A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne,
on Good Shepherd Sunday, 30 April 2023
This morning’s readings are an invitation to us to accept the care of Jesus and, in his name, to share that care with others. They tell us that before we seek to offer care for others, we first need to receive the care of Jesus ourselves, by becoming members of his flock. They charge us to open the doors of our churches—our sheep fold—to others who are not yet of our fold but also belong; and to guard the doors of our fold against those that would cause harm to the community of Christ. Above all, they set before us a vision of a flock that is unified, and grows, when people share in fellowship and prayer, feed on the word of God and the bread from God’s table, and generously share these gifts with others.
Our gospel reading takes us to the Jerusalem temple. It is winter, the last months of Jesus’ earthly ministry have begun. Jesus has just opened the eyes of a man born blind. People had come to faith in him and began to follow him. Others were deeply offended by the claim that he called on God as Father; that he claimed a unique relationship that enabled him to know God’s will, and to do God’s works, in a way that was so radically different from that practised by the traditional Temple priests. People flocked to Jesus and heard him teach in the temple precinct. And Jesus tells the people a parable, a teaching story.
Coming to God, the Father, to be saved is like a sheep fold, a walled enclosure with a gate. Those inside are gathered together. The walls provide safety and warmth for the flock. There is a gatekeeper and a shepherd, and both keep watch over the flock. The gatekeeper ensures that only those who are meant to be inside the fold are admitted. The shepherd shields and feeds the flock: at daytime, he leads the sheep to pasture and watches over them. At night, they are kept safe in the fold, with the gatekeeper on watch for any who would break in and steal, or cause harm.
In Jesus’ teaching story, the shepherd and the gatekeeper are charged by God to keep God’s people safe and feed them, and to bring in others to share the security of his fold. In fact, Jesus tells the people that he is both the Shepherd, and the Gate. He is the One who feeds and pastures God’s people, and he is the one who admits people to God’s fold. He alone is the way to God, Jesus teaches in the temple. ‘I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them’ anyway, he attacks the very people who had hitherto laid claim on God’s authority.
In the temple, the traditional gateway to God, Jesus teaches that the sacrifices of thanksgiving and sin offerings meant to give access to God were, in fact, useless. Jesus himself is the Gate to the sheepfold; there is no other way to reach the Father. Offering sacrifices to seek God’s favour is like trying to sneak into the sheepfold by climbing over the wall, Jesus tells: ‘anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in another way is a thief and a bandit’, he begins his temple teaching. Their leaders had killed the sheep and destroyed the fold. God was rightly absent from them, and God’s people rightly did not hear their voice.
We enter into communion with God through Jesus, our gospel reading tell us. He is the Door to God as well as the Shepherd of the sheep from whom we receive everything that is needed for our spiritual lives. Jesus shelters his own, he leads us and cares for us. By entering his fold, we may find safety from danger and food for living in thisworld, and salvation and eternal pasture in the world to come. ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish’, Jesus will tell them later, ‘no one can snatch them from my hand’.
Entering the fold means listening to Jesus’ voice. Jesus will later tell the temple priests: ‘you do not believe in me, because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them and they follow me’. Those who listen to Jesus’ voice may enter into his fold and find there safety and belonging. They will be known by name, and called his own. People who are known by name are never mere acquaintances: Jesus here speaks of a living bond between him and his followers: God has given them to him to keep safe forever. Those who are held in Jesus’ hands are held in the hands of God himself: ‘my Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand’, he teaches.
Because Jesus and his Father are one, his sheep will be led and nurtured by a selfless leader, who will never abandon his flock, even in times of danger. Jesus will not hand over his own in order to save himself. He is the leader who remains with his own until the end. ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’, he promises. ‘The reason that my Father loves me, is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again’, he tells the people later. ‘No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down on my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and to take it up again’. This is Easter leadership: the self-giving leadership of the One who gives his own life so that all might have life forever.
One who heard that teaching, the apostle Peter, will later reflect on this model of Christian leadership. In his first epistle he tells us, ‘Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’. Follow the model of Christ, the fearless leader who gives his life for his own, in leading the people of God. Follow the model of Christ by sharing with him in seeking out the lost and bringing them to safety. And always remember that we too were once lost sheep; are folks in need of salvation. Peter writes, ‘he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness’. The remembrance of our own salvation is the motivation for saving others: Because we once had gone ‘astray like sheep’, we are called to bring others to Christ, and find in him the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows his own, he calls and saves them; he feeds them and leads them. He is the guardian of our souls, Peter knows. Christian leaders are to be like shepherds, guarding Christ’s flock from harm. People who go out to bring in the lost, people who guard the souls of those that are saved through Christ forever.
I wish our church had exercised a leadership like that set before us in our readings today: both going out to search and save the lost, to meet their needs and feed them, and keeping those who have been found and returned to the fold, safe from harm. But all too often the church has only exercised parts of that charge and failed to keep the charge of fully being caring shepherds of God’s people.
Let me explain: there have been times when we opened the door to the sheepfold to those who would destroy. We failed to watch the gate and keep our flock safe from harm. Wolves in sheep’s clothing entered the fold and ravaged the flock. We kept in power and esteem those who were causing harm or enabled harm, and turned our eyes away from their abuse because we were too concerned with the upkeep of our own reputation and structures.
The abuse of vulnerable people by members of the church, the sexual abuse of children by church leaders, and the domestic abuse within church families, is an indelible stain on our church. We will never be able, I fear, to make full reparation for the harm we have caused. But we can choose to speak out to condemn abuse, and speak out against harm, and better educate ourselves to safeguard Christ’s own flock.
Here at St Paul’s, we take safeguarding extremely seriously. Our staff and leaders receive clearances for ministry and, alongside or volunteers, are trained in safeguarding, and we set a culture where we encourage conversations about what it means to keep people safe—both when they are here at church and when they are in their own families. We want you to know what you can do to prevent harm. Leaders of God’s flock are held to the highest standards, today’s readings tell us. Where people are hurting because of the actions of the church, where people’s lives have been scarred and closed off from the fullness and abundance offered by the Good Shepherd, we need to challenge our leaders, and change. ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’, the Good Shepherd tells us.
Failing to guard the gate is one failure of leadership. But so is keeping the door of the sheepfold shut altogether. All too often we shut the doors to those who long for shelter and nurture. We fail to search for the lost, prevent them from entering into friendship of Christ. We fail to look beyond ourselves to see a world longing for meaning and meaning-full life, because we are too preoccupied with our internal affairs and struggles.
Over the past three decades, the tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion has become a rift. Here in Melbourne, we live right on the fault-lines of that rift. We won’t, I fear, be able to heal that rift. But we can choose to shift our perspective from looking inwards to looking outwards, and open our doors to those who seek to enter into Christ’s friendship, and find his grace.
Here at St Paul’s, we have decided to stop staring at the growing rift in the Anglican Communion, to stop wondering when it might tear, and instead concentrate our energies in re-opening the doors to our sheepfold. We know that people in our community here hold different opinions on the matters that divide our global communion. But we want to hold a generous space, where we model respectful disagreement. Where we choose to set aside our differences in order to concentrate on the shepherd-ministry that is Christ’s, and which is his gift to us. When we look beyond ourselves and our differences we can share in the work of seeking out, welcoming and bringing in people who long to hear Christ’s voice.
We do this through our studying of the Scriptures, our fellowship groups, our advocacy and our hospitality. ‘The gatekeeper opens the gate, and the sheep hear the voice of the Good Shepherd’, Jesus teaches.
Friends, we all are invited to enter into the ministry of Christ, the Good Shepherd. We are each invited to hear, and recognise ourselves, the voice of Christ in our lives, and to share his words, his call, with others. ‘I am the good shepherd, my sheep listen to my voice’, Jesus tells. Hear Christ’s call, listen to his word, and know yourself loved by him. And we are each invited to enter in through Christ, the gate, to find community, safety, and nurture. Just as we are called to share his ministry of keeping safe the fold, his own, by the way we look out for and nurture one another, by the way we strive to ensure that all members of Christ’s flock may flourish. ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture’, Jesus assures us. Keep safe Christ’s own, help others grow in faith and love, and share with him in shepherding his people.
Now may the God of peace who, through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
© Andreas Loewe, 2023