A Mixed Legacy

Posted: May 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 4A, 2017 John 10:1-10

A Mixed Legacy

The ‘good shepherd’, as we have been taught for generations, beginning with Sunday school, is one of the so-called foundational metaphors for Jesus in Christian imagination. And words like ‘pastoral care’ and ‘pastor’, get their meaning from the image of Jesus as a kind and caring ‘shepherd’ or ‘leader’ of the flock. The truth is however that we make lots of assumptions about what we mean when we use the word pastoral. I was at a church meeting up north last week when they were planning some teaching workshops and someone suggested that they should do a workshop on ‘Pastoral care’ the broad assumption being that what the that person believed was pastoral care was universally understood but the next question was, “what sort of pastoral care would be taught? Was it listening skills because good listening is essential for pastoral care”. “Yes, it is, but it needs to change things in the community, after all its about justice and peace; it’s about changing the lives of people”. Pastoral care is about foodbanks, budget advice, support groups etc etc. Suddenly in that meeting the idea of a workshop on pastoral care lost its way, it would be left for the facilitator to decide what pastoral care was and what they thought the church needed.

Pastoral care would be left to the shepherd to decide what it was and what was needed and the question was did the image of shepherd and sheep have the same impact that it did for those who first engaged with it?

In the past, many of our traditional liturgies of ordination and induction have played with this image.  Up until a few years ago the use of the 23rd psalm in funerals maintained this image as one of value and it seemed a foregone conclusion that when stories about a mix that has sheep, shepherds and Jesus, in them, they would very readily appear in the Lectionary. Another perhaps influence on this is the fact that for much of NZ history sheep and shepherds have been a mainstay in our economics as a nation. Not so much today as dairy seems to have taken over much to the detriment of our water it seems. Of course, the image of shepherds in Jesus time is very different from the image in ours especially in their functions. Protection of the animals may be the same but from what and how is vastly different. I suspect that the image of sheep and shepherds is less often used today because of these cultural shifts even if the lectionary still persists to include it and today is a good example as today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call John reminds us.

John has Jesus describing a scenario concerning raising sheep in 1st century Palestine. After carefully defining the characteristics which make for a ‘good’ or honourable shepherd in a sometimes hostile world, John takes this scenario and has Jesus applying it to himself and his ministry. So began a new legacy or model of leadership or shepherding. Question? Is it time for a new model of leadership, in fact has a new model already arrived and what is it?

One of the sad things that history reminds us of is that we can get stuck with images like the pastoral one and fall behind in our engagement with life’s evolutionary reality. When pastoral settings become fenced, when shepherds work from behind the sheep instead of in front of them, when dogs are used, the model of leadership changes. I am also aware that in the church the environment, the culture changes all require new models of leadership.

On a world wide scale there have been changes that have shifted the ground upon which the images of leadership live and have meaning. One of these that I think is most influential is at a multicultural level where nationalism and ethnic differences have become integrated because of globalization and a seemingly shrinking world.

Research seems to suggest that in this new smaller world young people who follow the Jesus Way actually operate on a number of levels at the same time. They, unlike those of us who are trained in traditional western modes no longer hold sociological and theological boundaries between identities (‘I am a liberal or I am a conservative is no longer a valuable identification process of value’). For us such boundaries were impossible to compromise or reconcile because many of us in the church operated and still do, on Middle ages theological categories and this made it difficult to reflect on 21st century realities. The shepherd image is hard for the church to let go of or replace with a new one even though it can no longer be fully understood as a viable model of leadership as the world has moved on.

Another model of leadership in the church to look at with the shepherd and sheep image is the contradictions between the recent Catholic Popes. We first think back to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger some years back now when the world was watching as a new church ‘shepherd’ was being elected. A bunch of red capped cardinals was meeting in Rome, not for a leisurely chat about ‘what time the surf would be up!’ But who would be the next male Catholic ‘shepherd’. The next pope. And we contrast that with the more recent election of Pope Francis.

We look back on Pope Benedict, as the grand shepherd now better known as the former “doctrinal enforcer”. A conservative in the coercive mode who followed the very mixed legacy of John Paul ii, the deeply traditionalist Polish pope, and we ask what sort of Pope? What sort of leader was he? What sort of shepherd was he?

I need to be careful here not to be making personal judgements because the reality is that some of you have come to St David’s from many different traditions in your backgrounds and in your family connections. Many of us have Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic, links, just to mention a few… I want to be sensitive to both your nurturing experiences and possible continuing relationships, especially Roman Catholic relationships so what I have to say needs to be seen in no way criticism.

Some comments made by Catholic folk have suggested that under Pope Benedict that the use of Latin in the Mass was returning; that feminine images were being removed from the language of the liturgy; That conservative groups were visiting parishes to report on priests and parish councils who push beyond the boundaries. It was also suggested that the divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’ was widening; and that the social policies of previous popes which wounded women, have continued. All of this suggests that the model of shepherding was changing and the significance of the change was of no small consequence.

On the continuing divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’, the retired Swiss theologian Hans Kung was known to have commented: “Don’t be fooled by the crowds: millions have left the Church…  (The church’s) credibility will only be restored if the new pope decides to re-orient the Church in (the) spirit of Pope John XX111 and the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council”  (Kung. Online Catholics).

In an effort to bolster his claims of being a theologian, Ratzinger published a book called: Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

The title suggested, there would be at least a second volume to follow but while having a print run of over a million copies, the book has not received acclaim from biblical and ‘historical Jesus’ scholars, despite its title. One such scholar, Gerd Ludemann, has written a detailed chapter-by-chapter, critical response, titled: Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. While too detailed to treat here in full, a comment from his Epilogue is that Ratzinger both labels and describes his work inaccurately, if not deceptively.  The intent suggested by his title and announced in his preface, namely to discover by means of the gospels the historical Jesus, is in fact not carried out.  Moreover, far from addressing mere historical issues, the book is replete with doctrinally based arguments and personal meditations on his Lord.  Thus, the actual subject is not the Jesus of history, but rather the Christ of faith” according to Ludemann.

We had in Pope Benedict a model of grand shepherd and pastoral care that was intent on returning to absolutes, controlling thinking, and imposing order. What we have in Pope Francis is again another model of Grand shepherd. His focus is a future based on the present as opposed to the past and his focus appears to be on the practical application of theology. His model of leadership is exposed as more vulnerable politically yet claims a more traditional grand shepherd modern pastoral model as opposed to an ancient pastoral model.

Having touched on what could be deemed a recent legacy and the evolution of shepherding as a leadership model, noting here that evolution is not linear but rather chaotic, we return to our text for today by the storyteller whom we call John. We find here that John puts some additional words into the mouth of Jesus in his story: He has Jesus say; ‘I have come so they may have life and have it to the full.’ Other translations say: ‘…and have it abundantly.’ Perhaps we could say ‘wellness’ or ‘wholeness’. And in looking back at the models of shepherding and pastoral care it can be claimed that we can only have ‘abundant’ or ‘full’ life in a community of faithful and caring companions, who live by a vision of wholeness and justice for all and who embrace diversity and difference. Maybe the changes in our environment among the young is a sign of hope as they hold together that which even we have struggled with and which the two models of papacy have struggled with. How do we acknowledge that identity is important while being inclusive of a plurality of thought and idea. Maybe this is the resurrection message that we fail to see. When we say that ‘Jesus is alive in our midst’ what does it mean? Does it mean that gospel comes before culture or that culture comes before gospel or is it that both come together? Right now you might find yourself struggle to see how that might be but maybe that is because you have failed to change. Maybe living an abundant life is about seeing the vision Jesus offers of a new world into which we are invited a real way… a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life” (Patterson 2007:80). And not one we have created.

Maybe the heritage Jesus leaves us is not about what happens after death, but what the knowledge of the words and deeds and the way he walked as Jesus, does for our lives…before death. Maybe the abundant life, the wholeness of life he talks about is not found in a theology of salvation but in a way of life, as we practice belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, and engage in conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

The model of leadership, shepherding, pastoral caring needs to be open to and challenging of the context while showing it every respect as the product of its place and time so that abundant wellness will be our blessing, as we continue to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. Amen.

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Ludemann, G. 2008.  Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Patterson, S. J. 2007.  “Killing Jesus” in (ed) R. J. Miller. The Future of the Christian Tradition. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.