Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our Good Shepherd is risen!

When Jesus says in today's Gospel that we are like sheep he is not paying us a compliment! I grew up in the city, but it wasn’t long into my time in sheep farming areas that I realised just how stupid sheep could be, and how in desperate need of guidance and help they are most of the time. As someone pointed out, you don't go to the circus to see well trained sheep doing complex performances! 

When there is a drought the poor old farmer and his dogs have to go out every day and bring the sheep back to those dams that still have water in them. If the farmer doesn’t do that, his sheep wll eventually end up as parched carcasses, scattered across the property. You see, even though they have all the water they need, all the shade they need, and extra feed brought regularly by the farmer, one of them gets the bright idea that there is a better supply of water somewhere else - better shade, or more feed -, and wanders off ... and the others, in spite of the fact that they are perfectly contented, still automatically – sometimes in single file - follow the first one. For their own good the farmer has to keep bringing them back. 

No wonder Psalm 119:176 says: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” No wonder Isaiah 53: 6 reminds us: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” 

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is gloriously risen! He loves us, he gathers us, he protects us, he feeds us, he guides us, he heals us, and he brings us safely home. 

In his famous sermon on the Good Shepherd, St Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) says

Jesus . . . “contrasts his own watchfulness and love with their [i.e. the Pharisees’] neglect, and points out that they are without concern for their flock, while he declares that his own care for them reaches to the point where he is prepared to lay down his life for them all. 

“He shows in what manner a shepherd may be proved good; and He teaches that he must be prepared to give up his life fighting in defense of his sheep, which was fulfilled in Christ. For man has departed from the love of God, and fallen into sin, and because of this was, I say, excluded from the divine abode of paradise, and when he was weakened by that disaster, he yielded to the devil tempting him to sin, and death following that sin he became the prey of fierce and ravenous wolves. But after Christ was announced as the True Shepherd of all men, He laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16), fighting for us against that pack of inhuman beasts. He bore the Cross for us, that by His own death he might destroy death. He was condemned for us, that He might deliver all of us from the sentence of punishment: the tyranny of sin being overthrown by our faith: fastening to the Cross the decree that stood against us, as it is written (Colossians 2:14). 

“Therefore as the father of sin had as it were shut up the sheep in hell, giving them to death to feed on, as it is written in the psalms (Ps. Xlviii.16), He died for us as truly Good, and truly our Shepherd, so that the dark shadow of death driven away He might join us to the company of the blessed in heaven; and in exchange for abodes that lie far in the depths of the pit, and in the hidden places of the sea, grant us mansions in His Father’s House above. Because of this he says to us in another place: Fear not, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you a kingdom (Luke 12:32).” (From The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, Volume 2 ed M. F. Toal, pages 308-309) 

The word for "good" when used in the expression "Good Shepherd" is not primarily a moral description. It is more like "true", "real" or "authentic." Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) in his Readings in John's Gospel could even say: 

"The Good Shepherd: The shepherd, the beautiful one. Of course this translation exaggerates. But it is important that the word for 'good' here is one that represents, not the moral rectitude of goodness, nor its austerity, but it's attractiveness. We must not forget that our vocation is so to practise virtue that men are won to it; it is possible to be morally upright repulsively! In the Lord Jesus we see 'the beauty of holiness' (Psalm xcvi,9). He was 'good' in such manner as to draw all men to himself (xii,32). And this beauty of goodness is supremely seen in the act by which he would so draw them, wherein he lays down his life for the sheep."


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