Cookies are in use to track visits to our website: we store no personal details.

The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

← back to list


A Real Shepherdship

Speaker: The Most Reverend Martin Modéus

Tags: communion, shepherd, bread, sheep, wine, eucharist, fence


Text: Matthew 9:35-38: Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear sisters and brothers! I am so happy to be here. We have been given such an amazing welcome in Paris and in your parish. So much friendship, so many good discussions, good food, and generosity. Thank you, Presiding bishop Michael and bishop Mark, my new episcopal friends. And thank you everyone here.

I will now tell you something you don’t know, a secret. There are three things an archbishop is really, afraid of. Just three. All other dangers we can handle.

  • The first is to forget the 220 years old archbishops cross at an hotel room.
  • The second is that Air France sends the bag with the liturgical vestments to Nairobi instead of Paris.
  • The third is to have to preach directly after a sermon by Presiding bishop Michael Curry.

But, brothers and sisters, this is the amazing things with being church, and being human, and being Christian: God has made us different, and in the body of Christ it is the variety that is the beauty.

Thanks be to God; one pastor preaches for half an hour and makes us laugh and feel revitalized. And thanks be to God that another one preaches in 19th century, German academic style, for 90 minutes and gives us a good sleep. That is also a blessing.

A friend to me once said: don’t blame yourself if you fall asleep when you are praying, because he who falls asleep praying, will pray sleeping.

Being churches together has to do with this: coming with different gifts, helping one another to get inspiration and also to get rest. We can help one another to see if we are struggling with things not so necessary for the kingdom of God. 

God gives us what we need, and our communion is one of the ways God will use to distribute Gods good gifts in and between our churches.

Only during these few days, I have learned so much of you: in evangelism, of the identity of the Church, in preaching, in liturgy. I am full of impressions and impressed a lot. And I am eager to give back, out of our tradition. And 90 minutes is not out tradition.

Our churches have been friends for so long time, and this is the day for signing the agreement. This is church history, and, what is more important, it is spiritual history, and, what is even more important: it is spiritual future.

Every time two or more churches sign agreements, or agree, theologically, spiritually, in any form, I think the angels in the heaven rejoice. Today we rejoice with them.

And we have a lot to do in this world. In the gospel of today Jesus says: The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. And he needs all laborers. Not just one style, one message, one idea-churches, but many. Many churches of different styles. Many theologies, to cope with different people’s different experiences. Many moods and ways of talking and preaching and serving and giving. Because the body of Christ is diverse, because humanity is diverse, and we are called to serve humanity, and to cooperate to build the kingdom of God. There is no use to cooperate if everyone is like everyone else.

I am not a shepherd, in the more original sense, but I have been interested in the conditions of shepherdship for quite some time. After all, the image of the shepherd is important for our understanding of Jesus, of the duties of priests and bishops – and for the life of the church itself.

Although there are some people who are a bit hesitant to be compared to sheep – and I can understand that perspective – these parables are good to understand the relationship between us and our Lord Jesus.

Somewhere along the way, I began to pay attention to the difference between the conditions of sheep farming in modern society and the shepherds that Jesus speaks of. And that's of some importance to the church.

It has to do with fencing. In modern sheep breeding, sheep are almost always behind fences. But in Jesus' day, it wasn't that simple. Often the shepherd wandered with loose animals. They had all possibilities to run away. All the time when on move.

In the barren areas where traditional shepherds operate, fencing is scarce. Yet the shepherd, in the parable of the Good Shepherd, left without hesitation the 99 sheep in the desert without fear that they would be dispersed.

The reason, of course, was that he knew that the flock trusted him. They knew he was coming back. They recognized the shepherd's voice. They knew he would never leave them to their fate.

Mostly, at least in Sweden, we pay attention to the lost sheep, but I think the behaviour of the 99 is of equal interest. They stayed. They felt safe although they could not see the shepherd. In the desert, in the dark, they felt safe. Therefore the sheep choose to stay. They were there of free choice.

The shepherd parables surrounding Jesus are essentially stories of trust, and not only that, but of a trust based on experience. The sheep knew from experience that the shepherd brought them right, and that he world never let them down.

So when we talk about the fact that it is with Jesus that the fresh water and green pastures are found, we are not just talking about a theological theory but something that is possible to experience. Go back to your experience as Christian and you will probably find it.

This is directional for how the church needs to perceive itself. Never as a fence, but as the voice that knows where the green pastures are. Where the fresh water is. Then the sheep will choose to stay.

And the church can only be a shepherd when itself is a sheep. The church can only speak when it is listening. The church can only provide water and pastures when it is itself living of the good gifts of our loving Lod.

A church must never try to fence the sheep. That is contrary to the love and the trust that are growing between the shepherd and the sheep. 

I'm not that interested in statistics, so I'm not one of those concerned if belonging to the church is declining or increasing. It goes up and down over the years, and besides, we probably know that quite a few irrelevant issues can cause people to either join the church or to leave the church.

But if you read a little about how organisations usually work, you can see that the first priority of an organisation often is to ensure its own survival. Therefore, there is some cause for concern in times of secularization or ecclesiastical crisis. A Church, out of this organizational aspect, might become self-absorbed.

Beware us if the church stops showing the way to Jesus and instead begins to make efforts to show the way to itself.

What can worry me, is if people no longer perceive that the Church knows the way to the green pastures. Or that the Church no longer reaches, itself, for the good water, that which refreshes when man is burdened by burdens, has run out of energy, or has lost courage and meaning.

Here, of course, there is an ecumenical blessing: the shepherd's college learns how to show the way together. If the world is full of shepherds pointing in different directions, or pointing at themselves, where do the sheep go?

But ecumenism and agreements help us to find the path together. Thank you, God, for the blessed diversity that helps us to see.

Now I have the pleasure of thanking the Episcopal Church for a life-giving experience, personally, in my own life.

Many years ago, I visited an Episcopal Church in the United States — unfortunately, I don't remember its name. I went to a high mass, and it was very similar to a Swedish high mass.

But then it was time for the Eucharist, and as I approached the altar, I smelled: freshly baked bread! A divine scent.

And when I arrived there, it wasn't a small symbolic piece I got in my hand, it was a hefty piece. It was oven-warm, it was sweetened with honey. It was so tasty. And then I came to the wine, and even there it wasn't just symbols. It was an abundance I have never encountered in a church service.

As I left the altar table, I suddenly found in my body a feeling that I had never had in connection with a Communion: I want more. I literally wanted to put myself last in line and walk up one more time.

For many years I told this as a funny story in Sweden. How strange you can think! I want more. But one day I realized that it was just the opposite: we say that this is the finest thing we have in the church. The tastiest grass and the freshest water, to speak to the shepherd analogy. But at least I had never seriously wondered if it tasted good. 

But what the Lord gives, in our life, through God’s word, and in God’s calling, it tastes good.

In the text we just listened to, Jesus is concerned about just that. He sees that the people lack shepherds. No one serves what is tasty, life-giving, and healthy. They run around like lost sheep – or like giddy geese.

That comment comes as a kind of conclusion when his own work has been described in the text.

And Jesus' work is easy to summarize. He healed the sick and he preached about the kingdom. That is the shepherd's job. That's the church's job: healing the world and delivering the liberating, joyful, gracious message that makes people stretch.

This is, of course, a strong but also encouraging call to those of us who in various ways are leaders in the Church, but it is first and foremost a challenge to the Church as a whole, as communion: to cultivate environments, figurative grazing fields where good grass thrives and it is easy to access the springs with fresh water.

People feel the scent of this, as I could feel the scent of honey and fresh bread. What do our own hearts say? Our conversation groups, our Bible study groups, worship services, diakonia — whatever it may be. Does it taste good?

I had to go to an Episcopal Church to discover the importance of taste, literally and symbolically. Thank you, Episcopal Church. This is kind of proof of how important it is that we help each other to see ourselves and to help each other.

Sometimes we ask how much difference the world can tolerate, but it is probably rather as it is often said: how much similarity can the world stand? The difference is blessed!

Today, people are thirsty, and hunger for what gives life for real. Of course, I don't know the circumstances in the United States, or here in France. But from my Swedish perspective, I think I see a thirst and a hunger of God.

In Christ we have the life-giving water and he shows us where the healthy pastures are, and he helps us in the Episcopal church and the Church of Sweden to help each other. May God bless our communion, now and in the future.