15 May 2011

Responding to Christ’s unfailing, immeasurable love

The ruins of Saint Catherine’s Church ... the original parish church in Kenure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 15 May 2011, The Fourth Sunday of Easter:

Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.

9.30: Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, Holy Communion.

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

I once saw a T-shirt with the slogan: “Three good reasons to be a teacher: June, July, August.”

However, it seems June, July and August are going to be busy months for those of us teaching at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. There are student appraisals, courts of examiners, new courses and modules to prepare, timetables to agree on.

And then there is a series of ordinations of students as deacons and priests in the Church of God from this month right through to September.

The students who are being ordained in the coming weeks have worked on a variety of major projects with immediate relevance and sowing a deep pastoral sensitivity to the needs of the church, the needs of parishioners, and the needs of the world.

They are an outstanding group of students, and they will be a blessing to the parishes they work in. And I imagine as they sit in church this morning, all our ordinands will warm to our Gospel reading, as they think about Christ showing us the model of pastoral care as the Good Shepherd.

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most popular images in stained-glass windows in our churches, surpassed in popularity only by the Crucifixion or the Last Supper.

But 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 huggable, lovable, white fluffy Little Lamb, a little pet, no different from the Little Lamb that Mary had and that followed her to school.

But shepherds and sheep, in real life, are not like that. I recall 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 then did not fetch a price that made them worth losing your life for.

The sheep survived. But in the process it had been torn by brambles, had lost a lot of its wool, was bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after lost sheep gets torn by brambles, covered in sheep droppings, slips on rocks, risks his life. And all for what?

Christ is the Good Shepherd who goes out of his way for the outside, who risks his life to seek and find the wayward, the vulnerable, those who are easily led and easily led astray, those who are regarded by others as having little value.

Most of us – removed from farm life by two or generations – have little idea of what it is to be a shepherd, to look after sheep, to keep them in a sheepfold, how sheep follow the voice of their shepherds, but how easy it is to lead them astray.

The good news of the incarnation first came, not kings in their palaces or to the Roman governor, but to shepherds.

Yet they were among the poor, the exploited and the marginalised of their day. They stayed on the hostile hills as they herded their sheep. They faced all the dangers and difficulties the sheep faced, and were just as vulnerable. They shared the heat of the day, and they slept with their flocks at night, sharing the dangers of cold weather and threats of preying wolves.

In our Gospel reading and the verses that follow Christ compares himself to the Good Shepherd. In those verses that follow (verses 11-18) – but that we are not reading this morning – he says he is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, in the face of great risks from wolves and from the terrain.

Christ, against all the prevailing wisdom, identifies with those who are lost, those who are 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?

A beautiful example of the response to Christ’s unfailing, immeasurable love for us is provided by the early Church, in the way the Apostolic Church is described in our first reading (Acts 2: 42-47), their openness and warm welcome to the newcomers, their devotion to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking bread together and to prayers.

They were generous, sharing and filled with joy beyond their measure. They were filled with glad and generous hearts. And, because of that, they added to their numbers day-by-day.

And for me, that’s the best model for ministry of the deacons and priests who are being ordained this summer, and for the life of the church at parish level, yes, even for parishes such as this.

May we keep this in mind as we too break bread this morning, and in the Eucharist enter into communion with Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, and with one another and with the whole church, which is his true flock.

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 at the Eucharist in Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, on Sunday 15 May 2011.

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