Easter 4         26 April 2015

Acts 4.5-12; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

When we were married, my husband and I went on honeymoon to Italy. There was just one thing we planned to do, the same, I’m sure as all newlyweds, which was to immerse ourselves in the study of Byzantine mosaics!  We had a glorious week in Ravenna, that epitome of Ecclesial diversity and saw more mosaics than you can shake a stick at, perhaps none more glorious than in S Apollinare in Classe.

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I have printed out some pictures for anyone who isn’t familiar with Ravenna. Within the one mosaic from the apse of the church in Classe there is an interplay between resurrection, transfiguration, sacrifice, episcopacy, eucharist, salvation and, holding it all together, the good shepherd. Moses and Elijah and the hand of God point to the transfigured face of Christ in the centre of a cross, not of crucifixion horror but of star-spangled resurrection glory, flanked by Peter, James and John portrayed as lambs. The transforming power of Easter requires no imagination. Up near the roof are twelve more sheep, the apostles, running over the arch. In the midst of it all, St Apollinare, Bishop of Ravenna, in the manner of Christ the Good Shepherd, greets his flock, calling them to God and mirroring the greeting of the Bishop to the real live congregation celebrating the Eucharist at the altar below. 

The image of the good shepherd is so rich - from the parallels with David [ro‘eh yapheh], to the lost sheep of Israel, to Peter’s charge to ‘feed my sheep’, to episcope, to unity, to pastoral care, to the Lamb of God, to the echoes of all of the other teachings which are drawn from the experience of the shepherd and the flock.

In Ravenna of late antiquity, the resonances were particularly strong - the religious policy of King Theodoric was to permit both Catholic and Arian worship to take place. The theological divide between these two groups was also inextricably linked with a cultural divide - Italians on the one hand and Central European Goths on the other. Each considered themselves to be sheep and the others to be goats; right and wrong. However, here, in John’s Gospel, there are no goats, only sheep that do not yet belong to this fold and the promise that Christ will bring them in, so there will be one flock, one shepherd.

No one is cast out, even if they are not yet within the fold - all belong to the shepherd. For each of the congregations in Ravenna it must have been tempting to imagine that they should cast out the other and no doubt there was plenty of aggressive indoctrination, plenty of self-righteous entrenchment, plenty of battle cries. It is clear, though, that the flock already contains within it both those who know (and by know John really means love) Christ and also those who haven’t quite got it right. John may have been thinking of  Israel but we could equally apply it to the Church: to the global Church, to the Church of England, to the churches and communities with a small ‘c’ wherever people co-exist.

In our diversity, in the tensions we bear, the Good Shepherd brings us all in, together. Our greatest danger is certainty – if we imagine that we are without doubt the shepherd’s own sheep, we have gone astray. In Ravenna, neither Arian nor Catholic could make this claim. We must try to know the shepherd and try to love him but also recognise that we aren’t always very good at it, whereas Christ is, because of course he is not just a shepherd but the good shepherd. 

The box of Weetabix from which I took my breakfast yesterday morning assured me that it was ‘wholegrain tasty goodness’ but we can be confused about what goodness really means. Sometimes it seems to mean a passive ‘niceness’, like Mrs Alexander’s line from Once in Royal David’s City which tells us that:

Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he. 

It all seems either terribly healthy and hearty or very English and well behaved. Goodness, in John’s Gospel, has a more precise meaning. It is that which is virtuous, beautiful, right, fitting. Most of the ‘I am’ sayings are qualified - the true vine; and here the good shepherd. The truth of the true vine signifies an ideal reality as opposed to a worldly copy but the goodness of the good shepherd is rather different. The good shepherd is not some perfect archetype of the pastoral idyll. He is good [kalos] because goodness, especially in John, is the opposite of evil - all that which is bad [kakos], mean and ugly. So that which is good about the good shepherd contrasts with all that is bad about the hired hand. The good shepherd lays down his life but the hired hand runs away.

What are we to make of that? Can we really draw such an absolute dichotomy between good and bad? Is it the case that goodness is only the preserve of Christ whereas wickedness is the natural state of humanity? We have already heard that the flock contains within it a mixture of sheep but if we avoid the dangers of self-righteousness, we may yet fall into the trap of self-loathing.

Well of course God is good, completely good but we cannot imagine that there is only a finite supply of goodness, any more than we can imagine that there is a finite supply of love. Economic models where the increase in wellbeing for one part of the population results in a corresponding decrease in wellbeing for another do not apply here. Far from packaging up all of the goodness in the universe into the person of Christ, the goodness of the good shepherd and the good news of the good shepherd touch all who receive it. Wherever God’s image resides, however damaged, there must be good. We cannot be perfect (yet) but within each one of us, as within the wider community of the flock, we hold in tension our potential for great goodness and for getting it wrong.

I don’t know how many of you have been keeping an eye on the election campaigns or how many of you have switched off in despair. It is easy to take a pop at politicians and to forget that across the spectrum of parties almost, almost without exception, these are individuals whose initial motivation to enter politics was driven by a desire to do good, to make a positive difference to society. For mainstream politicians, the problem is often less about mistaken ideologies (though these are important when you are voting), more that there are corrupting influences - influences of self-preservation, the desire for re-election, popularity, power. 

Of course, this does not only apply to parliament. Those pursuing a vocation to ordination are  asked ‘why do you want to be a Priest’. Or more generally we are all asked, ‘Why do you go to church?’. We can all blithely answer ‘to bring people to meet the risen Christ’, ‘to further God’s mission’, ‘to do good’. I hope we do but are we really so pure?  Are we not also corrupted by some of the same influences - a desire to be loved or respected, a misplaced focus or loyalty to one group of people rather than to all, the allure of shiny things and rewards in earth or heaven? 

That it is corruption which harms us is strangely encouraging. If we were bad from the outset we could not be corrupted or fall but, in fact, we have goodness firmly and fundamentally within us from the start. We, like sheep, have gone astray, [Isaiah 53.6] but we still belong, as we have always belonged, to the good shepherd, whose goodness and grace can restore our goodness and make us whole.

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He knows us, owns us and loves us. Neither perfect nor beyond redemption, we are still his, whether we stand within the fold or without, Italian or Ostragoth. He greets us with open arms and calls us to bear witness to the transforming joy and goodness of the resurrection. We must listen to his voice, so there will be one flock, one shepherd.

The Revd Dr Rowena Pailing, Director of Pastoral Studies, College of the Resurrection