Jesus the good shepherd was one of the earliest images of the risen Christ but more than just a pretty image he is a tender, saving, challenging and abundantly generous Lord who strides out of the story and into our hearts and minds awakening and reviving our spirits. ( Fourth Sunday of Easter. John 10:1-10) We on the spiritual path need this tenderness, disturbance, saving grace, challenging and abundance at different moments along the way and especially now.
Jesus as the good shepherd was one of the earliest images of the risen Christ and we know this in part because of art work. In the first two or three centuries there were many statues of Jesus as shepherd and many paintings on the walls of the catacombs, or underground burial sites, of Rome and in Syria and across Asia minor. Jesus is usually depicted as a young man with a lamb across his shoulders and sometimes a lamb at either side of him. Later he was depicted with a halo and the art became more elaborate.
John’s gospel records many “I Am” sayings of Jesus: I am the bread of life; I am the light; I am the door to life; I am the resurrections; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the vine; and this one “I am the good shepherd”. So given that John’s gospel has many “I Am” statements to express the nature of Jesus the Christ what grabbed people’s attention with the image of shepherd, why is this the metaphor that became the picture of Jesus most used and recognised?
The image of the shepherd usually has the shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders that is too tired or slow to walk itself. It is a beautifully tender and nurturing image of the Christ who will gather us up and when we are weary and troubled will carry us home. No wonder it was an image that was often found in the catacombs where faithful were buried and when under persecution the living would worship in hiding. It is an image still to be found in hospitals, baptisteries and stained glass windows.
But shepherds were not just meek and mild. Indeed shepherding was a risky occupation as the shepherd lived out with his flock for long periods of time and had to protect the flock from thief and predator. A shepherd needed to be a brave defender of his flock against all sorts of enemies and dangers of weather. The image of the shepherd as the doorway speaks to the practice of the shepherd himself sleeping in the gateway of the fold so that no one could come in nor could any sheep go out without waking the shepherd and dealing with him. It was his own body that was the gate or the door. So it is another way of understanding the physical life, death and resurrections of Jesus and that he had loved his own with his very body.
Of course the previously best known shepherd had been the young shepherd David who became boy warrior and slayer of Goliath and then king. Indeed the sling shot with which David dispatched Goliath would have been one of the weapons of the shepherd who would have used slingshot and stones to scare off wild animals who wanted some lamb to eat! So the image of shepherd for the first Christians would have conjured up the understanding of the warrior king who established his people and led them to victory against giant enemies. How attractive and encouraging that would have been when the early church suffered persecution.
And the shepherd was one who led by intimately knowing his flock for they knew his voice. The shepherd is an image of guide and teacher and leader. And much more besides I am sure. The image of shepherd was a powerful and encouraging description of the Christ who would nurture, protect, guide in this life and then lead home at the end of life.
So what out of all these images makes sense to us today in this age and in our world? We are still as in need of the nurturing encouraging tenderness of the Christ as when these images were common. All of us know times when we as individuals on our own particular spiritual path need to be gathered up in his arms and carried to where we are going. And at this moment in human history as we struggle to contain and survive the pandemic we collectively need the tenderness of the Cosmic Christ, the loving expression of God universal enough to embrace the whole hurting world. There are times when we need protection and to know that our back is covered, that it is with his own body that we are surrounded and guarded. And we are certainly still and always are in need of a guide and leader on our path.
And we too are to be shepherds, we are to do and be for others as Christ is for us. We are to be nurturing and tender with those who are weary or frail, for those who are afraid or grieved. We are to allow the love of the Christ to flow through us to those who also need. Where is the tender love of Christ needed in our world, where are we needed?
And although less comfortable for some of us we too are to be warriors and defenders of others. There are those in our world that need us to be their defenders: vulnerable children, the refugees, the endangered species in our forests, the poor near and far, those imprisoned. Remember that Jesus said that what we do for the least we do for him. It is a challenging thought that is not only the simple and nice things that we are called upon to do but the courageous and risk taking. Warrior qualities are not simply to do with physical acts of daring but also the political and social acts of defence and inclusion; the legal and financial support of those who are undefended; and the spiritual courage to include in our hearts those we fear and do not understand. Where and what people, creatures and places are calling us to express the fierce and passionate love of Christ?
And as Jesus is our guide and the voice we hear and follow we are to speak and be his voice in our time and place so that others too may know themselves named and blessed abundantly. We need to take courage and speak our loving truth and to be really courageous and to listen to others. Where and who is need of a word of encouragement, challenge, invitation? And what voices need to be heard by us?
Jesus the good Shepherd is not just a pretty stained glass image of history, he is a tender, disturbing, saving, challenging and abundantly generous Lord who comes to us striding out of the pages of story into our hearts and minds awakening our spirits. Awakening us to life abundant. And awakening us to passionately desire to share this abundance with all in Christ’s world.
Even so, come risen Lord Jesus Christ, come.