Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB homily at online Mass on 4th Sunday of Easter:
What a lot of shepherding we are having at the moment – from the Prime Minister and the First Minister and their advisers! They have the unenviable task not of leading us into green pastures, but of keeping us firmly, for the common good, in our sheepfolds. God bless them! It’s an unenviable job. They need our prayers.
As a way into today’s Gospel, from John chapter 10, let’s imagine a spring morning in the Holy Land. A farmhouse stands on the edge of the village, and in front of the house a yard where the sheep are kept. It has a gate. It has a stone wall, perhaps topped thorn branches or briers to deter intruders. And in this enclosure, the sheep – possibly the sheep of several different flocks – are penned at night. A watchman protects them, or at least there’s a gatekeeper. With the dawn a shepherd appears, the watchman knows him and lets him in, the shepherd calls his sheep, they respond to his voice. And out to pasture he leads them.
Evoking that, Jesus presents himself first of all as the gate and then – a verse or two after today’s passage – as the good shepherd. It’s not clear where the first thought ends and the second begins. They run into each other, the imagery is compressed, and we can feel puzzled.
“I am the gate”, says Jesus. Let’s stay with that. Here’s a first thought: by saying it, he’s actually allowing others to be shepherds – through him, with him, in him. He speaks of “thieves and brigands”, false shepherds, leaders who mislead. There is a context within his own ministry here. In ch.9, the Pharisees were trying to rob the blind man of his miracle. But the Gospel also looks ahead – to the time of the Church. Jesus himself will pass from this world to the Father (Jn 13:1). To provide for that, he sends the apostles to carry on his work (Jn 20:21-23). “I am the gate”. Peter and John, Philip and James and the rest, therefore, will enter the sheepfold through him, sent by him, and the sheep recognise their voice as his commissioned representatives, as true followers of the Lamb (Rev 14:4), “shepherds in the one Shepherd” (St Augustine), shepherds moved by faith and love. “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15), Peter is told. “Tend the flock of God which is your charge” (1 Pt 5:2), Peter will write later to the presbyters of his day. The line continues. The apostles in turn appointed successors and helpers and so the ordained ministry of the Church has developed, with its bishops, priests and deacons. And the Church has always taken care to authenticate them. Bishops must be ordained within the succession of the apostles, and the ceremony of ordination begins with reading the letter of appointment from the Pope, St Peter’s successor. Bishops in turn ordain and appoint parish priests to their charge. And so the flock knows it has authorised pastors sent to teach and celebrate the sacraments for them in the name of Christ. The human limitations are famous, of course, but there’s something beyond them. “Anyone who enters through me will be safe.” There is the blessed safety of being in Christ’s sheepfold, part of Christ’s flock.
Is there not great humility on Jesus’ part, when he calls himself the gate? The Father, the “kind shepherd of today’s Prayer after Communion, has shared his eternal shepherding of the human flock with his Son, ordaining him as our Shepherd and Teacher and Priest in the economy of salvation. Nor, in turn, does the Son monopolise the task of shepherding. He shares it. When he sees the hungry crowd in John ch. 6, he asks the disciples, “How are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (6:5) He was trying to enlist them, engage them, co-opt them. When he revealed to Teresa of Calcutta, at the turning-point of her life, that he wanted her to minister to the poor, he said apparently, “I can’t do this by myself”. “I am the gate.” By calling himself that, Jesus is calling out for shepherds. This is Vocations Sunday. “You give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16), he says. It’s only when we assume responsibility for others that we grow up. If there are young or youngish men out there, step up, step forward! Don’t let life furlough you!
Now, let’s widen the lens. Most of us are given shepherding to do in our lives. I know one father with four children to care for. It’s a delight to watch him shepherding them; he’s just so good at it. Teachers are shepherds, surely, parents, grandparents, doctors, nurses, social workers, politicians, civil servants, department heads. The list is endless, and you don’t have to be at the top of the tree. It may be a full-time work or just happen occasionally, even by accident. But it is God’s work, and when we do it we must pass through the gate of Jesus. “Thieves and brigands”, the false prophets, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the false shepherds, the other voices – God knows the air is thick with them. They have in common one thing. They “rob”. They take away from the sheep. They subtract, they diminish, they reduce. They curtail our humanity. They make life and happiness consist in this or that: pleasure, money, power. We’re told we’re just here to get what we can out of life and should just focus on ourselves. And this life is the only life. But that’s to rob us of what we are. Shepherding that passes through the gate of Christ wants the good of the other, not to milk the other of their good; not to “fleece” them, as we say. “The shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep”, complains Ezekiel (34:8). True shepherding looks to the whole of our humanity in time and eternity, cares for body, soul and spirit, looks to each of us and all of us. “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
There it is. Each and all of us are sheep and each and all of us are shepherds. And – to mix it up further – we all want to follow the Lamb wherever he goes! So, as sheep and shepherds, let’s take care to pass through Christ’s gate, turning a deaf ear to the voices that want to steal our humanity. Let’s find true pasture. Let’s take each other to pasture. It’s there. In the end, it’s what the Collect calls “a share in the joys of heaven”, “eternal pastures” says the Prayer after Communion. “The sheep find their pasture”, says Pope Gregory, “for everyone who follows him with a simple heart [will be] nourished on everlasting greenness…the inner joys of paradise in flower. The pasture-land of the elect is the face of God, seen in unclouded vision and feeding our humanity (mens) forever with the food of life” (Homily 14 on the Gospels). And for now, on the way, let’s feed on God’s will as it is fed to us day by day, “the sacrament of the present moment”. Let’s be shepherded and shepherd one another: as an old monk said, “one beggar telling another beggar where bread is to be found.”