So Ancient and So New

So Ancient and So New

Fourth Sunday of Easter. Fr Peter Hunter preaches on what it is that we recognise in the call of the true Shepherd.

How do we recognise the voice of the shepherd? How are we to ensure that we’re led in and out by the true shepherd, not attacked or snatched away by thieves?

We all have many influences in our lives and in our thinking. Some of those will be good and holy influences and some of those will be dangerous and ultimately destructive influences. But Jesus seems to think the sheep will listen only to him, because other voices they will not recognise.

The temptation is to try for a short cut. Notice, this is just what the thieves coming in to the sheepfold do, according to Jesus. They don’t come in through the door that Jesus is; they make their own way, over the fence, climbing in. And it is this that marks them as illegitimate, as false.

There are lots of short cuts, lots of ways over the fence, but they all amount to the same thing. They are all, in the end, a mistake. They don’t guarantee the safety of the sheep in the fold, and they don’t lead to the rich pastures outside the gate to which the shepherd leads.

One by which we’re all tempted is some kind of following of fashion. There are fashions in clothing, in music, in art and in architecture, but there are also fashions in the way people think and act. We can take a short cut in our striving to live the good life and in seeking the truth by following what is current, by being thoroughly modern, or post-modern or whatever it is we’re supposed to be nowadays. What is new seems exciting, daring, adventurous.

But we all know how ultimately unsatisfactory that is. Just as last season’s highly-fashionable clothes just look silly this season, so fashions in lifestyles change and things that our parents’ generation thought were absolutely de rigueur look quaint and silly to us. We forget, often, that those fashionable things which we allow to influence us will presumably look just as silly to the next generation. And if we’re honest, we can see that some of the influences in our lives are shallow and modish, that they couldn’t really make us happy.

So perhaps it would be better to stick with what is traditional. It’s sometimes assumed that this is what the Christian way is. Better to stick with an influence that’s old and that has stood the test of time. What is old seems reassuring, dependable, safe.

Again, though, we know when we’re honest with ourselves that what is traditional is not always helpful. Many superstitions are ages old, but that does make them any less silly. Old practices thoughtlessly carried on are nothing but meaningless form. Cut loose from the contexts in which they grew up, many of our human traditions are just dusty, dry and lifeless.

But Christ, the Good Shepherd, shows us another way. The Christian story is ages old. In its roots, it reaches all the way back to the beginning of the universe and its creation by a loving God. Jesus’s own story has many elements which strike us as true because they speak of the way people are, have been and always will be.

The hero-worship of the crowd, the machinations of those in authority, the cold political manoeuvring of the Roman government are all so predictable. But Jesus in all of this points a new way. Not the same old dusty playing out of the tired story that humanity keeps telling, not the facile novelty of a fashion, but a deep, rich, new and ancient way of living.

At the heart of it is that love on which the universe is founded, that love so ancient it has always been there, unchanging, and yet responsible for every touch of newness, every moment of genuine freshness, delight. And it’s that authenticity to which we respond, it’s that voice that we hear, it’s that which we find genuinely compelling in everything good and true. The safety of the sheepfold, the riches and adventure of the pasture. That’s what the love shown us at Easter brings us.

Readings: Acts 2:14,36-41 | 1 Peter 2:20-25 | John 10:1-10

fr. Peter Hunter teaches philosophy at Blackfriars, Oxford, and in Jamaica.