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‘I am the good shepherd’ – The Rt Revd Paul Ferguson, Bishop of Whitby

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Title: ‘I am the good shepherd’

Date: 21 April 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Rt Revd Paul Ferguson, Bishop of Whitby


‘I am the good shepherd’ — words that are on Jesus’ lips in John’s gospel.  One of my early childhood memories is of a picture that my parents had put by my bed, of Jesus carrying a lamb.  I loved that picture, even though Jesus looked too north European in his immaculate robes and the lamb as if it had been washed and combed for the Great Yorkshire Show.

But real shepherding resists being sentimentalised.  A little while ago I spent a morning with a shepherd whose farm is near my home in Middlesbrough.  Sheep are messy and smelly and get themselves into trouble.  They need expensive veterinary care — this shepherd had marked the sheep with squirts of paint to show what medications each of them was on.  She knows and is devoted to each one individually, whether their destiny is wool, breeding or meat.  British shepherds may not face the same problems as young David in the Old Testament who told how he had killed lions and bears in defence of lambs:  but animals and equipment can fall prey to rural crime.

Well:  I’m sure you’ll have come across church using the image of the shepherd in ministry.  The ordination service for priests has these words: [Priests] ‘are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling’;  they ‘are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent.’  Part of the bishop’s insignia is the shepherd’s crook.  But please let’s look at a couple of aspects of this where I believe we might not always get it quite right.

The first is the risk of a skewed idea of authority.  When the Archbishop gives that pastoral staff to a new bishop, the words he says are ‘Keep watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you shepherd.’  There’s a difference from the biblical source of those words, in Acts 20.28, where Paul bids goodbye to the elders (plural) from Ephesus and says ‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (plural), to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.’  Authority there is shared, and let’s assume mutually accountable. The biblical source is not a warrant for the bishop as monarch!

The second is that whilst ordination and ministry rightly draw on the imagery of shepherding the people of God, we run into error if we think of it as exclusively belonging to clergy.  We will have constructed a very dangerous clericalism.  Many of us here, whether ordained or not, will in some sense have oversight or influence within the Christian community and beyond.  Hear how the words of Jesus in today’s gospel — ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ — are picked up in the first letter of John, ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’.  And just after that stark language arising from danger and persecution, John writes about the ordinary:  ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’  So we are moving through a web of themes that starts with Christ’s self-giving, his role as the good shepherd, then how that flows into shepherding on his behalf and in his name, and then the responsibility that we owe mutually for one another.

It’s a privilege to be hear this morning, in the cathedral where I worked for six years before leaving to be archdeacon and then ordained here as bishop.  Worshipping communities such as this do take on a kind of corporate personality and identity, alongside those of the individuals for whom it is their spiritual home.  I would hope that the church in every sense and place, could have the example of the Good Shepherd always before it as the pattern of its calling, and that each of us could play our part in making it so — we can either be swept along with the current, or bring good influence to bear.

This goes much further than pastoral (literally shepherding) care, meaning reacting to people’s troubles and serving them with love, important though that will always be.

If, like the elders at Ephesus, we are to watch over ourselves and all the flock, then there will be a range of excellences which we should seek alongside those for which we strive in worship and music and the imaginative care of the built heritage.  We will be the agents and channels of the love of God, and not its gatekeepers.  We will recognise our shortcomings and those of the wider church, and be self-aware without being self-obsessed.  In the almost 40 years since I was ordained, we have made enormous strides in Safeguarding and will do more:  it must not be seen as an irksome burden, for the job of building and operating a safe culture is never complete.  The church may no longer formally restrict women’s leadership and ministry (and congratulations on your anniversary, Maggie) but there are other, sometimes covert, reasons why people of ability struggle to be recognised — if you do not know about Mustard Seed and Stepping Up programmes in the diocese, please look them up to see what we are doing to address that.  In a society that is showing signs of collective irritation, we must be the exemplar of something better.  We will dare to rejoice when God’s activity bursts the limits of our culture and expectations, and we will always point beyond ourselves to the loving and living Jesus himself.

If real shepherding cannot be sentimentalised, then neither can the message in John’s letter, ‘We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us.  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’  Whilst those words sound simple, they call us to something extremely costly.  They are not only our encouragement, but also our individual and corporate challenge.

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