Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
11th Sep 2016
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
I received mercy, so that in me…Christ might display the utmost patience. 1 Timothy 1 15.
On this day, when we prepare for our Patronal Festival and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we should remember something very significant. And it is this : that there was a time during the first three centuries of the Church when the Cross was not its central sign. It was thought that the suffering and dying Christ on the Cross was too dreadful and sad and shocking a sign for would-be converts. Instead the dominant image was of Christ the Good Shepherd, and there is a wall painting in one of the Roman catacombs which is dated 250 AD which has Christ with the sheep around his neck and carrying a bucket. Christ is represented as a kind of second David, the clean shaven young shepherd who became Israel’s first King. But this image proved to be inadequate. Once the Church had suffered and lost many of its followers to martyrdom it became evident that The Cross and its message of the saving death of Christ had become by far the most meaningful symbol for the Church. The Cross was of deeper significance because it spoke not only of a bond of pastoral love and attentive care but of a love which through the crucifixion had broken down the barrier which separated life from death. It was an image which carried with it a whole raft of human emotions and weight. Above all, it was a hopeful sign because it carried the weight of human sin and failure with it. It was a potentially transforming sign because in the death of Christ on the Cross was considered life giving. The Cross was the mark, the means by which Man was restored to God the Father through the life-giving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It was a sign of hope over defeat, of life beyond death, of sacrificial love and its outpouring. St Paul will remind us that,
…now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought close by the blood of Christ. So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors, you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. Ephesians 2.19.
When Luke writes about Christ The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we are reminded of the interdependence of human relationships : all of us are to be involved in the active ‘shepherding’ or ‘looking out’ for one another. God is endlessly compassionate. He is after all, love. He does not just display the qualities of love. He IS love, and as love does not love partially or particularly. His love is for all humankind. And this love is not static but one which is full of life and promise, one which seeks out the lost. The three ‘lost and found’ examples Luke has given us are The Prodigal Son, The Woman with the Lost Coin, and the Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. Luke is describing an experience of the love of God as the discovery of something unexpected – the finding of new and transforming life. The recourse to the old and much loved image of the good shepherd still holds good. For one of the greatest tests for The Christian Church lies in the call to seek out the lost, the ignored, the despised and the rejected and to offer them the love of God which is the shepherd who bothers, who sacrifices his time and who goes out of his way to seek out the lost sheep and bring them home.
At yesterday’s ‘Beating of the Bounds’ of the parish, a small group of five of us walked around our parish boundaries. We had prepared food for ten people and so it became possible to invite one or two wayfarers along our way to our afterwards lunch of bangers and mash and banana custard. In this way three addition people were able to enjoy a shared meal which they would otherwise not have been given. In this way we walkers were being the Church, reaching out to others rather than withdrawing into our own activity as a private club. It seemed quite right that if we were to consider our ‘Beating of the Bounds’ as an act of Christian witness, then some sign might be shown us which would test the theory! We must show a Christianity which is alert and responsive to God’s grace active in the present moment, especially as it prompts us to act outside our normal range of sympathies.
The images of the Cross and he Good Shepherd both have one thing in common. They both speak powerfully of the need for our reconciliation with God, and if with God, then with one another. The Church exists for the healing of humankind, for the mending of broken lives and for the bringing about of that oneness with God which was once lost and now can be found in Him. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in all itself power and healing, is the sign of the good shepherd, crucified once and for all, and able to reveal to us in all its scope and depth, the outpouring of God’s mercy to us all, both inside and beyond anything we can confine or confound.