Good Shepherd Sunday.  St. Stephen’s, Athens, Georgia.  April 26, 2020

St. John x, verse 11 – I am the good shepherd….

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

Years ago I supplied one long, hot summer for St. James’ Church in Cleveland, Ohio.  St. James’ is one of the oldest churches of any description in Cleveland and it has many treasures.  One day when I was cleaning a chalice after the daily mass I happened to turn it upside down.  There I was surprised to find three diamonds and around them the words, In honorem Sanctissimi Sacramenti – ‘In honor of the Most Holy Sacrament’.  Decades ago some pious layman gave those gems, to be placed where almost no one but God would know of them.  In a world where good works are often accompanied by extraordinary ostentation and publicity, rather than by the secrecy that our Lord recommends, I have seldom seen anything that so impressed me.  Of course some people would say that that placement of diamonds was a waste.  But then some people said the same thing when a woman lavishly poured precious ointment on Christ.  He did not seem to think so.  I mentioned this all some years ago in a sermon here, and a week or later received a rather large check from a member of the congregation who asked to remain anonymous.  She included a note which read, ‘My secret diamonds.’

The first time I put on this chasuble, which belongs to Archbishop Lewis, I impressed in a similar way by a secret feature.  The medallion on the back of this vestment is old and depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd.  On the inside of the chasuble, where normally only the priest will notice, are embroidered the words ‘Feed My Sheep’.  Any priest who puts this on reads, ‘Feed My Sheep’.

I hope you recognize those words:  ‘Feed my sheep’.  They come from a wonderful passage at the very end of St. John’s gospel.  The Risen Christ appears to some of the apostles on the shores of Galilee as they are fishing.  They have caught nothing all night, but at Christ’s command they try again and get a huge catch of fish.  Then St. John recognizes the Lord.  Peter in his excitement jumps into the water and swims to shore.  There the apostles have breakfast with Christ.  After giving them bread and fish, our Lord has a little conversation with Peter.  Three times he asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’:  ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me…?’  You will remember that Peter denied his Lord three times after his arrest.  By asking Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’ – by asking so as to grieve Peter by implying that there is some doubt as to his love – our Lord gently rebukes him for his denials and gives him the chance to reverse his earlier failure.  God always holds open the door for us.  Three times Peter is asked and three time he protests that he loves Christ:  ‘Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’  Three times our Lord then responds, ‘Feed my lambs….Feed my sheep….Feed my sheep.’ (St. John xxi)

What suitable words, then, these are for a priest to recall as he prepares to celebrate the sacrament that Christ instituted on the night Peter denied him.  The priest feeds Christ’s sheep in this sacrament, among other ways.  Our gospel lesson today concerning the Good Shepherd, from St. John x, sets up a model for the clergy.  Their authority is ministerial — they are meant to minister to others.  The Church does not exist for the sake of the clergy.  The clergy exist to serve the Church.  In this responsibility we have as our model Christ himself, the Good Shepherd.  Christ tells us in today’s gospel that the Good Shepherd is known by his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep.  In the epistle St. Peter draws out in more detail the evidence for Christ’s service to his flock:

Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example…:

…who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:  who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righ­teously:  who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree…by whose stripes ye were healed.  For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.  (I St. Peter ii.)

That is the ideal the clergy in general should emulate.  Since the laity also have a share in Christ’s priesthood – since we all are part of the priestly people of God who are meant to show forth Christ to the world – this ideal also applies to you.  We all are meant to serve – to serve the Church, our fellow Christians, and the world – in a self-sacrificial manner.

That is the ideal.  But again, it is useful to remember that it is to St. Peter that Christ addresses the words inside my chasuble, ‘Feed my sheep’.  If the ideal is self-sacrificial service, the reality is often much more like St. Peter.  St. Peter in the gospels always seems to get things wrong.  He begins to walk on water with great enthusiasm, but then loses his faith and begins to sink (St. Matthew xiv).  At the Transfiguration when Peter sees Moses, Elijah, and Jesus talking together, he proves himself to be the first High Church sacristy rat:  he wants to build a shrine – ‘Lord,…let us make here three taberna­cles….’ (St. Matthew xvii.4)  Peter will not let Christ wash his feet at the last supper; then when told that he must he asks for a whole bath (St. John xiii).  Peter swears that he will never desert Christ; a few hours later he runs away and then denies him point blank three times.  Peter is consistently presented in the gospels as slightly bumbling, over-enthusiastic, weak, and very fallible.  This presentation, by the way, is one of the great proofs for the authenticity of the gospels.  If the gospels were cooked up by the early Church to bolster its own authority, it is exceedingly strange that the greatest leader of that Church is presented as such a failure.

And yet there it is.  This weak, imperfect, often failing man is the one to whom our Lord says, ‘Feed my sheep.’  This should be a great comfort to us.  We fail again and again, just as did Peter.  We have great enthusiasms, which come to nothing.  We promise our devotion and loyalty, which disappear at the first pressure.  We, like Oscar Wilde, find that we can resist anything except temptation.  We repent us of our sins, then we relapse in them.  But there is always before us the undershepherd, Peter, who was so weak but became so great.  I hold him up, not so as to confirm you in sin, but so as to encourage you in repentance.  I hold him up, not so as to lessen the sting of failure, but so as to give you hope for success.  For Peter did not end in weakness and failure.  The bumbler in the gospels is firm and strong in Acts.  The man who denied Christ in the beginning, died for him in the end.

We, the sheep and the undershepherds who so often fail, have to encourage us not only the example of Peter, but even more, the promise of Christ:  ‘I am the good shepherd:  the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.’  The Good Shepherd already has given his life for us.  We are already saved.  We fail again and again.  Perverse and foolish oft we stray.  We have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep.  Yet he is the Good Shepherd.  He laid down his life for us, and he took it up again.  He is risen, and we are saved.  And if we will stay in the fold under his care, then we will find grace in time of need.  Like Peter we will find that failure may be undone, and sins be forgiven, and lives be improved so that we may die better than we have lived under the care of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

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

One thought on “Easter II sermon

  1. I feel like that posting was written for me. C/

    On Wed, Apr 29, 2020 at 11:04 AM Anglican Catholic Liturgy and Theology wrote:

    > anglicancatholicliturgyandtheology posted: “Good Shepherd Sunday. St. > Stephen’s, Athens, Georgia. April 26, 2020 St. John x, verse 11 – I am the > good shepherd…. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the > Holy Ghost. Amen. Years ago I supplied one long, hot summer for St. James’ > Ch” >

    Like

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