“I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”
These words conjure up a beatific, bucolic portrait: A flock grazing on verdant pasture, nearby a brave and vigilant shepherd ready to lay down his or her(1) life for the living, breathing, four-legged woolly collection of the family’s wealth.
In Christian tradition and theology, this image is incarnate in Jesus, our good shepherd, who in his crucifixion laid down his life for us, his sheep.
However, this is problematic for many post-modernists who, existentially, refuse to be compared to sheep, not the brightest of animals, and who reject the notion, let alone the reality of needing to be saved, particularly from an original sin that they cannot comprehend having originated! (I recall one Sunday, at a church I served many years ago, after the resounding singing of the recessional hymn, Amazing Grace, one of the older members, hardly a post-modernist, came up to me feistily waving her cane, saying, “Father, I never will sing that song because, even as old as I am, I wasn’t there at the beginning! Whatever happened in the Garden of Eden was not my fault! And I am not a wretch!”) Moreover, in the ever-changing landscape of American religion, the numbers continue to grow of those who, for myriad reasons – loss or lack of belief or faith, trust in science and rational thought, mistrust of the institutional church, disgust at religious folk doing unreligious things – consider themselves “nones”, having no religious affiliation or “dones”, once identifying with the church, but no longer.
Nevertheless, as we continue our Eastertide exploration of the meaning of the resurrection, I submit you that sheep symbolize an indispensable and undeniable aspect of our humanness. Our need for care. At our best, we can’t do “it” (however defined) all. All of us, all of the time, need help. And at our brightest, we don’t know it all and can’t have all, at times, any answers. Sometimes our only certainty is ambiguity.
This truth of our humanness calls us to listen again to Jesus’ message: “I am the good shepherd…” Jesus’ self-description also describes us. We, as his sheep, a word in the English language for which there is no singular form, belong to him and to one another, and not to ourselves. Therefore, our identity is not in our separateness, but rather in our belonging to a flock. And this is purest paradox: Our life in community – each of us surrounded by others, sharing with one another, reflecting back to one another how we are viewed, revealing who we are, and all this is most often unconscious activity – defines most clearly for each of us our individuality. To put this another and succinct way: It always takes a “we” to make a “me”!
And thank goodness, thank God, Jesus, our good shepherd defines the community: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold and I must bring them also.”
For we, given our personal, individual perspectives, preferences, and prejudices would be tempted (and, doubtless, at times, succumb to the temptation) to make our chosen company a society of our peers. Folk who think and feel and act as we do. Jesus calls as his flock all whom he sees and knows and loves, all for whom he gave his life.
And all so that we might learn the will and live the way of the One who lays down his life for us. All that we will “know love by this, that as Jesus laid down his life for us, then we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
I close with a bit of contemporary social commentary and life-and-faith, life of faith application…
I oft contemplate our historic social ills, evils of racism and sexism. Incidences of these powerful and systemic prejudices, sadly, ne’er are far from the headlines. Like a wolf that snatches and scatters the sheep, racism and sexism have hurt and continue to hurt the flock of our human family. Many have been the counter-movements in response; in our current-day, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
As a Christian, this I believe, this I know. If, when I incarnate – embrace with my mind and will and embody in my living – my faith that Jesus is my good shepherd, that I belong to him, that I belong to you, that you belong to me, therefore, that we always and in all ways are equal, then I will not, I cannot treat you in any way other than with your God-given dignity. To treat you in anyway less, anyway else is sinful! If all the world honored human dignity it would sound the death knell of racism and sexism and every other wicked -ism I behold!
Jesus is our good shepherd who lays down his life for us. We know love by this, as Jesus laid down his life for us, we are to lay down our lives for all.
Photograph: Jesus, the Good Shepherd; the central figure of the reredos of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, The General Theological Seminary, New York, New York
Footnote: (1) Regarding the “his or her,” in Jesus’ day the shepherd most likely was male. However, I recall the reference in that still widely-sung children’s hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God (1929); words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986): “…And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green.”