Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Sheep: Metaphorical Disciples
In today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks of our relationship to him as the Good Shepherd, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” This is not the only place in scripture we hear Jesus refer to himself as the Good Shepherd, and we his disciples as his flock. In Mark’s gospel, as Jesus came ashore in a boat, he showed compassion and said, “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” For many of us who never grew up on a farm, this metaphor may seem somewhat confusing. I am sure many of you have wondered why Jesus refers to us as his sheep and he as our shepherd. Maybe you wonder what that relationship means for we 21st century Christians.
First, we must understand that the church is a community of people gathered for a purpose. The word church, comes from the Greek word, Ekklesia, which translated is a compound of two segments: “ek”, a preposition meaning “out of”, and a verb, “kaleo”, meaning “to call” – together, it means literally, “to call out.” We are a community yes gathered together but called into fellowship not for our benefit alone. We are called out for a purpose, and as icons and stained-glass windows of the image of the Good Shepherd that we follow, we have a job to do.
We are Jesus Hands and Feet of service and love in the world, and bearers of God’s grace in our daily lives. So, in order to get this sheep and shepherd metaphor, we need to first understand the holy and often imperfect relationship that we share in the community of the gathered faithful. Now if you believe that sheep behavior has nothing to do with being a disciple, and nothing to do with how we act as God’s people together, then listen to some of these interesting Wikipedia facts about sheep, then consider, maybe we disciples really act like that.
Wikipedia states, ” Sheep are flock animals and strongly gregarious, sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members.” It adds, ” During flocking, sheep have a strong tendency to follow a leader (in the group who) may simply be the first individual to move.” Further it explains that sheep can, and do, get a little agitated, and when “cornered sheep may charge and butt, or threaten by hoof stamping and adopting an aggressive posture.” (1). So, although sheep gather to support one another, not everything in the flock is always sweet “Bahs,” gentle “Nays” and “aren’t we cute little “Lambsy Divie.” Wikipedia tells us that “Sheep (often) establish a dominance hierarchy through fighting, threats and competitiveness. Dominant animals are inclined to be more aggressive with other sheep, and usually feed first at troughs.” (1) Wait, Fr. Eric are you telling me that there are spats in church? I would say, “Have you ever made a sister or brother in Christ angry or have you ever seen a dispute over changing anything in church?” It does happen, and I have seen a lot of hoof stamping and aggressive postures in my ministry as a priest, and so yes, I would say we can and do sometimes act like sheep in need of a shepherd.
Here is the key point I want to make about sheep, “Being a prey species, the primary defense mechanism of sheep is to flee from danger when their flight zone is entered.” As followers of Jesus, the one who suffered at the hands of those who rejected his teachings, we face the same fate. When we stand against injustice, when we take a counter-cultural stand for the oppressed, when we defy the norms of consumeristic culture, well, you can bet that we will face the ravenous jaws of groups and individuals, who would rather silence God’s Kingdom call to love our neighbor as ourselves. So, like sheep we need the shepherd to keep us together as a flock, and to protect us from those things that would separate us from the flock, and would keep us from the mission God has given us. We need our Good Shepherd Jesus Christ to guide us, even when we must flock together today, in new, distanced, and safe ways.
Jesus is the Shepherd
So, you have learned a little more than you ever wanted to know about sheep, but let’s turn our attention to the Good Shepherd Jesus for a moment. In the most well-known Psalm, read at every funeral, spoken in times of great despair, and memorized by Sunday school children worldwide, we hear these words:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
In the 23rd Psalm we find the very nature of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. If we follow him and his ways, we learn that he provides for us with abundant pastures of grace to eat and vast cool waters of opportunities for growth, which puts us on the best paths of life to traverse. If we follow him and his ways, even in times of peril or death we can live without fear.
Even his discipline when we stray, when that rod and staff, usually used to fend off wolves appears, he uses them to gently nudge us back together and thus, we are reassured. Even when we are placed in precarious situations with others, Jesus provides for us. The Good Shepherd assures us that goodness and mercy is with us, as we dwell in the Lord’s presence every single day. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for the flock that is, if we remain with the flock and receive that guidance of his loving, caring, guiding hand. Jesus is Our only Good Shepherd.
Clergy are Helpers, not the Shepherd
Over my ten years of ordained ministry, I have more than once, had people mistakenly call me the shepherd of the flock of the parish I served. I believe people often confuse the vocation of the clergy and believe for some reason that the priest or pastor is the shepherd. Jesus Christ is the shepherd of the flock, and we clergy are merely his helpers. We are mere sheep like you, who just so happen to be ordained (or set apart) for a specific purpose, which is to serve as a helper to the Good Shepherd. We are called to assist Jesus, and often we are called to that work for only a time. Once we all understand that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then we will realize truly what it means to be his flock.
Jesus is permanent, transcendent, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Lord, the Savior, the Teacher, the Redeemer, and God Incarnate. Jesus is the one who leads us, guides us, and if we follow Him, we are well on our way to fulfilling his mission and our purpose. Jesus keeps the flock together, protecting, feeding, and sustaining us. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, and not anyone or anything else, otherwise we will become distracted, scattered, lost, and we will spiritually starve to death. We need to listen to Jesus’ teachings alone, that life of love lived out incarnate in his ministry. We need to walk the path of following the self-giving loving Lord, and not some misguided idea of Jesus, filtered through of our own personal, political, or idealistic concepts of who he is.
If you want to hear the Master Shepherd’s voice calling you to the green pastures of grace, right relationships, and perfect discipleship, you really need to read the story, of how he lived, how he taught, and how he treated others, then let those stories become your story. Once we understand from scripture the ways of Jesus, then we like sheep must stay close together and close to him. Being a disciple has nothing to do with our so-called rugged individualism, our personal agendas, or even our own individual journey. Being a disciple, a sheep of Jesus’ flock, requires us to do this life of perils and fear together in community. We are brought together to help support one another, care for one another, and in so doing, together, we face all that is out there that threatens the flock’s survival.
Be Sheep – Live Life abundantly
One last thing about the flock concept is this, Jesus’ flock is not just this parish, this diocese, this deanery, this tradition, this communion, or the church universal. The truth that we need to understand is that under God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God’s flock is all of creation, and we all need one another as we endure the perils, which we all undergo today; a new normal not yet to be fully revealed.
In this time of uncertainty, fear, and a rising, hasty yearning to “return to what was before,” this flock needs to do something that is counter-intuitive to everything we are taught about our natural flocking tendencies. We need to NOT be close to another quite yet, at least not physically close. We need to face the enemy that threatens our very existence, and find ways to still fellowship and worship, but to do so in a way that protects each other. At the same time, we must do what we are called to do as sheep, which is to support, love, care for, and protect one another. We need our Good Shepherd now more than ever to guide us into this new era of being the sheep of Jesus’ flock.
Right now, we can still be the flock led to green pastures, even if we are not all sitting in the same room together week in and week out. Being the church is not about a room or a building, but it is about being faithful to the Good Shepherd in prayer, in worship, and in service. We can still flock together, but we can do so through virtual Bible studies online, our Centering Prayer gatherings and Virtual Fellowships on Zoom. We can be together in worship on Sundays through YouTube. We can still care for on another by just calling your fellow sheep next week and check in on them and see how they are doing. We are not suffering under an unjust system, we are still God’s people called to adapt, connect, and serve in difficult times.
One of my favorite television shows from the 1970’s was Black Sheep Squadron, a modern depiction of a WWII Marine Corps Aviation Squadron that constantly got into trouble with the higher ups, acted like rebels, and nearly always faced court martial. The theme song for the show was, “We are poor little lambs, who have lost their way, Bahh, Bahh, Bahh.” Right now, we all may feel like poor little lambs, but the reality is, our Good Shepherd has never left us and never will. Jesus is with us right now and every single day, calling us together, even when it is still unsafe to be together in this room, or in any room, beach, restaurant, or other public space.
So, when you feel anxious, when the walls feel like they are closing in, when you feel the urge to try and return to what was before when it was safe, I implore you to listen to the admonition and heed the advice of our brother the Apostle Paul who assures us, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”