April 29, 2012/Fourth Sunday of Eastertide
Phoebe’s first professional baby photograph was taken was taken with a lamb. No, I’m not kidding – a lamb. There was a photography studio in Albany, New York called the Country Studio. Every spring they would adopt lambs to use in pictures with kids. It was an incredible experience walking into that studio at that time of year. Lambs were everywhere. It was a big farmhouse, and I remember coming in and seeing one lamb at the top of the stairs and another being fed a bottle. There were still more lambs wandering around the main waiting area, as well as in the backyard.
When I made the appointment to have Phoebe’s picture taken, I knew about the studio using lambs. As Phoebe was only three months old, I didn’t really expect them to use one with her. But in the photographer came with a little lamb and put Phoebe and the lamb into this white cradle together. I remember calling my mom that night and telling her about Phoebe getting her picture taken with a lamb. My mother didn’t believe me. She thought it was a stuffed animal, but this lamb was very real and very cute.
Lambs are cute. Like any baby – animal, person or otherwise – there is something sweet and endearing about them.
But like any baby – animal, person or otherwise – they grow up. And lambs, as we all know, grow up to be sheep. And sheep, while I have nothing against them personally, aren’t as cute. They’re certainly practical animals. Functional. Useful. But cute?
Cute or not, the last thing I’d want to be called is a sheep. The way our culture understands it, being a sheep means being a conformist, following the other sheep no matter what they’re doing or where they’re going. Being a sheep means having little or no imagination. If we believe what our culture tells us, if you’re a sheep you must lack a mind of your own; you’re unable or unwilling to think for yourself.
Being a sheep is being a follower – only. Leadership doesn’t fall upon the sheep. True leaders seem to be the exact opposite of the sheep. The leaders in this world are the dynamic, exciting, free thinking people who break away from the flock, from the other sheep and stand alone. Or at least stand out and far away from the crowd.
Now with this image of sheep in mind, I find it very unlikely that any of us would want to claim that we’re just one of the flock. Who wants to be a sheep? It’s much more interesting and beneficial and attractive to be one of the leaders.
I imagine this is why there are very few seminars and training events on how to be a good sheep, but there is an abundance of workshops and classes on developing your leadership potential; on becoming effective, dynamic leaders.
It would be surprising, to say the least, to run across a seminar called “Join the Pack: Tapping in to the Follower in You.”
Being a sheep is generally not the popular choice for most folks. Sheep is not something we’re often told to strive for. But in this passage from John, these “I am” statements of Jesus gives us a very different view of sheep. The sheep are the ones who follow Jesus, the good shepherd. The sheep are the ones who hear his voice. The sheep are the ones who listen to his voice. Jesus tells us that indeed we are the sheep. His sheep. He is our good shepherd.
Jesus is our loving shepherd. In fact the understanding of Jesus as the good and loving shepherd is one of Christianity’s most enduring and beloved images of him. When I was growing up, I saw a lot of pictures of Jesus in Sunday school and church. But one I remember in particular is that of Jesus as the good shepherd, gently carrying a lamb across his shoulders, bringing it safely back to the fold.
Being a sheep in this context means being a follower, not of the crowd, but of Jesus the good shepherd. “Good” as it is found in these verses can also be translated as “Ideal” or “Model.” Jesus is the ideal shepherd. He is the model we are to emulate.
In the church we often call our leaders shepherds. As a pastor I could be referred to as a shepherd and you the congregation could be referred to as a flock. The church officers, the elected leaders of the church, could also be considered shepherds.
Even the term “pastor” stems from these sheep and shepherd images. Think about a pastoral scene where sheep graze and the shepherd watches carefully over them. Then think about a pastor and congregation where the pastor gives pastoral care to her parishioners.
We may be called shepherds, but this passage is a striking reminder that there is only one good shepherd. We, Christians, are all sheep. One commentator I read said the best Christian leaders could hope to become would be Sheep Dogs rather than Shepherds. The sheep dogs help the shepherd; assist the shepherd with the flock. But they are not the shepherd.
Most importantly what I think this passage is trying to emphasize is that all of us, leaders, congregation, pastors, parishioners, we are all sheep seeking to follow Jesus who is the good shepherd, our good shepherd.
And when I call us sheep, I don’t mean in the sense that I described earlier. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we blindly follow the crowd around us wherever they go. Being the sheep under the care of the good shepherd doesn’t mean that we are folks, huddled fearfully together, unimaginative, conforming flocks of people without minds or thoughts of our own.
Instead we are sheep who hear our shepherds’ voice. It is a different voice from the other voices constantly clamoring for our attention. We hear the good shepherd’s voice and we follow him. We are sheep who need the care and protection of our shepherd. And he is a shepherd who cares for and loves his sheep so much that he is willing to lay down his life for his flock.
This passage gives us a sense of identity as sheep, as the flock who follow Jesus. But we understand our identity, who we are as Christians, as followers, only as we begin to understand who Jesus is to us. He is our good shepherd. He knows us and we know him, just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him. Jesus’ relationship with us, the care, concern and protection he shows us and the loving ways in which he knows us is a reflection of the relationship Jesus has with the Father. The love and care we are shown is a mirror image of the love and care between Father and Son. It is because of and out of this love relationship with the Father that Jesus lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus lays down his life freely, as a fulfillment of the relationship with the Father.
And if we had read the verses before these, we would also have read Jesus saying that he is the gate. Whoever enters through him will find pasture and be saved.
Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd who watches over us, he is the way we become his sheep in the first place. Jesus is the way, the gate. It is only through him that we join the flock. And the flock is large. Jesus tells those around him that there are sheep who do not belong to this fold. But that he will bring them also and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
I used to think that the words “flock” and “fold” were interchangeable, but they’re not. A fold was a separated walled enclosure where shepherds would drive their sheep to at night for safekeeping.
But the flock could be large, with no size limitations or boundaries. A flock could be scattered over several pastures.
The flock that Jesus calls together then, is as diverse as the sheep within it. It is far reaching and includes flocks from many folds. In this context the fold of Israel was no longer the only fold.
The care and protection that Jesus gives to his flock is the care we hear expressed in the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. The Lord provides for my daily wants and needs.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. Through Jesus, the gate and the shepherd, we enter into lush meadows. Our good shepherd revives us with living waters, he strengthens us and gives our weary spirits rest.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Our shepherd is our guide and our companion as we seek to be good followers.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. We have nothing to fear. Even death has lost its hold on us.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. We have nothing to fear even though our enemies and foes may surround us. We sit at the table of the Lord, our wounds are healed, we have life abundantly.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Through Christ we are saved by God’s grace. Through Christ, our lives overflow with God’s mercy and forgiveness. With God’s never ending love and compassion.
Are we sheep? Yes. But not in the sense of blind, unthinking followers with no purpose or vision. We are followers of the one who gives us purpose, who gives us vision. We listen to the voice of the One who leads us along the path of “truth and life.” So if someone ever asks us, “What are ya, a sheep?” Let our answer be, “Yes! Yes I am! And let me tell you about our good shepherd.” Amen.