Easter IV, 25th Apr 21
What we call people and what they call us is important. Our eldest cat is called Samuel, as you may know. When I got him from the pet rescue place up the road over ten years ago he was called Dozer, which I thought was a slightly silly name. So I thought of God calling the boy Samuel repeatedly in I Samuel 3 and, perhaps rather grandly, thought I would name the cat Samuel so I sounded like God when I was looking for him: “Samuel, Samuel.” I’m still waiting for the cat to turn round and say, “Here I am, Lord.”
Just before a bishop confirms individuals he says to them, “God has called you by name and made you His own.” The name is an important part of our identity and the names we give children should reveal that they have a place in the Christian family. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is told quite specifically by the Archangel Gabriel the name he is to give his son (St Luke 1:13). As an indicator of Saul’s entrance in to the household of faith, his name is changed to Paul, just as Abram’s name had been changed to indicate the calling God had place upon him (Genesis 17:5). We take a name at Baptism and we can add names at Confirmation, names that speak of one of the saints, one of the characters of the Bible, or one of the characteristics of God or His people. What we’re called is part of our being caught up with Christ.
This goes too for what we call each other. We call priests Father because our new identity in Christ redefines our relationships. St Peter calls St Mark the Evangelist his “son” (I Peter 5:13) and there’s no sense here of them being biologically related, it is their shared life in the Church that gives them this relationship. It’s for this reason that priests should know the names of the members of their congregation and why indeed it’s good for us to be intentional in learning each other’s names. On occasions we’ve had the wearing of name badges to try to facilitate this. This is hard to do in a COVID secure way but it is still an important task for us to have in the foremost of our mind. Hopefully when next in this church someones asks your name, even if you’ve seen them every Sunday for the last ten years, your response won’t be, “why are you asking me?” but “wow, it’s great someone care and wants to learn.”
Let’s look now at the names we have for God. We have lots of different titles for God. Some of them are forms of address like “Lord” and “Master;” some refer to attributes of God like “God of love,” “Almighty God;” others refer to events in the life of Christ, “Risen Lord,” “Ascended Lord;” or activities of God like “Creator” and “Redeemer.” Some use images of God in the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church, like one we celebrate today “The Good Shepherd,” but there’s also “Light of the world” or “Lamb of God.”
All these images have the authority behind them of Scripture and the Church. Conversely, some people refer to God as Jehovah. The origin of this are the four consonants that God uses when He says to Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). It was to be a name they did not repeat and so began using the word “Lord,” such as we see in the Old Testament, sometimes in block caps, which it shouldn’t be. Jehovah’s Witnesses alter Romans 10:13, which states “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” they alter it to include the word Jehovah to suit their own ends. This turns Christianity in to some sort of mystery religion where you have to use the write word or you’re damned. Jehovah is not a word Jesus ever used to call upon His Father and nor should we.
The point of the host of divine names is that they are pure goodness. If we have these on our lips no evil will be spoken. It may also be that you have a particular favourite name: it can be a useful thing to share with someone to whom you’re speaking about your faith. Peter speaks in our first reading of how they have healed at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple the person who could not walk, as recorded in Acts 3. They do this “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene.” This is not to turn the name of Jesus in to a magic spell, to be recanted and repeated clumsily. Rather, when Jesus teaches us to pray, He commands us to praise God by saying, “Hallowed be thy name.” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” the hymnodist John Newton wrote. We are to treasure it and keep it precious, never using it as a swear word or to express anger or dismay. Through it we find life.
One bit of Christian devotion that has dropped a bit out of circulation is the use of litanies. Occasionally we use the Litany of the Saints, on occasions like the Easter Vigil or Ordinations: this is when a list of saints is invoked in turn. Another litany you may be familiar with is the Litany of Loretto, which uses a series of titles of our Lady, such as Mother of God, Mirror of Justice, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven etc. It’s often said at Walsingham, for example. I commend other litanies to you too, which you’l be able to find on the internet with a fair amount of ease, such as the Litany of God the Father, the Litany of the Sacred Heart and the Litany of the Precious Blood. The litanies provide us with a simple and repetitive way to keep the names of God, His attributes and His ways on our lips and in our minds. The Christian Faith is not just another way of picking up a self-help manual and committing ways of life to memory: it is consecrating ourselves in the service of God our Father.
So, I’ve spoken of how names are important, both our own and that which we use of God. I want now to think about the importance of calling. Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd in our Gospel today and it’s rich with symbolism: we could think of a lamb being carried on the shoulders of the shepherd and the radical care given to the lost sheep as in the parable our Lord gives in St Luke 15:3-7; we could have in our mind the image of a great number of sheep, reminding us of our calling in to the church alongside all those destined for salvation; we could think of how the Shepherd carries a crook both to ward off the wolves but also to drag back the stray lambs; we could think of how this is such an important image for the ministry of the church today and how bishops still carry a crosier; we could think of the Shepherd lying down in the entrance to the sheepfold to protect the sheep from the wolf.
For me, though, I think the most powerful element of this image of the Good Shepherd is the bit where Jesus explains earlier in St John 10, which we didn’t hear this evening: “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out … The sheep follow Him because they know His voice … they do not know the voice of strangers.” In our reading the Scriptures, in our daily prayers, in our coming to Mass every day, in our service of others we get familiar with what that voice sounds like. It means when something odd comes our way we are better equipped to discern whether it is the voice of the Shepherd or the voice of thieves and bandits, to use the language of John 10. It is worth us remember that sin and temptation always look like a good idea. Remember that when Satan tempts our Lord he quotes Scripture, he speaks of generosity and gift, feeding and tender care, it all sounds great. But it’s the wrong voice.
The point of life on earth is that God calls us and we respond. What Jesus does alongside the Sea of Galilee to the Apostles centuries ago is the purpose of the whole earth, even today. Part of our response to that call is being here and worshipping the Lord and offering Him the sacrifice of His Son. But however well and faithfully we do that, it is still not all that the call holds before us.
One day the disciples come back to the Lord and are full of the achievements they have accomplished with His power at work in them: “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (St Luke 10:17-20). You might expect Jesus to say something like, “Yeah, it’s great. Gosh, your faith is strong. I promised you it would be like this.” What He says is this, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, yes, God wants us to be faithful here on earth and the cause of our true gladness is to be that our names are written in Heaven, in the book of life.
This is the destination of those who follow the Good Shepherd. This is where His voice calls us. This is of where we get a glimpse at this Mass, here are the pastures where we feed today so that when the Lord calls us from this earth we may by His grace pasture with Him for ever. Happy Good Shepherd Sunday!