Sunday, 25 April 2021

How good shepherds
follow Christ’s example
in a time of pandemic

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Christ Church, Leamonsley, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 April 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Lent IV)


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

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Christ the Good Shepherd, depicted in a stained-glass window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10: 11, 14).

This morning’s Gospel reading presents us with the best-known and best-loved of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel.

‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ As if to emphasise how important this description is as part of his identity, Christ says this twice (verses 11 and 14).

Perhaps we have heard it so often – ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10: 11, 14) – that we have become too comfortable with this image.

Yet, when we are being ordained, priests are told that we must always set the Good Shepherd before us as the pattern of our calling, caring for the people committed to our charge, ‘and joining with them in a common witness, that the world may come to know God’s glory and love’ (Book of Common Prayer, p 565).

The image continues when we are told that ‘the treasure now entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock’ (p 573).

I was thinking about this morning’s Gospel reading earlier last week, and wondering about that role model of the Good Shepherd.

I was asking myself whether the Good Shepherd had remained the pattern of my calling in priestly ministry, wondering whether this image was still a challenge to me and still a role model; or whether I had become too comfortable with the stained-glass image of the Good Shepherd, with his shining white robes and his fluffy white lambs.

I was asking these questions, thinking about these challenges, earlier last week, as I went for my first vaccination, the first of two Astra Zeneca vaccinations for the over 60s.

This is the first of two jabs. I had heard all the conspiracy theories, all the complaints, and all the moaning.

But it was a perfectly organised afternoon. We were guided into well-formed queues, moving at a leisurely but measured pace, by welcoming and cheerful volunteers. Those volunteers shepherded us like gentle shepherds looking after their sheep carefully, making sure we were comfortable and in the right place, no lost sheep.

This is what community is about: these are not the hired hands Christ warns about in the Gospel reading who may run away in the face of danger (John 10: 12-13). These are volunteers doing this for no recognition, no financial gain, no personal benefit, perhaps at risk, however remotely, of being infected themselves. They are doing this knowing that, hopefully, in a few months’ time, this is going to be a better, safer, society, collectively on the road to recovery, financially, socially and in terms of physical and psychological health.

The check-in process was as pleasant as checking in for a flight at an airport: complete with jokes about age and about being an Aston Villa supporter, and even bumping into an old schoolfriend.

It was putting into action those words in our epistle reading: ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (I John 3: 18).

The medical people were efficient, polite, professional and friendly all at the one time and probably for an entire working day.

My vaccine was administered by an army medic. For this pacifist, this was an experience of our defence forces at their best: defending people, saving lives, making the country safe, protecting us against what is effectively a foreign invader, making the country secure for future generations.

It was a day filled with positive experiences, reminders of what community is about: about how volunteers are one of the bedrocks of society; about how we need government intervention in health programmes to protect public health; about how paying our taxes ensures a more just society with access to health care on the basis of need rather than the ability to pay.

In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter reminds the rulers and all present of the good for all in ‘a good deed done to someone who was sick’ (Acts 4: 9).

Of course, I had bad reactions for the next day or two. I first had a chill, and then ran a temperature, before feeling completely tired and drowsy. But I had been warned about the possibility. And, given the choice of feeling like that for a day or two, or contracting Covid-19, or becoming a ‘super spreader,’ I know which I would opt for any day.

The psalmist reminds us this morning, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ (Psalm 23: 4).

But where are the other sheep, the lost sheep, the sheep who will not listen?

The take up of the vaccine offer for my age group is almost 90 percent. Which sounds good, until you realise this means there are 10 per cent or more people, some who have no access to the internet or proper public transport; some who live in fear; and those who listen to the conspiracy theorists and the pedlars of fake news and far-right propaganda, mixed in with that lethal cocktail of extreme nationalism, populism and racism.

When I was being ordained a deacon, I was entrusted with ‘a special responsibility to search out the careless and the indifferent’ (Book of Common Prayer, p 555). At my ordination as priest, I was told ‘to search for God’s children in the world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions’ (p 571). And so, I must continue to challenge the confusion created by conspiracy theorists who care less.

To be Christ-like, to be like the Good Shepherd, I must not turn my back on them. Like Christ, I too must recognise that those who put their own delusions or false fears above the good of all of us are lost sheep who are worth going after, whose health still matters, and whose good health is going to benefit all of us.

At our ordination, priests are asked by the bishop: ‘Will you be faithful in visiting the sick, in caring for the poor and needy, and in helping the oppressed?’ (p 567).

But that task is being carried out every day at vaccination centres across the land. The people at those centres – volunteers, receptionists, security staff, traffic controllers, medical professionals, army personnel – are surely what we mean by holy people.

And we should pray and give thanks for their gentle roles as shepherds of our people, and for the promise of a healthy future that they hold out for everyone.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Christ as the Good Shepherd … a mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 10: 11-18 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it 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.’

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Easter IV):

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord (John 20: 19, 20).

Preface:

Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Blessing:

The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Christ the Good Shepherd … the Hewson Memorial Window in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

21, The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want
20, The King of love my shepherd is



Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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