John 10: 11-18
If I asked you what is the most popular or common scripture read at funerals or memorial services, what would your guess be? It’s 23rd Psalm. Even the unchurched and the biblically illiterate usually know how it begins: The Lord is my shepherd. And, of course, for Christians the image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a beloved one. The Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, often spoke of the Messiah as a shepherd. Jesus is called the great shepherd in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in 1 Peter Jesus is named the chief shepherd. And of course Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd in the beloved parable of the lost sheep, when the shepherd leaves the 99 to go searching for the one who is lost.
In today’s reading from John the image of Jesus as the shepherd is a continuation of an image that began in the first verse of chapter 10, when Jesus speaks of the gate through which the sheep enter. Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, who did not understand, and so he explicitly names himself as the gate, and then in verse 11, which is where today’s scripture began, he calls himself the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. So with all these references to shepherd, it should come as no surprise that the visual image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most frequently used depictions in art and the earliest we have of Jesus.
There are no known images of Jesus before the third century, most likely because of the Jewish prohibition against graven images of God. But as Christianity became dominated by gentiles, we see in the catacombs in Rome how the post 3rd century Christians imaged Jesus. At first they actually borrowed images from the Greek and Roman gods. After all, it made sense to use familiar images to evangelize the new faith, and so Jesus in these early images appears as a breadless youth, like a young Greek god, sometimes represented like the Roman god Hermes with a ram or lamb around his neck. Jesus was also imaged as Orpheus, playing his lute among the wild animals and at other times he looks like Apollo, the god of light and sun, truth and prophecy. Though we are accustomed to a bearded Jesus, no beard appeared until the early fifth century.
The visual images we have of Jesus as the good shepherd are very comforting ones, showing him walking among the flocks or sitting down and calmly watching his sheep, or searching for the one lost lamb, and after finding it, gently cradling the animal or carrying it on his shoulder. What we never see in these images is Jesus as he is portrayed in today’s lesson--- defending his flock from attack, and laying down his life for his sheep.
The life of a shepherd was not an easy one. They lived out on the land with their flocks for long periods of time. Dirty and unkempt and usually uneducated, they were considered the lowest of the low in terms of job status. Shepherds were actually considered unclean, and were barred from certain religious rituals unless they went through rites of purification. Now the Greek word good, attached to shepherd as a description of Jesus, does not mean good in the moral or ethical sense, but rather it is the platonic ideal, the model of perfection. Jesus, in other words, is what a real shepherd is supposed to be. And as a real shepherd Jesus would lay his life down for his flock and receive it back again in the resurrection triumph, which then would open the gate to eternal life for his flock. But there is something unsettling about this imagery, because it reminds us that the flock must follow the good shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet even then, as the psalm says, you are with me.
I don’t know what you know about sheep, but they are not very bright. Some years ago, when my husband and I were hiking in the English Lake country, we learned that sheep would often climb onto a ledge from which they could not get down, and if the shepherd or the farmer could not reach the ledge, the poor animal would die of hunger and thirst as it pathetically bleated its life away. Jesus must have known how dumb sheep are, so calling his followers a flock of sheep was not a very flattering description. But then being a shepherd was not very flattering either, so maybe the point is that status is not something to be pursued----either by the shepherd or the sheep. But whatever Jesus meant to communicate by calling his followers sheep, he did mean for them to follow him, to go where he goes.
And where is it that Jesus goes that we are also supposed to go? Yes, through the valley of the shadow of death, but he also goes to other He hard places, places of discomfort, places where the outcasts hang out, places where the enemy is, places where hurt dominates and forgiveness doesn’t seem to have a chance. Jesus is often in those uncomfortable places. And those are places we are supposed to go to as well.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a colleague of mine in Wisconsin, who had just conducted a memorial service for a 19 year old, who had died of an opioid overdose. The boy had been on medication for his epilepsy, and when the heroine was injected (for the first time) by his girlfriend, who was a nursing student of all things, the combination proved lethal. The minister was at the hospital when the life support was disconnected, and as the parents were saying good bye to their son, my colleague told me it was almost more than she could bear. “It took every ounce of strength I had not to run screaming from that room. But what I witnessed later that week at the funeral was beyond anything I could have ever expected. She told me how Janet, the nursing student, was not only at the church for the service, but she also went to the parents’ house for the reception.
Now my colleague said she did not understand why the girlfriend was not in jail, but there she was sitting in the parents’ house, while sipping tea and eating sandwiches. The boy’s mother took Janet’s hands in hers and said, “You will always have a place in our home and in our hearts.” Though Janet looked surprised and even uncomfortable, the minister was beyond shock. And she later asked the mother, “How did you do that? She had a direct hand in your son’s death. Forgiving her is one thing, but inviting her into your home and your heart? I don’t get it. Help me understand.”
The mother responded, “I am trying to get through this without dying of the pain. I think we humans are all a bunch of dumb sheep, and the only way I will survive this horrific heartache is if I follow the good shepherd, who tells me that I also need to consider Janet---her pain, her guilt, her sorrow. ” The minister did not know what to say, so she simply took the mother’s hands into her own, and the two of them just sat down in silence for a very long time, because there are some things that are just beyond words, and this was one of them.
In our scripture reading for today, we hear that the good shepherd lays down his life for us, and this mother was doing something very similar---laying down her blame and her anger that the one who aided in her son’s death might have a chance at life---full and abundant life. That is what it sometimes can mean to follow the good shepherd. It is the easiest and the most natural thing in the world to follow our feelings, especially our wounded feelings. The good shepherd never asks us to deny our wounds. After all, remember that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he appeared with his wounds. Though the wounds do not magically disappear, they nonetheless do not have to overcome life with pain----when we struggle to follow the one whose pain and death were overcome by the power of love and mercy.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!