CHURCH OF St FRANCIS,
SUNDAY, APRIL 29th 2012
(FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER)
Readings: Acts 4.5-12
1 John 3.16-24
It is an unfortunate – from a pastor’s point of view – rule of reading that there is no one correct interpretation of a text, biblical or otherwise. The moment you or I read a text we will be informed not only by the words in front of us but by the landscape beyond us, beyond our reading site, by the story that has shaped us, by the story that has shaped the landscape that is beyond us – and do on. Post-modernity has in fact reached the point where the life of the text is miniscule – where the moment I tell a story and put it 'out there' in the universe it is painfully out of my control, spinning into whatever shape a hearer wishes to give it, based on his or her reading site, his or her life story, even his or her whim and fancy.
To some extent that sort of thinking has infiltrated theological scholarship as well secular forms. It has, I believe, some merit – some, but only some. Because ultimately, when Jesus or the lesser figures of our faith spoke or wrote about our faith, they were not engaging in any sort of a game, but in the presentation of (in Greek) ἐντολή, an “order”, “commission” or “command.” Even a post-modernist probably has to concede that there are circumstances in which an “order”, “commission” or “command” is not altogether up for negotiation or wildly random interpretation. When the regimental sergeant major commands attention the troops spend not a whole lot of time discussing nuances of the word.
But of course I am not suggestion that every word of the scriptures bears the full un-negotiable weight of the sergeant major’s command. At one level they bear more weight, but when it comes to interpretation we are not robots and we will negotiate our way through the maze. There are however boundaries: you will know by now that I am quite liberal in some areas, for example of sexuality and social ethics. In other areas I am not: when the followers chose to live and die by the doctrine of resurrection they were not engaging in word games.
To understand what Jesus meant when he described himself as ‘good shepherd’ is to enter an area somewhere between the regimental sergeant-major and the poet who writes on paper napkins so his words can never be repeated. Funnily enough the words of Jesus were effectively written on paper napkins too – he never wrote them down. They were well treasured and remembered, though, and eventually in the purposes of God they became scripture. There is room though for interpretation. But there are guidelines to interpretation.
And to be honest we’ve often got it wrong because we’ve often worn the wrong lenses. Too often our stained glass windows – potentially once one of our best story-telling methods – depicted a rather anaemic European shepherd carrying a fat Southdown, Romney or Perendale lamb home over green pastures. The stained glass artists borrowed from the parable of the lost sheep, the 23rd Psalm and our “I Am” passage and produced a fallacy. And, indeed, to a Northern Territorian I doubt of the notion of a Southdown, Romney or Perendale lamb conveys much meaning either. British romanticism and the science of fat lamb farming don’t work too well here – or in Arnhem Land. As indeed they did not in Palestine: a Southdown, Romney or Perendale lamb would not live long in the hills above the Jordan.
Jesus is in any case making direct allusions to Ezekiel – (a reading that would be considerably more helpful than a reading from Acts this morning!) – and his own envisaging of a powerful, rugged shepherd king who would quickly separate the Southdown, Romney or Perendale lamb from the real flocks of Damara or other middle eastern breeds – and separate them not to the advantage of the soft, white and woolly types (for many of the middle eastern sheep bear hair, not wool). This shepherd who knows his own is no effete European, and not really even a weather-stained Australian or kiwi shepherd, but a tough and uncompromising individual, well used to hand to hand combat with wild animals, wild weather, wild surrounds.
How, then would we convey this shepherd today? Not with images of an effete shepherd king, I fear: not a Johnny Depp playing in Pirates of the Caribbean. Nor with images of a cushy and comfortable and nonchalant Southdown, Romney or Perendale Western Christianity. Perhaps the faithful body guard who protects the US President from stray bullets? I am the good FBI agent? A Jesus-figure with Raybans to protect identity and a conspicuous shoulder holster making clear that this is no pussy cat to be messed with? Perhaps. Though the images raises questions too, questions about power and powerlessness, questions about machismo and compassion.
Yet in the end the bold claim that Jesus makes is in any case the daring and several times repeated “I am”. This is perhaps untranslatable in any language, but it is a provocative claim of oneness of the Creator whose word is perfect action, perfect integrity. It is this that we must, regardless of the academic interpretation word-games, convey in every culture, every context.