25th APR 2021
Year B RCL
I am the Good Shepherd.
One of the regular participants in our online weekday Morning Prayer services on Zoom is an Englishman with a farm in the Cotswold District, where he and his family raise livestock, including sheep. Charlie has been telling us recently of the lambs which have been born this spring season, and you can see a photograph of one of them held gently in Charlie’s arms in the April Marginalia. According to Charlie, by the way, the lambs are quick to adapt to life and love spending time frolicking in the fields with their, well, fellow little lambs.
As a city-person who has never lived on or near a farm, I am always fascinated by descriptions of life in the countryside. I am afraid I must sheepishly acknowledge that I know very little about sheep beyond the stereotypes of innocence and ovine stupidity generally ascribed to them, rightly or wrongly. So, it is interesting to me to listen to Charlie’s occasional stories of rural life and sheep. Perhaps someday I will be able to visit the beautiful Cotswold District in England and see for myself what I am missing. Meanwhile, I shall continue to cherish my tweed and woolen jackets as tokens of a life I do not know.
Students and scholars of the ancient Middle East tell us that, unlike today, sheep and lambs were everywhere back then two thousand years ago. They were as pervasive, probably, as are automobiles in our major cities nowadays. If you did not keep sheep, your neighbour surely did. They were an efficient source of nutrition, fabric, and clothing. They were kept at home and often in the house. In the winter, their body heat helped keep the family warm. Everyone knew about sheep and did not need a kindly farmer friend in England to tell them about their habits and peculiarities. No one would have marveled particularly at the birth of lambs.
Sheep, lambs, and shepherds were also a part of folklore and traditions in most of the cultures of the Levant and beyond, including that of the ancient Greeks. It was pretty much a trope or commonplace, for instance, to describe the king or local prince as shepherd of his people; indicating -- I think -- both the care which the ruler should exercise in governing; but also perhaps the low esteem in which the people themselves were held. Or maybe even held themselves. No democracy back then, I am afraid. No power to the people.
Still, I suspect the ancient world might actually have had somewhat mixed feelings about shepherds. Keep in mind that David himself was nearly passed over for kingship for his lowly origins as a shepherd boy. Shepherding – let’s face it – was and probably still is dirty, hard work. Now as then, few people aspire to follow such a career, keeping a watchful and vigilant eye on sheep set upon nothing more interesting than eating grass and getting lost.
Sheep and shepherding of course figure prominently and unsurprisingly in the literature of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Some suggest that there are more than three hundred references to sheep and shepherding in Scripture. And we have a couple of the most beloved of these passages before us today. In Psalm Twenty-Three, for instance, we pray, “The Lord is my Shepherd;” and in an equally famous and beloved passage from the Gospel of John, our Lord describes himself as the Good Shepherd, surely alluding to the much-loved Psalm.
“I know my own,” says Jesus, “and my own know me.” His hearers would have known implicitly what he was talking about. They would have understood that he cared deeply for the people of his fold and was willing to give his life for them. By the way, scholars of the Gospel of John have long identified at least seven such so-called I AM Statements of Jesus peppered throughout the text of this Gospel.
Most of these statements are familiar to all of us: “I am,” says Jesus at various points, the “bread of life,” the “light of the world,” the “true vine,” and “the way, the truth, and the life,” to name a few. And, as we see in today’s passage, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The scholars of such things speculate further that our Lord is purposefully speaking as did God to Moses on the mountain, when God declared, “I am who am.”
It is God -- the timeless I AM -- who is likewise the Good Shepherd. It is God as ruler who cares for his people and lays down his life for them. It is God in the Person of Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the Sheep. He is the I AM of this text and narrative. But he is not just a God who exists or persists in abstract being; not just a god of the philosophers and metaphysicians. In Christ, God gives up divinity itself, as a good shepherd gives his life, that we all might live. “I lay down my life,” says Jesus.
Images of Jesus as Good Shepherd can be traced back in statuary and frescoes to as early as the third century of Christendom. It was arguably the very first representation of Jesus of any kind, predating images of both Nativity and Crucifixion by centuries. Our forebearers in faith knew what they were about; they put their faith in the Good Shepherd to guide them through difficult and tumultuous times. Sadly, as it seems to me, by the end of the fifth century the image of the Good Shepherd was gone, not to return until the late Middle Ages, and later still, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The image of the Good Shepherd should still resonate for us. We have after all been living through times in which many of us have probably felt like sheep without a shepherd; through times in which it has seemed impossible to know what to do or what to think. It is good to remember, good to remind ourselves, that he who declares himself the I AM of all eternity is still the Good Shepherd we seek and need today. “I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus to us just as surely as he said it to the people of his generation. The Good Shepherd still knows his sheep, each and every one of them; still gives his life for their sake. And ours.
But “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” continues our Lord. “I must bring them also….so that there will be one flock.” Times such as ours can well be times when we are tempted to think like sheep; think only of the blade of grass in front of us. Yet the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ, still gathers us as one flock in spite of our differences, in spite of our enmities; in spite of, well, ourselves. Black sheep and white; wooly little lambs and hoary old rams. We are all his flock. He loves us all alike. He gives his life that we might live.
“They will listen to my voice,” says Jesus. Listen. There are others still today who need to hear; need to know Christ and his love for them. There are others who may if we let them – if we invite them into the fold – find the Good Shepherd’s voice here among us at Saint Margaret’s. And we too of course must continue to respond to our Lord’s voice so that at last we might all be one flock with one shepherd. And that, my friends, will of course constitute the biggest and best Annual General Meeting ever.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs