Added on 08/05/2013
Sermon preached by the Most Reverend Dr Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away, because he is not the shepherd and the sheep are not his. St John 10.11,12.
Often the very Scriptures, which we know like the back of our hand, are extremely subtle and yet are so easily dismissed because they are already well known. This is precisely because we know them as well as we do and, therefore, we begin not to see them for what they really are. Scripture is always worth the re–listening, the re–reading and the re–living. Through over–familiarity, we begin to miss both their simplicity and their complexity all in one. We also, alarmingly, see them as relics of a by–gone age and they soon fall into the mists of sentimentality. And from there, there is only the slide into incomprehension and ignorance.
The image of the good shepherd is no exception to this rule. In fact, in so many ways, it is a test case. Of itself, this image, this picture and these few verses bring us to the heart of why we are here this morning at this Commemoration. They speak directly of the goodness of self–sacrifice in the cause of others. They draw the contrast between responsibility and irresponsibility in terms of service and commitment. They speak of death itself in the image of the wolf (always big and bad, in our imagination) and the deep fear which the jaws and the gait of death present to us, any of us. Perhaps the greatest cause of alarm is that any one of us might just morph from being a shepherd to being a wolf. Fairy tales contain deep psychological truths. They should not be confined to children or to the bedside.
These verses also give voice to the anxiety and perplexity which anyone of mature humanity brings to the reality of war as an activity and, at the time of its happening, an activity which few would dare to challenge and refute; although there always are, and must be, voices of critical dissent and public objection. Historical retrospect may well seem to some to be a luxury, or even an impatience, but it is an essential tool of critical appraisal, if a contemporary generation – younger and older alike – is to engage with anything other than benign incomprehension with a legacy always in danger of meaning less and less as history recedes into the future.
How, you may ask, can history recede into the future? I thought that anything can only recede into the past, you say to yourself. What is he on about? It can do so all too easily. It can do so because of the collapse of corporate memory on the one hand and because of its wilful reinvention by others on the other hand, usually for political gain, opportunistic reinterpretation on the hoof and, at its worst, wilful distortion. What matters most to one generation, who live in history and make history happen in their own lifetime, in fact becomes the virtual reality of an innocent, unsuspecting generation and the plaything of the politically manipulative and the humanly exploitative.
Let me explain: the legacy of 1916 lies as the bedrock of contemporary Ireland. The events of 1916 and subsequent years of Civil War and political accommodation, national and international, to an emerging Ireland have also made a contribution to who we are and who we are yet to become. But Ireland cannot for ever hide behind being ‘an emerging Ireland,’ nor should we want to. We should listen carefully to those who will us well and want us mature. No one event can be taken in isolation, particularly as generations come and go and also as less and less of history as it actually happened is part of the lived memory of those who live today and tomorrow. History develops a new function, that of releasing new energy in a tired and repetitive world, porous to exploitation by those who know that old fears and old symbols still sell and who still suppress those who can think otherwise and think for themselves.
Each generation will respond to history, will ask questions and will seek explanations and outcomes which relate to their current lives. This is only natural. The memory of the history itself as it happens remains precious within this framework. A Commemoration is therefore an opportunity for engagement in ways that really matter, and matter urgently, for the on–going life of a nation as it seeks to understand itself and, in understanding, to explain itself.
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. St John 10.14,15.
I welcome the privilege to be here today along with the gracious opportunity afforded me to preach. In many ways, the scriptural witness is in a position very similar to that of the historical witness. The Good Shepherd has a number of hallmarks. He or she, because in contemporary Palestine you will see both women and men engaged in this work, is carrying out a way of life which is as old as can be remembered. Armed service likewise has a very ancient pedigree. The Good Shepherd, as the image is applied by Jesus Christ to himself, is the one who lays down his life for the sheep, the one who protects by literally making himself become the door of the sheepfold at night and lying across the entrance to the pen into which he gathers his sheep. He knows them by name. So he can guide them from the middle of them and from behind, every bit as much as he can from the front. As well as being their protector, he goes into situations of danger and death with the purpose of enabling them to have life and to find pasturage. It is not a weak or a sentimental image. Incidentally, it was a modern rabbi who told me the following. He said: Michael, have you ever noticed how the great military leaders of Israel have been shepherds, people like Moses, Joshua and David? Then he went on to say something memorable: ‘It is the work of a good shepherd to hold back the older and the stronger sheep so as to let the lambs eat the grass first. Their teeth are not as big or as strong.’ To me, this was a welcome and a refreshing perspective. All of this to my mind fits admirably and obviously with the role fulfilled all year round by Peace Keepers who are members of the Armed Forces of this country. Such work is renowned and respected worldwide. Everywhere my own travels bring me I am told this and the people who tell me do so with great admiration, gratitude and respect.
The Father loves me because I lay down my life, to receive it back again. No one takes it away from me; I am laying it down of my own free will. St John 10.17,18.
One of the most interesting features of the Gospel of John is that there is, in fact, no explicit Narrative of the Institution of the Eucharist. It is a way of living which simply flows throughout this particular Gospel. It is, therefore, no surprise that language of sacrifice and of self–giving takes us to the heart of the person of Jesus Christ, as Jesus himself becomes the good shepherd of whom he speaks in his parable, the Good Shepherd for his people everywhere. The universal scope and shape of this ministry is abundantly clear. St John is careful of his language. The word: good in the phrase: The Good Shepherd is the combination of good and beautiful because, as we well know, it is very easy to be morally upright and yet personally repulsive. Jesus combines what every soldier knows of herself and of himself in being a good soldier: courage and compassion; resolve and respect; service and strength. And the holding together of these combinations is not an easy thing to do. Like the Good Shepherd, there is obedience and initiative, there is service of others and unpredictable danger. All of this is a gift of life and a profession of commitment.
Contemporary Ireland is a changed and a changing place. The contribution of historical self–understanding is now essential if we are to move beyond the cosy collapse of being an island people who will probably always be different from one another and need, after almost a century of the current cycle, to recognize that conflict in some shape or form is here to stay and is the definitive place of creativity and compassion. Too often in Ireland we have lived with the mirage of a better future beyond conflict; and we simply do not seem to be able to accept that conflict is part of our nature and part of the nature of contemporary life locally and internationally. That is why we need armies who can be peacekeepers, in the most horrendous of human tangles. With the heritages in Ireland that we have, we need urgently – and the Decade of Commemorations is affording us this chance – to articulate our understanding of ourselves and of our history as a contribution to the gift of belonging which we now share with people of so many nationalities and identities here in Ireland. Anyone who is not already tired of the phrase: the two communities, South and North, ought to be getting rather alarmed. We make significant efforts to celebrate their citizenship; we must make even greater efforts to embrace their belonging and in this way to release ourselves from the various caricatures of ourselves to which we cling. And this release is for others. The Good Shepherd shapes us afresh in this Eucharist for this service and leadership, individually and corporately. It is the gift that this day of Commemoration gives to each and every one of us here and now, in God’s presence and among God’s people.
I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to receive it back again; this charge I have received from my Father. St John 10.18.
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