This morning we heard what is probably the most popular image of Jesus, that of the Good Shepherd. As children, the image of the shepherd was indelibly planted in our spiritual psyche through the memorization of the 23rd psalm. The passage we heard from the Gospel of St. John has provided thousands with comfort as it is often read at the funeral services of both the active and non active church goers.
To relegate this passage to the realm of comforting platitudes does this passage a disservice. While there is no doubt the imagery used by Christ is on one level meant to provide comfort in the far reaching imagery of the caring shepherd, at the same time this imagery is filled with social and political commentary that is now lost to the modern listener.
In the middle of today’s gospel Jesus states,” I have others that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” For many of us, this statement is often perceived as consolation and hope for those whom we bury whose faith is known only to God. To those, for whom this Gospel was originally written, the “other’s” to whom Jesus refers are the gentile populations. It was a way, for the writer to explain the far reaching effects of Christ’s ministry. No longer are the promises of Yahweh simply for the descendants of Abraham but now for all members of the world.
As I reflect on the original intent of this passage, I have to ask myself, what is its message for us today. No longer are we a world divided by a pantheon of Gods, and yet, contempt along religious boundaries seem more prevalent today than ever.
Every week millions of Christian world wide affirm their trust in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” And while many of us confuse the term “catholic” with our brothers and sisters who worship on each side of us, the term, “catholic” actually means universal. So we put our trust in “one universal and apostolic church.” And yet, even at the time the Nicene Creed was being ratified during the fourth century, the church was anything but unified. The creed itself took over one hundred years to be ratified as factions and rulers argued over whether Christ was eternal with God the Father or if there was the possibility that there was a time in the universe when the eternal Word of God did not exist. Through the centuries our conflicts did not end there. Schisms after schism have occurred several times through out the centuries and continue to occur to this day. The realities of these arguments remain evident as we count the number of different denominations represented along West Genesee Street. All stand as sad reminders of how the members and leadership of the Body of Christ are more concerned with being right in regards to theological minutia, rather than celebrating our unity through Baptism.
Yes, Christianity truly is a house divided with each fractured part on some level believing they are the primary flock of Jesus and all the others are the flocks just waiting to hear and recognize the voice of Christ. What can I say, with that attitude seemingly growing in prevalence among us, it seems Christian unity is a dream that may only be realized with the arrival of the Second Coming.
And so I believe the one of the challenges we are faced with this morning is, how do we as baptized people work towards Christian unity, because I suspect at the core of our very beings we feel the disjuncture of Christian division and I know this to be true above and beyond just us.
Several years ago, the late Father Greg Lastrange invited all of the Camillus clergy to be present at the annual Band Mass. A service traditionally held at St. Joseph’s the night before the state competition for the past twenty plus years. Fr. Lastrange’s invitation to clergy broke with tradition and I believe he extended this invitation for two reasons. First, because he realized not all the band members in attendance were Roman Catholic, and in fact were visiting from the various churches in Camillus. And second, because one of Fr. Lastrange’s greatest gifts as pastor and priest was his commitment to inter-denominational unity. Fr. Lastrange’s hospitality went above and beyond just the invitation to vest and process. That night he went against his own denominations policy when he invited all of the visiting clergy to stand with him at the altar during the celebration of the Mass, and then as a true act of Christian fellowship offered each of us the consecrated bread and wine from his own hand.
Fr. Lastrange’s act of hospitality did not go unnoticed by the 1000 or so sitting in the pews that night. As we left the church and for several days following I was stopped by many people who told me how pleased and proud they were of Fr. Lastrange, and how his actions that night affirmed what they believed God wanted.
As a broad and inclusive denomination, I believe the Episcopal Church is uniquely situated to be a leader in Christian Unity. Over the past twenty years we have already entered into shared communion agreements with several others denominations. In a day in age of declining membership it is not unusual to see Episcopal congregations combine with other denominations to form unified congregations. In this diocese alone, we now have several Lutheran/Episcopal congregations being pastored by Lutheran and/or Episcopal clergy. In Aurora, there is a combined Episcopal/Presbyterian congregation that has been in existence since the early seventies. All are examples of people who have let go of the artificial delineations that have separated the denominations for centuries and focused on finding creative ways to keep alive the vision of Christ in their communities.
However, these examples of Christian unity did not happen instantly and without growing pains at many points. They began when someone like you or I extended the hand of Christian Fellowship across the denominational divides and invited the other in. These examples of unity began when congregations stopped worrying about trivial differences and instead decided to focus on their elements of commonality. These acts began when congregations were willing to forego judgment on their differences as they found ways to blend and celebrate those differences instead. Unification began when people chose to see each other as members of the same flock and not the other flocks that Christ refers to in today’s gospel.
As the church of the 2st century, living in the post-modern world of disbelief, if we are to find credibility with the world, then we must live as if we are the Good shepherd. To do this we must strive towards bringing all of Christ’s flocks together as a part of how we heed the call of God in Christ in our lives and in this world.