St Mary Thrimby: 4th Sunday of Easter;
Acts 9.36-end; John 10.22-30

Medical scientists are developing increasingly effective ways of preventing some diseases by modifying, or as they call it 'editing', the genes that are passed on to future generations. But because this can be done, should it be done? Genetic inheritance is highly complex, and genetic alterations intended to prevent diseases could at the same time have unintended and unpredictably harmful side-effects, perhaps much worse than the disease they were intended to prevent. So there are very practical reasons for proceeding, if at all, with the utmost caution.

But one of the things that's very interesting when people talk about this subject, in scientific circles and in the media, is how often the question of 'playing God' is raised. People who are opposed to genetic engineering, even those who are not religious, often come up with this argument: scientists shouldn't 'play God', shouldn't 'interfere with nature'. But the problem with this, people in favour of genetic modification point out, is that it's essentially the same argument that was made in the past about smallpox vaccination for example, or anaesthesia in childbirth, and indeed many other advances in medical science and technology which we accept without question today. And what, after all, does scientific medicine do, except interfere with nature; and what, after all, is genetic modification but a scientifically speeded up version of what farmers and animal breeders have been doing throughout history?

Now for those reasons, I think, it is difficult to defend this argument that scientists should not 'play God'; and from a theological point of view, what the argument reflects is more the ancient Greek idea of 'hubris', of not getting above yourself in the eyes of their uncaring and unpredictable gods, than the relationship between human beings and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In a Christian perspective indeed the whole idea of playing God takes on a quite different meaning.

At the heart of this Christian perspective is belief that we are all made in the image of God, however disguised or disfigured that image may become. And if we are made in the image of God the Creator, not just of us but of everything, then something of the divine mind must be reflected in human minds, and it must be possible for human minds to make some sense of what the divine mind has created. Trust that the Creator is trustworthy and true was the basic presupposition necessary for scientific investigation to proceed: until two or three centuries ago it was the explicit belief of most scientists, and still today of many. In this theological perspective, 'playing God', by participating in the unending development of science and technology, is one way in which humans, who are made in the image of God, exercise their God-given responsibility in and for creation.

But there is more to that God-given responsibility than the endless development of science and technology. Fears that genetic modification could have unpredictable and unforeseen harmful side-effects are real enough. Regulations can be devised to help avoid some of these unintended harmful consequences: but ways can often be found of getting round regulations, if people are sufficiently motivated by personal, professional, commercial or political self-interest. The only, or at least most reliable way of avoiding such harmful consequences is for scientists and society to maintain constant vigilance, caring and acting conscientiously for the common good of all God's creation and creatures - in other words, by 'playing God' in the way that we would expect a caring God to act. But this, of course, can be very difficult for needy humans to do, especially if the image of God in us has become disguised or disfigured, by narrow self-centred views of the world which deceive us into putting our own interests first and blind us to the needs of others. For society, scientists and ourselves as individuals to 'play God' in this positive sense, of caring and acting for the good of all God's creation and creatures, we need, somehow, to find some way of rising above these false and harmful self-centred and self-deceiving views of the world and of ourselves.

And it is here we come to the image in our gospel reading and hymns today of Jesus as the shepherd of our souls. 'My sheep hear me, and they follow me.' Christ, whose living Spirit is and has been always everywhere in the world, no doubt has many other flocks, under names unknown to us until we know even as we are known. But what we can know, even now, is that in the fellowship of the Church, worldwide and across the ages, countless human souls have, by the teaching, example and sensed presence of Christ, been shepherded out of narrow self-centredness and self-deception into a larger and more generous vision of what it means for them, for us, and for everyone to have been made in the image of God.

This larger vision, of course, often fades with time, or is fractured by circumstances, and continually needs to be renewed by repentance. Repentance, it has been said, is a matter not of regret or remorse, but of giving up 'narrow… human views which are not large enough for God's mystery'. It is through this positive and liberating repentance that Christ shepherds us into the mystery of God. It is an endless mystery, but one in whom it becomes ever clearer that every other person, just as we ourselves, are made in the image of God. That realisation, I think, must have been what made Pope Francis say yesterday, when he visited refugees on a Greek island: we must "look directly into their eyes… and weep…. and when we weep we will know what to do".

Let me end by quoting another shepherd, more local because he once lived a few steps away from here. In the final chapter of The Shepherd's Life, James Rebanks writes about his feelings when 'working up these mountains'.

There is a thrill in the timelessness up there. I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time… Perhaps, in a hundred years' time, no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains. They won't know my name. But that doesn't matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those that came before a debt for getting it thus far.

Well, I think there could be no better description also of what we are doing here in this church this morning: 'carrying on something bigger' than us, 'something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time' - back to those historically inaccessible but spiritually essential days of Jesus' earthly life and that of the early church: back to the winter day when Jesus, walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon, assured those who accosted him that no one could snatch his sheep out of his and his Father's hand; back (in our first reading) to the house in Joppa where Dorcas, who was devoted to good works and acts of charity, on her deathbed opened her eyes; back too, to all the generations who have worshipped amidst these Cumbrian fields and hills, the monks of Shap Abbey, villagers in little 12th and 13th century churches, and in the old Thrimby chapel; and then for over two hundred years all those who have worshipped in this church of St Mary. Back, but also forward: to future generations who won't know our names, but who will be in debt to us, for keeping things going, so that they can stand and do the things we do, and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, gently inviting them, as he does us now, to 'do this, in remembrance of me'.