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4th Sunday of Easter

15 April 2024

Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-end; John 10.11-18

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IN THE Bible, shepherding is nomadic. Shepherds travel in search of safe pasture. It is an ancient way of life, affirmed by God from the beginning of human history (Genesis 4.4). After their expulsion from the garden, Adam and Eve provided the first template for an itinerant existence in a mostly hostile environment. Deuteronomy confirmed the pattern with the words: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (26.5). This encapsulated the exodus experience of God’s people before their entry into the promised land.

The churches of our land seem to stand for a different way of relating to God: one that is expressed in terms of stability and perpetuity. They strike us as enduring fixtures in landscapes that, all around them, are changing over time. Their solidity, as stone edifices, and their size, as embodiments of the height of heaven in solid form, incarnate the divine splendour that we associate with our heavenly Father.

I stayed in the village of Happisburgh, in Norfolk, recently. The church dominates the landscape round about. Yet coastal erosion is eating away metre after metre of the land between it and the sea. A beautiful medieval church crumbling into the North Sea and being lost for ever seems like a challenge to faith. Countless people have been christened, married, and committed to the earth there. Losing the church means counting the former inhabitants as belonging to the category of those who “have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them” (Sirach 44.9).

The Bible bears witness to the human hunger to be remembered, whether through deeds or heirs, and to avoid the ultimate destination of “a land where all things are forgotten” (Psalm 88.12, Coverdale). This hunger is the shadow cast by our need to seek security in our earthly life, and to be remembered afterwards. So, we look for signs that oblivion is not our destiny. That is true of both our natural selves and our spiritual selves.

I have said before that churches are icons of divine eternity. They draw us to worship, because they surround us with the presence of the past: with memorials naming those whose memory and posterity have faded into the dust; with the “silent music” of wood that bears tool-marks made by long-departed hands; and with smooth depressions in ancient stones marking the forgotten feet that wore them down.

If even the greatest monuments to our devotion are passing shadows, mere flowers of grass in wood and stone (1 Peter 1.24), what can the Good Shepherd do to reassure us? This Fourth Sunday of Easter goes back into Jesus’s teaching ministry before his resurrection, to help us to understand that resurrection. This Gospel is meant to teach us what is trustworthy and what is not, as Jesus contrasts our eternal refuge — himself — with two kinds of danger.

There is the wolf: an enemy by nature, not neglect or malice, representing existential threats such as sickness or poverty. And there is the hired hand, outwardly resembling the shepherd, but, in reality, inferior. The hired hand is the more insidious threat, representing a false version of the shepherd.

“Devouring time and jealous age”, the poet Ovid says, “destroy all things, gnawing and grinding down, slowly consuming totality in death.” If church buildings — often the oldest visible human constructions we know — can be devoured by time, that does not mean that they have no value. If they are icons, then, by definition, they are not exactly the thing which they represent. No metaphor or analogy gives a perfect correspondence: we are not in danger of seeing an actual shepherd and mistaking them for Christ the Good Shepherd!

Our true foundation is no man-made edifice: it is a being — a being begotten by love and, for love’s sake, willing to die. Instead of thinking of church buildings as eternal, we should see them as parables, standing for the “many dwelling places” in our Father’s house (John 14.2) and for the sheepfold (John 10.1). As parables, they give us insight into true eternity, just as the Good Shepherd is a parable to teach us of divine guidance and protection.

The Greek ho poimen ho kalos means “the good shepherd”, but it can also be translated as “the beautiful shepherd”. Not even the world’s loveliest churches are more beautiful or more lasting than Christ, who, by his resurrection, has been “made the sure foundation”.

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