Christian priests and ministers of the gospel are called with precision and urgency to a single burning passion. Yes, particular individuals may have many and varied interests but the office can have only one passion and where there is conflict the office must win. “As much as lieth in you,” instructs the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, “you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing.” Many and tragic are the errors that result from an inability to separate personal indulgences from duty.
I was reminded of this on the Fourth Sunday of Easter as we read from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells a parable about a sheepfold and some people who have entered the sheepfold but not all by the same way. Some have come in by the gate. These are the shepherds who love the sheep and know them all by name. Others have come in not by the gate but by another way. These are the thieves and bandits, imposters. Then in his explanation of the parable Jesus twice says, “I am the gate.” Which begs the question: What does it mean to enter the sheepfold through him?
For one, it means the shepherd knows that the sheep belong ultimately to the Good Shepherd. In John 10, having just referred to himself as “the gate,” Jesus immediately changes the metaphor ever so slightly, he is also “the good shepherd.” And this Good Shepherd entrusts his sheep to the care of other shepherds that he has sent. In fact, John closes his account of the gospel with the risen Jesus restoring Peter after his earlier denial and instructing him, “Feed my sheep.” Now Peter and the apostles are shepherds who participate in the work of the Good Shepherd. So, the shepherds who come in through the gate are those who have been sent with the authority of the Good Shepherd and who know that their chief job is to care for the sheep entrusted to them, to nurture them in the one faith, not to use them for their own agenda or gain.
Indeed, the true shepherds have only one agenda: to proclaim Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:23). That’s it. No other message, no other philosophy, no other wisdom, no other agenda, no other cause, no other theme, no other enthusiasm but Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. It is he we are called to proclaim, teaching everyone to trust in his supreme goodness and mercy and warning everyone that apart from him nothing can stand (Col. 1:28).
Saint Augustine comments, “Whoso wishes to enter into the sheepfold, let him enter by the door; let him preach Christ; let him seek Christ’s glory, not his own. Christ is a lowly door, and he who enters by this door must be lowly, if he would enter with his head whole.” In other words, true shepherds proclaim Christ alone, seeking not their own glory but only the glory of Christ.
The true shepherd must constrain himself, limit himself, make himself small so as not to detract from the message of the gospel. In a word, deny. Yet just here we want to push back for we do not much like denial and there are a great many things that we care about that we would like to bring to the office with us. The smallness that the office demands can seem from one perspective like a constraint that stifles originality and makes our life smaller. However, it in fact paradoxically opens up into to a true originality (in the sense of being nearer to the origins) and spaciousness not of our own making.
Anyone who has visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem knows that in order to enter one must quite literally make themself small, crouching down to enter through the Crusader-era door that was installed as a security measure within the frame of the much larger Constantinian-era door. However much of an inconvenience this may be, once through the door no one is caught complaining about having to be made small in order to enter because one is immediately overwhelmed with the beauty and spaciousness of the structure that Constantine built and the Crusaders (arguably) improved upon with their mosaics and frescos.
By contrast we might say that the imposters, the thieves and bandits, have some other cause or enthusiasm. Saint Chrysostom said that “climbing in another way” means “teaching for doctrine the precepts of men.” In other words, treating our own ideas, our own agendas, our own desires as ultimate rather than submitting all things to the loving care of Jesus.
I do not believe it would be out of line to suggest that Anglicanism in the West has become distracted by enthusiasms other than the gospel of Christ and by causes and agendas other than the one great cause and agenda he himself has left to us. If you’ve attended a Diocesan Synod, General Convention, or other such church gathering in the last five years you may know what I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, motions calling us to reduce single-use plastics, provide social housing, divest from fossil fuels, and so on are good things worthy of our consideration. However, in the face of overwhelming church decline and catechetical failure none of those things are going to cut it.
Moreover, none of those things are the unique calling and charism of the church. The church is not an NGO or social service agency. Such agencies exist and are frankly better suited to many of those tasks than the church and many deserve our support. There is, however, one task that only the church is called and equipped to do: make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).
What if, for the foreseeable future, gatherings of the church set aside activism-by-synod-motion and instead concerned themselves exclusively with themes such as: What is the gospel? Why does the gospel matter? Why is the gospel worth sharing with others? And, how are we as Anglicans uniquely equipped to do so? To be fair, maybe we think that these things go without saying. But things that go without saying very quickly become things that we forget how to say.
If you are reading this and nodding along it would be far too easy at this point to pat yourself on the back for being one of the true shepherds rather than one of those imposters. Unfortunately, the line between shepherd and bandit does not run between “us” and “them” but rather through the heart of every priest (and bishop and deacon and lay person). We are, all of us, tempted to make a name for ourselves and to pursue some other enthusiasm. A small and quiet faithfulness to Christ does not so easily generate clicks, likes, or shares. And yet it is not only the privilege but the duty of priests to be made small and to commit themselves entirely to that one great enthusiasm, cause, and agenda that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This one thing is all we have to offer the world. We should apply ourselves wholly to it.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.