[The Sermon below turned out to be unexpectedly ‘interactive’.  The congregation in Tallahassee was quite small, but included an eight year old who laughed audibly when I mentioned a sheepdog.  He said, ‘A sheep dog!’  He and I then discussed the matter:  he thought a ‘sheep dog’ was part dog and part sheep – an understandable mistake.  We cleared the matter up to his satisfaction, and the congregation seemed content to listen in on the discussion.  Here is my text, prior to unanticipated interpolations….]

Saint John x, verse 16 – And other sheep have I, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In the Prayer Book tradition today, the Second Sunday after Easter, is commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday, from the theme of Christ as the shepherd of our souls, which occurs in both the epistle and the gospel.  In today’s gospel our Lord is speaking to ‘some of the Pharisees which were with him’ (ix.40), as we are told by John just before the lesson begins.  That is, our Lord is addressing a Jewish audience.  To these Pharisees our Lord says in my text, ‘[O]ther sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring’ (x.16).  Here Christ makes a prophecy.  He means that his work and care will eventually extend beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.  This prophecy creates a division among those who hear it, and some of the hearers are hostile.  These hostile folk want nothing to do with the Gentiles, but to consign them to outer darkness.  They want nothing to do with Jesus either, unless he is just as hostile to the Gentiles as they are.  They say in response to talk of other sheep in other folds that Christ ‘hath a devil, and is mad’ (x.20).  But some of them are more positive: they say, ‘These are not the words of him that hath a devil.’ (x.21).

So in its original context this lesson says that God’s first sheep are the Jews, but that the Gentiles also will become his sheep and will also be brought into his flock.  The flock will consist of Jews and Gentiles both.

Later on interpretation of this text went beyond this original meaning and applied it to the structure of the Church, and in particular made it a proof text for the papacy.  This use of the text came about partly because of a mistranslation of the original Greek by S. Jerome, who produced the common or Vulgate Latin Bible at the end of the 4th century.  The Vulgate Bible was the standard Bible of the Western Church into the Middle Ages and Reformation era, around which time scholars began once again to learn the original Biblical languages and so could correct Jerome’s translations.

In this case the debate concerns the final words: ‘there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.’  The words ‘fold’ and ‘shepherd’ in the Greek are very closely related to each other, and both come from a verb meaning ‘to feed’ or ‘to graze’.  The ‘shepherd’ is the one who provides the food, the grazing.  The ‘fold’ consists of those who are feeding and grazing.  μία πoίμvη, εἰς πoιμήv – one feeder, one fed.  Now a bunch of feeding animals is usually translated as a herd or a flock:  a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep.  But notice that our translation is ‘fold’ rather than ‘flock’.  The Prayer Book translation follows S. Jerome rather than the Greek, and here Jerome made a mistake.  A fold or sheepfold is not the flock of sheep, but rather is the pen or hedge or the cave in which the flock is kept.  Jerome emphasizes the thing that encloses the animals rather than the animals that are enclosed.

I’m sorry to have to spend so much time on this point of translation, but it is rather important.  It makes a great deal of difference whether we are talking about the sheep themselves or about the structure or institution which holds them.  The text doesn’t say that there will be one sheepfold, one institution, one cozy fenced in place.  The text says that the flock of sheep will be one.  The herd of the King Ranch in Texas might be held in many different pens, but we can still say there are 50,000 head of cattle in the King Ranch herd.  The herd or flock can be one without being in one fold or cattle pen.

So what our Lord actually says is that he is the one true shepherd of the sheep, and that the sheep are united because of him, because they hear his voice.  He does not say is that he has one true representative on earth, whose fenced in area is the one fold outside which no sheep is safe.

Bishop Mote used to say that he didn’t think of priests and bishops as shepherds so much as sheepdogs working for the Shepherd.  As with so many things about Bishop Mote, that rather homely idea got straight to the heart of the matter with great precision.  Saint Peter himself says that Christ is ‘the shepherd and Bishop of your souls’.  Of course our Lord shares his work with the clergy, so that we do have shepherds and bishops in our world.  But the shepherds and bishops in this world very much need to think of themselves as sheepdogs, whose duties are rather strictly limited to the work Christ has given them:  to preach the good news, to bring people to conversion, then to teach the faith to those who have been converted; to administer baptism and the Eucharist and the other sacraments; to encourage the faithful and warn the erring and care for the aged and lonely and sick; to be watchmen and sheepdogs under strict obedience to the one great Shepherd and Bishop of souls.

There are two kinds of problems in the Church.  There are the problems caused by the sheep.  Sheep in fact are not terribly clever or clean or obedient critters.  They get into all sorts of problems.  The people of the Church naturally tend to bring all sorts of dubious tendencies and ideas into the Church.  That’s one set of problems.  But just as bad, or worse, are the problems caused by the sheepdogs, the clergy, who can be self-serving, wilful, abusive, weak, and otherwise inadequate.  The answer in both cases is to cleave to Christ as the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, the one and only Saviour of the clergy and the laity both.  The unity of the Church does not come from a fence or a mechanical or organizational matter, but from a sacramental unity with the one true Head of the Church, the Risen Christ.  Sacramental unity with Christ does indeed require structures and organizations and outward and visible things – the water of baptism, the Eucharistic elements received by faith, the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination, the Apostolic Succession.  But all of these things are sacramental ways of sharing in the personal gift and life of Christ himself.  He is the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and only by dwelling in him, and he in us, are we united in the one flock of God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s