Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Good Shepherd


Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 May 2009, The Fourth Sunday of Easter:

Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18.


Rathgar Methodist Church, Brighton Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6.

11:30, Holy Communion.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s a particular pleasure to be back in Rathgar Methodist Church this morning. Some of my closest friends in my teenage years went to church here, or to school in Rathgar National School.

The last time I was here was for a funeral a few years ago, and so it is good to be back here on a Sunday when we can celebrate together in word and sacrament.

As a lecturer in theology, I find I need to be back in local and parish churches on a regular basis to remind myself what it is all about … to remind myself why in the first place I became enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching and training those who are going to be priests, pastors and ministers.

Sometimes, people think that those of us who work in academic life are living in ivory towers. And they think especially that those of us who teach theology are engaged in an obtuse and remote field of study.

But our students in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute who are being ordained this year have worked on a variety of major projects, including global warming, the causes and effects of poverty, the AIDS crisis, healing ministry, and how we cope with death in the church and in our lives.

They are an outstanding group of students, and they will be a blessing to any parish or congregation they work in, but I also know that they too will see the parishes and congregations they are going to as blessings for them at the start of their ministries.

And one of the many blessings I have experienced in my work is the realisation how much closer we are moving together as members of the Methodist Church and members of the Church of Ireland.

Those final year students had their projects examined by a Methodist theologian I am sure many of you know, the Revd Dr Heather Morris of Edgehill Theological College.

At the moment, two of our staff members are lay Methodist theologians, and the institute’s director, the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott, is a member of the Covenant Council working out the details of how we make a practical application of the covenant between our two branches of the Church.

Among our NSM students, those students who will be ordained for the Non-Stipendiary Ministry, who will continue to work at their day-time professions or jobs, one was brought up in this congregation, and another will be ordained for the Methodist Church.

I imagine as they sit in church this morning, all our ordinands, Anglicans and Methodists alike, will warm to our Gospel reading, as they think about Christ showing us the model of pastoral care as the Good Shepherd.

It’s a popular image. I think, perhaps, that the image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most popular images to fill stained-glass windows in churches of every tradition, surpassed in popularity only by windows showing the Crucifixion or the Last Supper.

But, you know, sometimes I have problems with our cosy, comfortable image of the Good Shepherd. Christ is so often portrayed in clean, spick-and-span, neatly tailored, nicely dry-cleaned, red and white robes, complete with a golden clasp to hold all those robes together.

And the lost sheep is a huggy, lovable, white fluffy Little Lamb, a little pet, no different from the Little Lamb that Mary had in the nursery rhyme and that followed her to school.

But shepherds and sheep, in real life, are not like that.

I remember once, on Achill Island, hearing about a shepherd who went down a rock-face looking for a lost sheep, and who lost his life. Local people were shocked – lambs don’t fetch a price in the mart that makes them worth losing your life for.

The sheep survived. But as you can imagine, in the process of being lost, it had been torn by brambles, had lost a lot of its wool, was bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after a lost sheep will get torn by brambles too, covered in sheep droppings, slip on the rocks, risk his life. And all for what?

And yet Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, in the face of great risks from wolves and from the terrain, and against all common wisdom, as the hired hands would know.

Christ, against all the prevailing wisdom, identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially on the margins, who are smelly and dirty, injured and broken, regarded by everyone else as worthless, as simply not worth the bother.

God sees us – all of us – in our human condition, with all our collective and individual faults and failings, and in Christ totally identifies with us.

And how should we respond to that?

Saint John the Divine, Saint John the Evangelist tells us in our Epistle reading this morning that our response to this outpouring of love from God, an outpouring that is risky and beyond all human understanding of generosity, is to love. To love not just those who are easy to love, but those who are difficult to love too. And to love beyond words.

He says: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians 6 (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s.

The evangelist was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

As John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

Love one another. God loves us. We ought to – no, we must – love one another.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what the students who are training for ordination will find out. That’s why working in a theological college is not working in an ivory tower. That’s why the students worked on projects on global warming, the causes and effects of poverty, the AIDS crisis, healing ministry, and how we cope with death in the church and in our lives.

And that’s why it’s important that we make love our priority, rather than ego, career, or worrying over the silly divisions that we constantly allow to creep into the Church.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in Rathgar Methodist Church, Brighton Road, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 3 May 2009.