my shepherd is.” And it is this hope and this promise that carry us safely through Good Friday towards Easter. For the power of love does not end with death. Listen again to the words of Jesus. “I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up again.” Our perspective on this day is from the other side of Easter where we already know that it is the risen Jesus who walks among us and knows us, who calls us by our name, whose voice we recognise and whose love is shed abroad in our hearts. He speaks to us of a shepherd’s tender care. He tells us that we can have a good hope because of his word. He inspires us with the prospect that one day humanity will be healed and reconciled because he laid down his life. As the human family gathers before the cross today in all our need and pain and brokenness, we cry out to him: “restore us; call us back to you by name, / And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.” And the good shepherd replies: “You are my friends. Be of good courage: I have overcome the world”.
Here is a final sonnet by the poet Malcolm Guite.

When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.

Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

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