A sermon preached by Fr Daniel Lloyd at Holy Rood, 28th April, 2012, Easter IV, Year B
When that totem of the Enlightenment Immanuel Kant wanted to try and prove that there were some things about the universe which you just can’t know, he did it using a rather particular sort of argument. Kant’s ‘antinomies’, as they’re called are two arguments, actually written or printed next to each other, in both of which the sequence of points followed is a valid one, and both of which rest on true premises. These two arguments, however, have completely opposing conclusions. So, it looks to us as though both this and that can be true at the same time, even though they say entirely opposite things. And if they could both be true, and we can’t prove one over the other, then, says Kant, we’ve just got to accept that there are some things we can’t prove.
It seems to me that one could, after this example, preach two entirely contrary sermons on the Gospel for to-day. But, unlike Kant, or Douglas Adams’ logician, I wouldn’t then go on to prove that white was black and get knocked down on a zebra crossing. No, it seems to me that we can take two very contrasting lessons from the self-identification of Our Lord as Good Shepherd, and I dare say that what you might hear in different places could well be influenced by the mentality of the preacher, and of the congregation.
On the one hand: here is the sheepfold, menaced by wolves. Here is the Good Shepherd, guarding it. Within the fold, we are safe, and more than safe: we are in the care of the One who is God from God, Light from Light. Whatever troubles rage outside, in this enclosure, in this ark, is our rest and our dwelling-place. Here we are fed with the bread which comes down from heaven. Here is, in our earthly home, an intimation of the heavenly home to which we all aspire.
But there is another way of looking at it: shepherds and sheep are led from place to place, from pasture to pasture and meadow to meadow. If all graze in the same place for too long, the grass is despoiled. Our Shepherd leads us, not only through pastures green, but through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. If we stayed in the same place, perhaps we could eliminate the menace of lupine attack; it is only if we move on, and especially as we move on, that the depredations of the wolves affect us. As we journey, so we must cleave to our Shepherd.
Are both of these ways of looking at the parable of the Good Shepherd true, then? And, if they are, how on earth can that be? How can these two different visions of the Christian life co-exist except, so that I can be warm and woolly in my pen one day, and cold and lonely on the hillside the next?
We know that, in the Mass, and indeed in the Church’s kalendar and in her lectionaries, we abandon that concept of time and space which suits the world, and by which it pleases the world to have us governed and ruled. So, at the consecration, we are at Calvary, we are in the Upper Room, we are imaging the liturgy of heaven, all at once. This sacrifice we plead is both a bridge and a chasm: a bridge to life, and a chasm between life and death. It is, as St Thomas says, a renewal of the memory of Christ’s Passion, a filling of the mind with grace, and a pledge of future glory.
And, because of this, we know that we, as sheep, can be at once within the fold, and at the same time coming into it. We are within it because of our baptism, and our presence in the fold is strengthened by the sacraments. We are coming into it, because we sin and need to be restored – and we can never forget that the restoration of the lost sheep to the ninety-nine others affects them as well as the lost – and because we are ever more closely being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ our Head and Shepherd.
As sheep, we need to seek the protection of our Shepherd. We need to listen for His voice and follow Him, to strive to know Him as He knows us. We need to trust, and to pray for, those shepherds whom He has given oversight of particular portions of His flock, and especially for the one who is the successor of him to whom the Lord said, ‘feed my sheep’. We have to co-operate in the work of bringing in others to Christ’s true flock, and we do that best by being faithful members of that flock ourselves.
The food with which our Shepherd feeds us is Himself; He, our food, as Dom Vonier says, ‘comes down from heaven, not merely as a thing falling gently to the ground, just to be gathered up by man, but it comes down from heaven with the set purpose of a sacrificial nature’. And the most terrible thing about this food is that we have to eat it for ourselves. It cannot be given to us just so, without our consent: the medicine of grace is not like fluoride in the water, which we have whether we want it or not. It requires our consent, or that of one who has the duty to give consent on our behalf.
It is this wonderful exchange which makes the blood poured out for the world a ransom for many; it is this that allows the objective fact of the Redemption to become a reality in our lives; and it is this which gives us the grace that we, like the saints, might come to follow the Shepherd – who is also the Lamb – wherever he goes.