“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
This is one of the most famous and beloved passages in the New Testament, and yet the moment you accept a metaphor for the church, such as shepherd and sheep, questions start to arise, and we have to realize that we can only push an analogy so far before it starts to distort and disintegrate – that it was intended to make a point in a particular time and place – and also, that images and symbols change meaning over time and in new cultures. I can look back at sermons I preached in rural Saskatchewan and realize that examples, images and analogies I used there and then were fairly specific to that context and might not be very useful or comprehensible in a sophisticated urban environment like St John’s Port Moody.
Let’s be clear that the Gospel writer John is not just talking about 1st Century agricultural practices — he is making a point about the life of the early Christian community, in which the flock is a metaphor of the church, wolves represent threatening persons, ideas or influences, and the hired hands are leaders who are failing in their duties. The Good Shepherd is obviously the risen Christ, who still presides over the flock.
The downside of the Sheep and Shepherd analogy is that, in real life, sheep are rather witless and passive animals, and always serve in a vastly inferior capacity to the shepherd. They are there to be used and exploited, because they are ultimately commodities. After repeatedly being stripped bare or fleeced, they are finally consumed by their so-called caregivers.
The word pastor is rooted in the ancient Latin word for shepherd, and our bishops continue to carry a stylized shepherd’s staff as an incentive to model themselves after the example of the Good Shepherd. But as a model of the church, the image of sheep and shepherd has lent itself to a huge distinction between leaders and followers. The shepherd is human; the sheep are animals. Beautiful and endearing as it can be, this way of viewing the relationship between Christ and the Church, and between pastors and people, has let the people of God off the hook (or off the crook, you might say) by promoting a passive, and sheepish approach to individual responsibility.
Church life in many places is still all about how you feel about the leader, who is placed in the role of parent, with all the projections and expectations that brings, even though the people in the role of sheep may be old enough to be the pastor’s parents or even grand-parents.
As Dr Phil says “How’s that working for you?” Not that well, as it turns out. Whether the leader is paternalistic or maternalistic doesn’t seem to matter. When you get to the point where lay folks, who are extremely competent and capable in every other aspect of their lives, are encouraged in the church to adopt a completely passive role, we are wasting and trivializing a lot of valuable human resources. We could be accused of playing some kind of childish game with people – “You be the sheep, I’ll be the shepherd.”
We need leaders (no organization disputes that) but many today are seriously questioning arrangements in corporate structures in which the top people are making as much as a thousand times what the average employee makes. Michael Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, with bonuses and incentives all in, apparently makes something like $23,000,000.00, while the average Wal-Mart employee makes about $22,500.00. He makes more in an hour than the average Walmart employee makes in a year! For me, that is a mode of human relating and valuation that needs to be challenged, if not broken down entirely.
The practice of singling out and celebrating special individuals, while obscuring or dismissing the importance of the masses has become a problem not just for the Church but for our entire society.
We need leaders, but we need leaders who see themselves in context; as servants of the people rather than overlords; who do not view themselves as other than or better than the rest.
Ironically, the current Pope, Francis I, seems very conscious that he is stuck in a paradigm that conflicts with his sense of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And thank God he is speaking up about it, urging the Church to reflect, if not act.. He said recently, “The Church is, or should go back to being, a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops, who have the care of souls, and are at the service of the people of God.” He also has said that priests should “be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”
Great, that’s moving in the right direction, but it’s still a model in which the priest is the primary actor and the people are largely observers of performances or consumers — passive recipients of services rendered.
In Jesus’ day, shepherds stank in many ways, and not just as a result of close associations with sheep – apparently they were notorious for running off or cheating their owners. At that time, only shopkeepers, physicians, butchers, thieves and tax collectors ranked lower than shepherds on the social scale. No doubt the Gospel writers are making a point when they compare Jesus to shepherds.
I want to suggest that the model of the Good Shepherd serves the purpose of saying that through Christ, the kindly and compassionate side of God shows forth. The image speaks of God’s nearness and suggests that God can be trusted to guide us and protect us. It reminds us that the people of God are meant to be united, that God views us as equals, and that being together in Christ and having a place of belonging is generally beneficial. Sheep may not know much, but they know they need each other, and that’s never a bad thing. It reminds us that the flock itself is important, not just the leaders, and it suggests that the flock is not meant to be a static or restricted thing, but is meant to be growing toward universality (“I have other sheep … there shall be one flock, one shepherd”). And, in a world where too many people are saying “No one can tell me what to do,” the fact that sheep do pay attention to informed and insightful voices can also be a good thing.
There are also positive aspects to identifying with sheep, at least on occasion. Sheep ruminate – not that they think exactly, but they spend time just sitting, and as such they can remind us of the importance of a contemplative life and of simply being. They are by and large peaceful, and sometimes the way of non-aggression or pacifism is the right choice.
John says “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us”. As Julian of Norwich said, “love was his meaning.” John does not let us forget that Jesus modelled a servant leadership. For example, his is the only gospel to portray Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Unlike ordinary shepherds, and unlike many managers and CEO’s, the good shepherd does not see the sheep as objects to be used – a good shepherd does not exploit or take life from the sheep but rather gives it, as a mother might to a child. Indeed, today’s leaflet cover might easily have featured a mother with a child, bearing the same caption: “I am the good shepherd.” In the way that Jesus taught, the sheep don’t exist for the shepherd – as usual, in Christ, God turns the usual worldly model upside down.
Baptism, as we now celebrate it, shifts the focus of ministry to all the baptized, of which the leaders are a necessary but related part. The restoration of the centrality of Baptism as our primary and defining Sacrament urges all of us to see the connection between belief and action, between blessing and accountability. According to John, Jesus called his disciples friends, not children or clients. The apostle John may have called Christians children, but even he didn’t expect them to remain infantile – again, it’s a figure of speech intended to make a specific point rather than a dogmatic mandate. St Paul himself said we are not to remain childish. We are all called to grow up into Christian maturity, into the fullness of the stature of Christ, as St Paul said.
The World Council of Churches document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry says: “Baptism is related not only to momentary experience, but to life-long growth into Christ. Those baptized are called upon to reflect the glory of the Lord as they are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, into his likeness (II Cor. 3:18).” This sense of expectation and maturity and responsibility is what we now call Baptismal Ministry.
Occasionally I drop in to church web sites to see what they have to say about themselves, and I often turn up interesting and inspiring things. For instance, Westlake United Methodist Church in Ohio, whose Mission Statement is: “To live so that others will want to be followers of Jesus.” Among their goals: to “involve 50% of total membership in hands-on mission projects”; and to “encourage 15 new lay-initiated ministries on an ongoing basis.” 15 new lay-initiated ministries! Many Anglican parishes might not be able to point to that many over the lifetime of their parish!
According to John, Jesus says, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
When there is no sense of what might be called ownership, people disappear at the first sign of trouble, leaving it to others to take the responsibility. When there is no sense of ownership, why bother? When you are not invested in a personal way, don’t really identify with or care about the flock, who cares what happens to them? “Who cares?” is a question we need to put before the church again and again.
Again the love of Christ is to be our standard – love expressed in the image of the Good Shepherd, the one who cares intensely about the sheep, the flock – the one who invests his own life in the well-being of others – the one who will not run away in the critical moments.
Where does “ownership” lie in terms of the Church? And what does it mean to speak of the ministry of the whole people of God? Certainly a Walmart employee doesn’t feel the same sense of ownership as someone being paid $22 million.
Here at St John’s we try to take Baptismal Ministry seriously. Baptismal Ministry is the idea that each of us, from the moment of Baptism, is a member of the church – a vital member who is expected to find his/her purpose and talent and calling – a committed member who is expected to take an active and meaningful part in the life of the Body of Christ.
Baptism is not just a token ceremony. Ordination, for instance, would be a pretty strange thing if we conducted the ceremony and then had no follow-up in terms of assignment or expectation. Yet Ordination is no more important to the future of the Church than each and every Baptism – it’s just that we have laid huge expectations on the clergy and virtually none on the baptized. We have tended to see these ministries in isolation or even in opposition to each other, or as private and individual entitlements. As John might say, it’s all one, together meant to serve a universal and even cosmic purpose.
Baptism is not a private act – it is not something done to an individual in isolation. From the very beginning of the Christian life, we are encouraged to see ourselves in context – not just in terms of what Baptism does for us, but in terms of what our life means to others. When we celebrate Baptism, we are celebrating the life of the whole Body, the Body of Christ, in which all members are important and necessary.
What is your sense of ownership? What is your responsibility by virtue of making (or having made) the baptismal promises before God? The Good Shepherd is distinguished by the fact that he offers life for the sheep. How are you called to offer your life, your unique gifts, your unique presence, your unique vision and voice?
Jesus the Good Shepherd is the model for both leaders and followers – an influence that pushes leaders in the direction of compassion and care and followers in the direction of growth and greater responsibility, inspiring and encouraging us to think and act together for the well-being of the whole flock.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Easter 4:
Acts 4:5-12 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Psalm 23 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
1John 3:16-24 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
John 10:11-18 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”