Preached by Revd Philippa White, Cathedral Precentor, on Sunday 21st April 2024.

(Image: A fifth century mosaic of Jesus the Good Shepherd from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Petar Milošević)

It will not have escaped your notice that I am not the Dean. As Zack said before the service, unfortunately she’s not well and can’t be here to preach. She sends her love and wishes she could be here. 

If she had been here, she would have preached a very beautiful sermon entitled ‘Jesus wants you to be a sheep: Part II,’ and I hope we can make space for her to preach that to us later in the summer. She would have said that while some of us are sometimes called to live out some of the ministry of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we are, in fact, not Jesus. We are not the Good Shepherd; we are the sheep. 

We might – and now we’re in my sermon – want to be the Good Shepherd; we might even be tempted to try. There’s a clergy cliché (when is there not?) for those moments when we see our friends and colleagues falling into that temptation – we say ‘There is a Redeemer. And it’s not you.’ 

The temptation to try to be the Redeemer is a strong one. It often comes from a good place: a place of seeing the pain of the world and feeling a need to make a difference. It might come from confidence in our own abilities, or it might – paradoxically – come from a lack of confidence in our worthiness. We might try to be the Good Shepherd because we think we’re too good to be a silly sheep; but we might also try to be the Good Shepherd because we think we don’t deserve to be a sheep that gets looked after. Humans are complex and human motivation is murky; but whatever the motivation, humans are never going to be called to be the Good Shepherd. And following the temptation to try is never going to work in the long run. We are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.  

Not just the failure of our plans, not just our own disappointment and the disappointment of those we are trying to shepherd – but also failure to develop the life and calling that God does have for us. Not as the Good Shepherd, but as good sheep. Not as the Redeemer, but as the redeemed. 

There is, I think, a second temptation – the shadow of this. And that’s the temptation that comes from fear and despair, the temptation to ignore God’s call. Looking at the world, or at human sinfulness, or at our own mixed motivation and propensity to sin, we might feel too small; too insignificant; too broken; too tired; too frightened to allow God to speak to us through the needs of the world. When we fall into this temptation, we might be only too aware that we are not the Redeemer; that there is no way for us to be the Good Shepherd. But if we allow that to cast us into despair, if it makes us give up on the idea of ever doing anything, we are not so much sheep as stones. 

Jesus wants us to be a sheep – not either a shepherd or a stone. Jesus calls us to notice the twin temptations to think we can be of use to God, and to fear that we can’t. Jesus calls us to resist both the temptation to dress our sheepy selves up in a shepherd costume and try to find the good pasture for ourselves, and the temptation to curl into a ball and pretend we are an inanimate object, with no power or responsibility. Jesus calls us to recognize both of these for what they are: failures to engage with the world as it is, with ourselves as we are, with God as God calls us. 

God calls us to be part of the flock of the Good Shepherd. And that means, not being a sheep, but being a person – not just a human being, but a full person. A human being fully alive. As people, we are children of God. We are made in God’s image, capable of hearing God’s call and doing God’s will – but not of being the Redeemer. And as people, we are also children of Adam and Eve. We are shaped by a sinful world, always tempted and sometimes unable to discern the good – but we are redeemed and we are being sanctified. 

On this Vocations Sunday, that’s a place to start. Our primary vocation – the thing to which God calls us first – is that we should be a person. A person who has a solid understanding of our own worth as a human being, made in God’s image; a person who understands what it means to be both a child of Adam and Eve and a child of God; a person who is willing to work to become fully alive. If we aren’t first confident in our identity, our worth and our calling, our attempts to discern and do God’s will are as fruitless as a sheep wobbling around on its hind legs, trying to shepherd its fellow sheep. 

This is what we see in Peter and John, and in the whole book of Acts as we read through it in Eastertide. The disciples were called: to travel with Jesus, to learn from Jesus, and to be loved by Jesus. Their first calling was to experience for themselves the love and companionship of the Good Shepherd. When they see the risen Christ, when they are empowered by the Spirit, when they are sent to heal and to preach – becoming not disciples, those who learn, but apostles, those who are sent – they are growing more fully into their vocation to occupy the space between over-confidence and despair, to be confident not in themselves but in the love of the Redeemer. And by living in that confidence and following their calling, they are able to show and share both the love and the power of Jesus. They have Jesus' power to heal and to teach. They have Jesus' power to make disciples. And throughout the book of Acts, it's very clear that it is only by recognising and acknowledging this as Jesus ' power that they are able to do all this. 

There is a Redeemer, and it's not them. 

So as we think about our own calling, we can take Peter and John and the other apostles as our model. We are not the Good Shepherd; not the Redeemer. And yet we are called: first to know ourselves loved by Jesus, and second to share that love with our world (however large or small our world might be). Everything else – everything about our calling that is specific to each one of us – flows from that. It is only by knowing that Jesus loves and redeems us that we can hear and respond to his call to share that love. It is only by hearing that first call that we learn to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd as it cuts through the noise around us, calling us to follow ever closer and to work ever harder to share the love that we have known.  

And let us pray in the words of our offertory hymn: 

Take my life; my Lord, I pour 
at thy feet its treasure-store; 
take myself, and I will be, 
ever, only, all for thee.