Given on Good Shepherd Sunday. 3rd May 2020, in Westminster Cathedral
Today we contemplate Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This is a most lovely and ancient way of coming close to our Blessed Lord. We can bring to mind so easily the image of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the lost one, carrying the lost sheep home on his shoulders (Luke 15.4); the shepherd who is known by his sheep and calls them by name; the shepherd who never forsakes his flock in time of danger but stays with them even unto death. These are images that readily move us to be closer to Jesus in a sense of our need and our gratitude for his love and care.
Each of these aspects of Jesus the Good Shepherd teaches us something of how we are to live, because we too are called to be good shepherds. This is the calling of our baptism: to live the life of Jesus in our compassion, our love, our offering of help and mercy towards others. This is our vocation, a good thing to remember on this Sunday which is also called 'Vocation Sunday'. Today we renew our sense of being called to follow Jesus. We let him hear our response, our desire that his life is our life, that his way of seeing and acting become our way of seeing each other and acting towards everyone we meet.
Today's Gospel puts another slant on the image of the Good Shepherd. It is this. The good shepherd is the gate, the one who enables the sheep to go in and out freely and safely. Jesus says ‘I am the gate'.
What does this mean? Here are my thoughts.
Deep within the heart of every person is a reservoir of love and compassion. We are made for love, for generosity, for kindness. Jesus is the gateway to that kindness. It is he who encourages and enables this kindness to flow freely, in and out. Then, with him, we receive graciously, give generously, forgive compassionately, care especially for those who are lost.
This radical kindness is of the Kingdom of God. It is the treasure hidden in the field of the world. It is, in a sense, the very heart of the sheepfold into which he gathers us. It makes us safe and gives us life. This love is the original treasure of our creation, placed in the heart of every one of God's children. Jesus is its shepherd and guardian, as St Peter says in the second reading we have just heard.
Yet this treasure is corrupted by sin and greed and jealousy and anger.
We know that in the course of our lives, this kindness can often become locked down, obstructed, by the bitterness lying within us, lost in the tangle of the events of our lives that, like thorn bushes or weeds, hold us back, make us lose our way. Thus we become closed off from others.
This happens often. It happens between people who know each other well, who are bound together by circumstance or family. Communication ceases. A state of neutrality takes over. Life loses its colour. Kindness disappears. And this can happen in every household, not least in these difficult circumstances in which we are now living.
Jesus is the one who, ultimately, opens again the gate of kindness. Today he tells us: I am the gate, the gate to the kindness of the Kingdom, the kindness that is still deep within us but has become shut in and no longer emerges into the sunlight. Jesus teaches us how to overcome mistrust, how to start again, how to see afresh those who, although very close, have become far away. He offers us the forgiveness we need in order to unlock the gates of our hearts. When we come to him we learn again how to open the kindness within and let it flow where it is needed most. This is the work of the good shepherd, the one who is the gate of the sheepfold.
Jesus asks us to be this kind of good shepherd to one another. He asks us to help each other keep open the gateway of kindness, unlocking the doors of kindness that have become shut because of the hurt we experience, or simply rusty with lack of use.
This time of lockdown, when we feel so much frustration at the restrictions we observe, is a time in which great kindness is being shown. I thank all who are doing so: in all the structured works of charity that are taking place in our parishes for their neighbourhoods; the lists of these works is too long to read out now. I also thank those who work of kindness to unseen and unsung, acts of kindness that flow from the open gate of the heart.
This kindness maybe inspired by the Good Shepherd, or maybe not. Yet it passes through the gateway that he has opened in his victory over sin. Only because of that victory we can continue to 'go freely in and out', freed from the burden of our past sins and failures, freed to be generous again to a degree that, in other times, we could not have imagined. He alone has the words of eternal life, words that unlock the love of God poured into the hearts of all mankind. He does it by his actions, especially by his being faithful even unto death. This is the key he brings.
We too are called to be such good shepherds and unlock the doors of wearied hearts by our actions, by being, like him, faithful unto the end. This is our daily calling, our vocation, our privilege of being a good shepherd, the gateway to life, for each other. By our unfailing loving kindness, enabled in Jesus, we set each other free.
May the Good Shepherd guide and strengthen us in the pathway of constant kindness, especially at this time of trial. May he restore in us all a deep sense of our vocation to be with him, to live in him and to work through him, every day. Amen.
✠Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster