Boundaries - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


John 10. 1-10

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class="chapter-2">10 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.

But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.

And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.

And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.

This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.

Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.

All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.

I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.

10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

Many years ago, my husband Paul was once in the ignominious position of having to climb over a series of locked gates and a high boundary wall at dead of night, while attempting to break into Wantage Convent.

In his defence, I ought to add that his actions were driven by necessity rather than felony, and that he was accompanied in this escapade by two extremely respectable Anglican clerics who were subsequently to become, respectively, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Bishop of Newcastle (both now retired).

But as Paul will testify, it is not much fun being caught climbing over a wall, even when you are supposed to be the other side of it - as he was on that particular night. He and his companions were staying at the convent on a staff training course, they had been out to a local pub that evening, but had failed to take account of the time of the convent curfew. As you can imagine, the Reverend Mother, roused from her slumbers in her curlers (or whatever is the nunly equivalent), was Not Best Pleased.

Boundaries are very important to human life. And, on the whole, they should of course be respected. Boundaries can help to give clarity and definition to places, and so help to resolve disputes (for example, by establishing where your garden ends, and your neighbour's garden begins). Boundaries can help to give security, protecting those on the inside, and keeping out those who shouldn't be there. And, of course, they don't have to be physical or spatial in nature: marriage establishes a boundary around the relationship of two married partners, making the exclusive nature of their relationship clear, both to them, and to the world outside.

And boundaries can also be of great significance in relation to matters of faith. Most of us would agree that there are certain kinds of conduct that are incompatible with Christian discipleship. The difficulty is, of course, that Christians do not always agree on how or where those boundaries of behaviour or belief should be drawn. Throughout its history the Church has been riven with disputes about such matters, as, very sadly, it still is today.

The story is told of a parish priest who was delighted when a local woman who had a reputation for leading a somewhat, shall we say, colourful life, took what was for her the very brave step of attending a service in his church one Sunday. However, not all of his regular parishioners were quite so ready to welcome her. Indeed, one of them was overheard declaring indignantly: 'If Jesus could see that woman daring to show her face in church, he'd ... he'd ... turn in his grave!'  (An interesting assertion, in the light of the Resurrection, but let us move on ...)

And some boundaries change over time, or are found to be superfluous. The first time I ever flew in a glider, I can remember looking down at the countryside below me and seeing the traces of ancient field systems and hedgerows, long since removed. Once they had played an essential role in defining property, and indeed the life of a community - but their day was done.

There is a story - possibly apocryphal - but a very good story none the less, one version of which goes like this: during a retreat from one of the battles of the First World War, some English soldiers bearing the dead body of one of their comrades asked the local parish priest if he might be buried in the village churchyard. The priest asked whether the dead man was Catholic, and on hearing that he was not (the young man had been Church of England) - the priest shook his head: 'I'm afraid this churchyard is for Catholics, not Protestants', he said. So the young soldiers had no choice but to bury their friend outside the churchyard itself, just the other side of its boundary fence.

The following morning, on preparing to leave, they were somewhat taken aback to discover that miraculously their friend's grave was now within the churchyard. It transpired that the priest had felt so guilty about denying the lad a proper burial place that, during the night, he and some of the other villagers had moved the fence so that the young soldier's grave was now on the inside, rather than the outside.

The question of when it is appropriate to let boundaries shape the events of our lives, and when the events of our lives should bring about the re-shaping of our boundaries, is a profoundly important one.

Which brings us on to this morning's gospel reading about shepherds, sheep and sheepfolds. The boundary around the sheep fold is clearly demarcated, and it is very clear who should be on the inside, and who should not. But as our story reveals, ultimately the boundary itself is actually of only limited importance. Because when the Good Shepherd enters the sheepfold, immediately the sheep recognise him: he knows them individually and calls them by name, and they follow him - not out of coercion, but because they know him and trust him. Because he already has a relationship with him: in the Middle East, shepherds lead their flocks from the front, rather than driving them from behind - so if they don't know their shepherd, they simply won't follow him.

The Good Shepherd is then contrasted sharply with the thief, who enters the fold not in the service of the sheep, but to serve his own purposes - and so he enters secretively and by deceptive means. But it doesn't do him any good, because the sheep know immediately that he is an intruder who is not to be trusted.

So what matters most in our Gospel story is not the boundary but rather the relationship - and that kind of relationship of love and trust can only be built over time, and through lived experience. There are no short-cuts.

And the same is true in the Christian life: ultimately the thing matters is not the endless arguments in the Church about where we put the boundaries, and about who is in and who is out. Rather it is simply the nature and quality of our relating: the relationships we have with others, and the relationship we have with God. As Jesus said: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and you shall Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.

We need boundaries. Of course we do. Boundaries matter. Good boundaries in the right place can enable human beings to flourish and to live in society. But in the life of faith boundaries should never be allowed to become ends in themselves. Indeed, there are times when, like the priest in the story I told about the soldier's burial, we need to have the wisdom to discern whether we should shore up the fence; relocate it; or even dismantle it all together. When the Church ends up being more preoccupied with boundaries than with love, then it is in serious danger of losing its way. Because ultimately, of course, the love of God knows no boundaries whatsoever.

The sheep follow the Good Shepherd because they know his voice; and they know that his is a voice they can trust.



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