Jesus saith unto Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. [St. John, 21:16.]
The Gospel of St. John concludes, in chapters twenty and twenty-one, with an account of the appearances of Christ, the Risen Lord; and the final story there (from which our Gospel lesson comes) is about his appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias - a miraculous catch of fish, a meal together on the shore, and finally the commission to St. Peter. Three times the question, "Simon, do you love me?"; three times the challenge: "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep".
That final Resurrection story is a very complex one, full of rich detail and such subtleties of thought and language that no translation or exposition of it can ever seem quite adequate. The miraculous harvest of fish, for instance, is symbolic of the apostolic calling to be fishers of men: at Jesus' bidding, the barren waters are made fruitful. The breakfast on the shore is symbolic of the wedding banquet of God's Kingdom, the union of the Church with Christ, her bridegroom; the union of the redeemed soul with God; all prefigured and foretasted in the Holy Eucharist. All that symbolism - mystical and eucharistic - and much, much more than that is there. But the basic point of the commission to St. Peter is, after all, very simple and compelling: "If you love me, feed my sheep".
That is the Risen Lord's commission to his Church: "If you love me, feed my sheep". And so, all down the centuries, by word and sacrament, the Church has fed the flock of Christ, and nourished hungry souls with a vision of that new and higher life which is God's Kingdom. It is nowadays politically correct, I know, to bewail the sins and failures of the Church, to dwell upon the evils that Christians have perpetrated, the hypocrisies of self-serving prelates, and all the cruelties and bloodshed and oppression enacted in the name of Christ.
And no doubt it is well that we should be reminded how imperfect has been, and indeed how imperfect still is our discipleship, how incomplete our wisdom is, how fragile and how limited our charity, how shameful our betrayals of our holy calling, and how necessary always must be our tears of penitence. It is well to be reminded that even at our best and truest, we have the treasure of God's Kingdom in frail, earthen vessels, "that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us", as St. Paul puts it.
Yet the treasure is there, though it be in earthen vessels. The bread of heaven is there to nourish and sustain us, the word of God, "sharper than any two-edged sword", penetrates our darkness and confusion with news of the risen life, and elevates our minds and hearts to heaven.
"Do not labour for the food that perishes", says Jesus, "but for the food which endures unto life eternal"; and that eternal food is none other than Christ himself, "the bread of God ... which comes down from heaven and gives life unto the world", the very Word of God, made audible in the sacred words of revelation, made visible in holy sacraments, and manifest in holy lives. That is the substance of the apostolic commission: to feed the flock with "the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word". That has always been the true mission of the Church, and that is, of course, precisely how the Church's mission was defined in our own Church's "Solemn Declaration" a century ago. May we be steadfast in that commitment.
Surely the divine commission re-echos in our minds as we gather here tonight for the Consecration of a Bishop in the Church of God. No doubt, the functions of a bishop are manifold; but, above all, he is to be the shepherd of Christ's flock in this place, the overseer or steward of God's household here; and to him especially is directed the challenge, "If you love me, feed my sheep". And that must be an intimidating challenge in these days of a troubled Church in a troubled world. The bishop must somehow be a focus of unity in a Church threatened by the Scylla and Charybdis of radical schism on the one hand, and a vacuous bureaucratic uniformity on the other. He will be under constant pressure to conform to the faddish standards and inclinations of the present age in the Church and in the world; he will be tempted often towards discouragement, and even cynicism; and there won't be many easy answers. In fact, there will be only one real answer, and that one won't always be easy. St. Paul says it, in First Corinthians: "It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful". And as St. Irenaeus, the great exponent of Apostolic Succession in the midst of the Gnostic crisis of the Second century, clearly saw and said, the bishop can serve as a focus of unity only inasmuch as he himself is faithful to the tradition of the truth divinely given; only thus can he hold the freedom and integrity of mind which can resist the pressures to conform to the spirit of the present age.
These are difficult and trying times for the Church, no doubt; "a day of clouds and thick darkness"; and yet, it is easy to exaggerate that aspect of things. Certainly, the Church has often seen much darker days, and has come through her trials purified and renewed, refined as though by fire. Examples of faithfulness through tribulation are abundant in Holy Scripture and through the centuries of the Church's history. I've been thinking a good deal recently about an episcopal example, which it seems to me appropriate to recall on this occasion: that of St. Gregory, the late-sixth-century Bishop of Rome, who, in the year 596, sent St. Augustine and forty monks to England to found the See of Canterbury.
As one of his biographers puts it, "Gregory did his great work and lived his noble life in the midst of circumstances which might well have daunted even the most heroic... On one side the swords of the barbarians hemmed him in, on the other he was exposed to the unscrupulous animosity of Imperial officials. Few sympathised with him, hardly any understood him.
Amid starving people, mutinous soldiers, greedy officials, intriguing bishops, untrustworthy agents, in the ruined capital of a desolated country he stood alone, without support save in his conscience and his God" (H. Dudden, Gregory the Great, II, 281). And yet, in that age of almost unimaginable ruin, his work was immensely creative in educing from chaos the shape of European Christendom, intellectual, moral and institutional.
"In the midst of the unsteady flow of time", said Gregory, "the man of God knows how to keep steady the steps of his mind". (Moralia in Job, xxxi, 28, 55). But just how is that possible? I think the Venerable Bede penetrated the secret of it, when he reported how Gregory, "amid the incessant battering of worldly cares", strove to be "fastened, as by the cable of an anchor, to the peaceful shore of prayer" (Hist. eccl., II, I).
The tasks of the Church, and therefore of the bishop, are indeed challenging, beyond all human competence; but in the doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ our Saviour, faithfully delivered into our hands by those who were in Christ before us, and with our souls firmly anchored on "the peaceful shore of prayer", we have all we need, and more. "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves", as St. Paul says, "but our sufficiency is of God, who hath also made us able ministers of the new covenant". "Be of good cheer", says Jesus, "I have overcome the world".
May sound faith, good courage, and unshakable confidence in the blessed providence of God be with you all; with Tony and Anna, and with all you faithful people here, as you enter upon a new stage in your pilgrimage. "Follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith. Lay hold upon eternal life".
And now, to God the Holy Trinity, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Good Shepherd of his flock, be honour and glory everlasting. Amen.
This sermon was preached at the consecration of the Rt. Rev'd. Anthony Burton, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, St. Luke's Day, 1993.