Today’s collection of passages from scripture follow an interesting track of thought. We begin with warnings about shepherds. We heard about the Good Shepherd a few months ago, in Eastertide. Today we are given some more information about bad shepherds and how they behave. We move to the letter to the Ephesians where we hear Paul, once again, confronting the problem of cliques within the Christian community. Arguments have sprung up about who’s in and who’s out and Paul is at pains to explain, not for the first time, that in Christ, everyone is in and it doesn’t matter where you came from. And finally, in the Gospel passage, see a snapshot of Jesus’s ministry that works like a summary that gathers these thoughts about shepherds and community together.
Let’s begin with the shepherds. You may recall that the Good Shepherd is a symbol that was around long before Jesus was born. It was a familiar image that was popular because it was a contrast to the common stereotype about shepherds. The Good Shepherd was in charge of a flock of sheep that probably did not belong to them. In spite of not having a deep personal investment in the flock, a good shepherd would care for the sheep as though they were their own. The sheep would be herded together for safety, driven to better pastures, predators would be fended off, and sheep who were sick or lambing would receive veterinary first aid. The stereotype about shepherds was that, because they spent so much time alone with animals, unsupervised, they must be lazy, dishonest, and probably selfish. (I remember a bar in London, Ontario, called “The Honest Lawyer” that played on a similar stereotype more familiar to us today.)
In today’s passage from Jeremiah, the Lord has some harsh words for those shepherds who really are the bad sort. It is the betrayal of trust and the damage done to those in their care which angers God so deeply. One who is given care for another—whether it’s their teaching, their health, managing their finances, or raising them through childhood—has an immense responsibility. Those who take on the responsibility and shirk it might abuse their position for their own benefit, they allow the flock to scatter and become unhealthy, and they are indifferent to predators picking at the edges of the flock. And this is offensive to God, who loves all of creation, and who believes in justice, especially for those who cannot care for themselves.
This idea of a flock divided comes back up, in different words, in Paul’s writing to the Ephesians. They seem to be concerned about differences that once defined their communities in very important ways. Some people were Jews and some people were Gentiles. In the case of men, this was marked by the practice of circumcision. We do not know exactly what the Ephesians were concerned about, but it seems to be that the Christian community in Ephesus is dividing itself between those who became Christians from Jewish communities, and those who became Christians from the various Gentile communities. They seem to be worried that these different groups of people should have different status or different claims to holiness or validity or closeness to God in their Christian lives.
Paul races through analogies and comparisons to bodies, to imperial immigration policy, and to architectural work to try and explain to the Ephesians that it does not matter where you started, only that you have found your way to Christ and that you dwell in Christ now. All of that which previously made division between people, like status comparisons around who was circumcised and who was not, no longer matter. In Christ God has made all people citizens of the same kingdom, members of the same household, dwelling places of the same Spirit. (A short look at the history of Christianity and its state today will tell you that we have never really gotten a handle on this truth of our life in Christ. A work in very long progress.)
If Christ is the Good Shepherd and Christ’s life is the one we all share—which makes us fellow citizens and saints no matter where we came from—then it seems to follow that we should look to Christ for examples of how our life together might be lived. If I were asked to give a top three list of the daily activities of Jesus during his earthly ministry, it would be, in no particular order:
Healing the sick
Feeding the hungry
Gathering separated people into community with one another
That last one isn’t quite fair because it usually happens deeply intertwined with the first two, but I think it’s important enough to mention here. When we were baptized and confirmed, we made promises to be like little reflections of Christ in the world. “Christian” means “little Christ”. We make these vows at baptisms and we see how we might do this in the Gospel stories of Christ and the worthy examples of holy people in the history of our faith.
Healing the sick and feeding the hungry are great ways to gather community and all three are intertwined. It pulls together those who want to help and those who need help. We all know what it is to be sick. Sometimes we need a lot of help to heal. The Church offers prayer and sacraments to help us return to wholeness, but these are not the total plan. They must always be paired with practical helps. The help of physicians and medicines and hospitals. Sometimes our sickness is not only in our bodies and we need people who can speak to addiction, consequences of abuse, and so on. Other times, we need someone who will fix lunch and check the mail for a couple of days so that we can rest and recuperate. Other times, when there is nothing to be done for the sickness, we need someone who will sit with us as we make our way through that dark valley.
In the same way, we all know what it is to be hungry. Some of us have been lucky enough to always know where the next meal is coming from. Others are not so sure. Sharing our food is so important to the unity of the Body of Christ that God chose a shared meal to be one of the primary symbols and practices of our faith. As often as we can, we gather to celebrate the Eucharist and share in this spiritual food. We feast on the Word of God and then we feast at the banqueting table with Christ’s body and blood to help us remember that your body and your blood are also my body and my blood. We are reminded in our very food that we are so closely related. Arguments about status in the Body of Christ because of where one came from or how long one has been here make no sense when you think that we share our whole life in Christ with one another.
Community forms around this spiritual meal and around the prayers and sacraments that are offered here. And today, I put questions to this community. If we are to be like Christ in the world,
how can we better be a community of love that gathers all in need into this sanctuary for the city? How can we offer spiritual food and healing to those in need of it? How can we bridge that division and also offer hearty food and strong medicine to those in need of it? How can we be a community that overflows with God’s love and fills both spirits and bodies with what they need?
Come to the table. Share the Body and Blood which make us one. Meet Christ here and be Christ in the world.
Come to the table.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.