Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 NIV) On Friday, while I was in Arizona at a training conference, one of my colleagues asked another sitting beside him, “what are the readings for Sunday?” Evidently, some of my fellow clergy were a bit remiss and had not yet begun their sermon preparation for today. “Good Shepherd Sunday” one of my new friends shouted out to another. Befuddled, I could not seem to recall that there was such a feast day on the liturgical calendar. So, I panicked suddenly, because I too had not prepared for Sunday yet. I pulled out my laptop and quickly scanned the lectionary. With a few clicks of the mouse, suddenly it all made sense.
The readings today are ripe with the imagery of poor and needy sheep, unscrupulous wolves lurking in their midst, and callous and detached hired hands. However, in the midst of these metaphorical characters, the focus of today’s Gospel remains the depiction of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as the loving, wise, compassionate, and committed shepherd. Although today is officially the “Fourth Sunday of Easter, “ based on today’s readings, it makes sense that my friend took a little liturgical license, and referred to today as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. For many of us who have come from a variety of faith backgrounds, the metaphor Jesus uses might stir up different images in our minds, which may come with an even greater variety of meanings. If we are figuratively the sheep of his flock and Jesus is our symbolic shepherd, we should re-examine some of the old images of sheepherding we learned about in Sunday school, in order to get to the heart of the message Jesus was trying to convey when he said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” I am going to give you a little homework assignment. If you go home after the service and search for “Good Shepherd” on Google images, you will find a plethora of 20thcentury artist’s renditions of Jesus’ metaphor. In some pictures, you will find Jesus surrounded by a small flock of sheep over whom, he is lovingly watching, protecting, and loving. In other pictures, you may see Jesus holding a single small lamb over his shoulders and in the picture; there are no other sheep to be found.
There seems to be two competing images for the Good Shepherd in some modern art; one in which Jesus is overseeing the flock (the assembled group of sheep), and in the other, he is watching over merely a solitary lamb. We need to wrestle with whether when Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, was he talking about him shepherding us as individual sheep, or is he talking about shepherding us as a gathered flock of individuals, or is he possibly speaking about both. We know obviously that sheep are found as a part of a whole, so I imagine that being a part of Jesus’ flock is not something that can be done in isolation. For the flock to thrive, for the flock to be fed, for the flock to be about her mission in the world, she must do this faith thing of believing and being as an assembly.
To get a better handle of this symbol Jesus used to explain Christian community, let’s explore this whole notion of sheep and shepherd for a moment, especially in the context of sheepherding in first century Palestine. In a recent article I read, “The Imagery of Shepherding in the Bible,” Thomas Golding wrote,
Sheep are utterly dependent on someone outside themselves for their survival. In fact, sheep would not survive long without a shepherd. Sheep are not only dependent creatures; they are also singularly unintelligent, prone to wandering, and unable to find their way to a sheepfold even when it is within sight. (p. 165)1
Before we sheep are offended by the word “unintelligent,” let me point out that the author is not saying we are a bunch of dumb animals. More to the point, Golding is referring to how sheep alone as individuals are unable to understand, use good judgment, or be guided by their own intellect. I think the point Golding is making is that sheep as dependent creatures, need each other and they need someone to care for them. Sheep do not have the capacity on their own, to care for themselves, because they do not have the ability to understand where to find food and water, where the dangers lurk, nor how to grow the size of the group to insure that the flock thrives well into the future. They need a loving, caring, Good Shepherd to feed them, to protect them, and to insure that the flock grows and thrives. When it comes to our spiritual journey as the Body of Christ, I think Our Lord was “spot on” when he called us his sheep and he reminded us of whom we are totally dependent.
We must surrender our sense of independence and put our trust, our hope, our vision, and the accomplishment of the mission of this part of the Body of Christ, in the very hands of the Good Shepherd. If we think we can be faithful followers of Christ by relying on our own intelligence, on our own heroic efforts, on our own well laid out programs, on our own ideas of church, then my friends, we are fooling ourselves. We will thrive only when we recognize that we are total dependent on the Good Shepherd. We must begin to discern the Spirit’s movement in the life of this community, and listen for where, how, and to what we are being called. One of the unique aspects of shepherding was that “the sheep listen(ed) to the shepherd’s voice . . . Near-Eastern shepherds have been known to stand . . . and sound out their own peculiar calls, their own sheep respond(ed) and gather(ed) around their shepherd.” (p. 172)1 When we recognize that we cannot traverse this pathway of discipleship alone as wandering individuals but together as a flock under the leadership of Jesus Christ, we will hear the voice of the one who is calling us to follow.
The Good Shepherd gives the Christian community its vision and mission. He restores our souls and leads us along the paths of right relationships with him and with each other. The Good Shepherd gives the Christian community the resources and gifts we need to do our mission. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters. The Good Shepherd protects the flock from the dangers and diversions that would deter us from that to which, we are called. He is with us even when we fear the uncertainties, distractions, and the shadow of death in all its forms. The Good Shepherd welcomes and invites to the flock straying wanderers who may not right now be a part of this flock. The Master said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16 NIV) His table of grace, mercy, love, and peace, which is set before us will provide the provisions for the flock to thrive, even beyond we who are gathered today.
Listen closely to this popular paraphrase of scripture and hear the Good News:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows; you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
(Psalm 23 The Message)
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the flock because his desire is that the flock to flourish. If we but listen and respond to his voice, whispered through the Spirit’s presence among us, we will thrive as a community of abundant and lasting grace, of restoring reconciliation, and of love that lives beyond our divisions, our strife, and even beyond the fear of death.
1 Golding, Thomas A. “The Imagery of Shepherding In the Bible. Part 2.” Bibliotheca Sacra 163.650 (2006): 158-175. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Apr. 2012.