- Acts 4:5-12
- Psalm 23
- 1 John 3:16-24
- John 10:11-18
Every now and then there is a special Sunday in the midst of all the Sundays. Sometimes we know it’s obviously important: like Christmas or Easter. Sometimes it’s doesn’t seem as obvious, but it still feels important, so the Church marks it in some way: like All Saints Sunday or Pentecost. Sometimes the only people who know that it’s a special day are the worship committee members or the person who is preaching. Don’t get me wrong: every Sunday is a special day. It is a time of the week set aside to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. That is indeed a very important and special thing for all of Christianity. But, did you know that today is Good Shepherd Sunday? This special day is always on the fourth Sunday of Easter, and each of the three liturgical years in our church cycle takes on a particular section from the 10th chapter of John for the Gospel reading. This year we’re looking at the middle part.
Now, because I thought that Jesus as “The Good Shepherd” is a fairly well-known concept, and because we have that image running rampant through our prayers and hymns and readings, I wasn’t going to preach on this concept. There are plenty of other things to think about and talk about here in today’s reading. For example, the whole reason Jesus calls himself a shepherd in this reading has to do with a healing of a blind man. The result of that healing was that this poor, previously blind, man is then thrown out of the community of faithful by the Jewish leaders of the time. I could most certainly talk about all of that.
But, this shepherd imagery stuff wouldn’t leave my mind. And Jesus as the Good shepherd always makes me think of the following:
When I was a child I became very familiar with this one particular image of Jesus that I would see in the church Sunday schools that I attended. I have learned later in life that this form of Jesus painting is also commonly referred to in the Lutheran tradition as Norwegian Jesus. I do believe that everyone is familiar with this kind of painting or something quite similar. In this painting, there was a perfectly tall, perfectly handsome, barefoot (which I thought was pretty perfect), dressed in all perfectly white, ‘Perfect Jesus,’ with obviously perfect hair. Now in this painting, Perfect Jesus would be walking towards me with a very young lamb cradled in his arm while all the older sheep follow in and around his legs. These sheep were not so perfect looking, but they were all looking up at Jesus with utter adoration. I believed that if that little lamb could nuzzle its face into Jesus’ chest, it would have, and if those other sheep could clasp their hooves before their faces in some form of prayer and veneration, I’m sure they would certainly be trying.
In Sunday School, I was told that I was a sheep. That little lamb that Jesus was carrying was me, and eventually I would grow to be the big sheep by Jesus’ side like all the other followers of Christ. This confused me. Why on earth would I choose to be a sheep?! I was obviously a little girl. It was very hard for me to understand how this fluffy cotton ball thing covered in paste, on a sheet of blue construction paper, that was supposed to be a sheep was also this little girl, me. I coloured pictures of sheep, sang songs about sheep, heard bible stories about sheep – but didn’t necessarily understand the relationship of sheep and Jesus to me and God. As I got older, I learned that being a sheep maybe wasn’t always a good thing. Sheep follow along blindly, resulting in dangerous situations. Sheep are mindless. Sheep don’t think for themselves.
As a young adult figuring out who you really are and what mark you are going to leave in the world, you certainly DO NOT want to be identified as a sheep by the people around you. Again I was confused. It seemed that the association of people with sheep was now very unpopular. The Sheeple, a rather popular portmanteau of the words ‘sheep’ and ‘people’, is a term used to describe, derogatorily, those who voluntarily agree to a suggestion without critical analysis or research. In doing so, these people undermine their own individuality and may willingly give up their rights. That means that they follow the popular crowds and the commonly held beliefs and ideals. It’s the path of least resistance. So why would anyone choose to be a sheep?!
In actuality, no one chooses to be a sheep. Becoming a sheep is usually an identity given to one individual by another. Identities are tricky like that. We like to think that we have deep involvement and investment in creating our own personal identities, but there are, in reality, two components to having an identity: What we believe about ourselves is one of them (and a small part, at that). The other is what others see in us or how we are labelled by others. How the world around us defines us gives us our identities. And we, in turn, confirm or deny those identities in what we do with them. There are many forces in the world trying to give us identities — trying to tell us who we are or who we should be, trying to shape us into their desired mould. If you fight against that mould, you risk being thrown out, cast aside, and ignored. We all have a fair idea of what it means to be thrown out of the accepting community (See? I did manage to sneak that little bit about the blind man in here). Going against the grain and being countercultural comes with risk. Do sheep risk? Probably not.
Does the risk of being different come with struggle and suffering? Sometimes. It can be dangerous to try and go it alone. Those times of personal struggle and suffering can become times when God moves from being an abstraction, or intellectual assent, to being a personal reality. God lives and moves and is at work in the darkness; Jesus finds us in these valleys of death and shadow and validates our realities. He claims us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he claims us and calls us his sheep. Jesus knows us all and tends to all of us. God knows you – the real you – not that You you think you are or the You that others say you are, but the You you really are.
And Jesus lays down his life for each and every one of those sheep – the ones that are his and the ones that aren’t. Jesus is The Shepherd. I found it interesting to learn that “the shepherd” is a title for royalty in the Middle East. This then is another image of God as King. Not a king of modern convenience, of secularism and corruption, but as the ideal King who protects and loves the fold to the point of laying down his life for them. Being sheep for such a king is not such a bad thing, when you look at it that way.
As a younger person, I was given the opportunity to house sit a farm for a week. It was a small farm with chicken, ducks, and a flock of sheep. These sheep were, in many ways, a highlight of my daily routine, but there was one specific thing. Watching the sheep come in from the field every evening at the same time for supper and shelter was curiously heart-warming. They would come eagerly, happily, and full of life. Sheep, it seems, are a such gift of life. Sheep are one of the ‘clean animals’ by Jewish law – they prefer the fresh greenery to the garbage heap. Sheep are relatively gentle, calm creatures, which flock: seeking out company and other sheep as a natural course of action.
As God’s sheep, we are found, absorbed, enfolded, loved, claimed, and surrounded by a new fold. What does it mean to be brought into this new community, and new fold? As with the blind man, it means healing. It means knowing God’s love for us, discovering the depth of love that Jesus has that he would lay down his life for everything. Jesus also makes the statement that there are sheep who don’t belong to this fold, but he’s still bringing them in. Every one person is a sheep. And since sheep naturally flock to one another and seek each other’s company, I ask you to think about what it might look like for us to lay down our lives for one another? I think it means taking the risk of exposing yourself, being vulnerable, demanding attention in the name of the other in the world who suffers injustice in any of its forms. To give one’s life in this way, in imitation of Jesus’ own love, is more than simply a result of believing; it is the concrete shape that belief takes in the world. The presence of such giving is a very real sign that God’s love is present and active.
Perhaps this is what it means to give one’s life: to welcome all people into God’s fold. Perhaps it is to remind each other of God’s promises and speak Jesus’ message of love, acceptance and grace over and over. To be a sheep in God’s fold may call us all to be countercultural, to go against the identities that do not spread the Gospel, but even so we do so with the support of a community (a flock), with the support of our Shepherd who is not done with this world, with the support of a God whose grace is bigger than any sin, and a mercy which is greater than any ability to grasp it, and whose love for the world is larger still than any number we can ever imagine.
So maybe I’m not as confused about this sheep thing as I used to be. I might just understand what it means to be a sheep. It means that we are called, claimed, loved and known. Being a sheep is a gift of life. Being a sheep is about listening for God’s voice in the midst of suffering and darkness, and responding with our gifts. I wonder if we all acted as one of God’s sheep, maybe the other sheep in the world will start to seek us out, and God’s flock would continue to grow. Because Jesus is still calling, God is still searching, and in time we will all be, as Jesus says, one flock under one Shepherd. Wouldn’t that be something? So, I just want to be a sheep. Baa, baa, baa.