Preached at University Presbyterian Church
Reverend Elizabeth Michael
July 9, 2017
From the time Jesus crawls out of the manger and tumbles into the lives of some peasants in Galilee and the political and religious authorities who rule over them, there is one question that follows him urgently, doggedly, refusing to be put to rest no matter how many times he tries to answer it. It finds its way to the lips of the crowds that gather around him, his most faithful followers, the chief priests and Pharisees, even the governor of Judea. And while each asks it in a slightly different way, the question is basically the same. The gospels are consumed by the question, “Who are you, Jesus?”
In John, Jesus has a few answers to this question: “I am the bread of life,” he says at one point. “I am the light of the world,” he says at another. “I am the way, the truth the life…the vine and the branches…the resurrection and the life…” he will say a bit later on. And, in John chapter 10, which we read from this morning, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Who is Jesus? So much of our worldview, of our understanding of the Christian faith and how we live it out is tied up in that question. I recently learned that in the first four centuries of the church’s life, there was one image of Jesus that was more common in Christian artwork than any other. And it was not, as I might have guessed, the crucified Christ upon the cross or the radiant Christ enthroned in heaven or even the infant Christ, snuggled up to his mother Mary—it was the shepherd Christ. For the first four hundred years that people were telling stories about Jesus and trying to live like him, the artists—those who tried to inspire and capture the imagination of the community—drew Jesus as a shepherd. In fact, the oldest known picture of Jesus is as a shepherd. It’s a fresco painted into the wall of a catacomb in Rome in the third century. Above ground, the Romans sought to extinguish the Christian faith by lighting Christian bodies on fire, but below ground, the faithful gathered in secret, beside the graves of their friends, and worshiped. And as they did, their eyes would have fallen on pictures of Jesus with a shepherd’s crook, holding his sheep close and protecting them from the wolves who sought their lives.
Beginning then in the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, when the church no longer had to hide in underground tombs but got nice and comfortable in the living rooms of the rich and powerful…around that time, artists stopped drawing Jesus as a shepherd and started drawing him as a king. They took away the flimsy shepherd’s crook and that silly tunic that barely covered his knees, and they gave Jesus a golden crown and a thick royal robe, clothing more befitting respectable company.
Often when I’m visiting churches for presbytery meetings or on other occasions, I take myself on a little tour of their artwork. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is how few I found—it seems we Presbyterians are obedient descendents of our Reformed ancestors who warned that visual images of God risked becoming idolatrous. But here and there are typically scattered pictures of Jesus welcoming the children, Jesus at table with his disciples, Jesus praying in Gethsemane, Jesus’ body vanished from the now-empty cross. Only on occasion, however, and usually only in the nursery, do I find images of Jesus as a shepherd.
It’s not only the image of Jesus as shepherd that has faded across the years; it’s also become rarer for us to speak of ourselves as sheep. Peter Gomes, the former chaplain at Harvard, once went on a tour of the Congregational churches in New England. Those first outposts of Western Christianity in the land new to Europeans date all the way back to the 17th century. And if you look at their cornerstones, you do not read, as we think is typical, “founded in 1620” or “established in 1641.” The signs on these early churches say “gathered in 1636.” It seems that at one point in our history, before building committees took pictures of themselves digging shovels into freshly turned earth to commemorate the founding of a church, Christians found one another and looked heavenward and offered thanks and praise for the gathering of Christian community.
So maybe there’s a reason we now find the Good Shepherd in our children’s Bibles and few other places. You see, Jesus as shepherd seems to be of little use for the emperor-sanctioned church, the well-resourced congregation that has everything it needs, the 21st century Presbyterian who live miles and miles away from the nearest wolf. But as we’ve shoved the shepherd to the far off green pastures and distanced ourselves from the needy sheep of his flock, we have not only failed to acknowledge our own dependence on God; we’ve also failed to see how revolutionary this claim of Jesus’ really is.
The religious authorities in the temple that day didn’t miss the power behind Jesus’ words. When he said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” they heard those words like an echo, like the most recent reverberation of a long-ago word. And they reached way back in their collective memory to the first time they heard those words, and they discovered the prophet Ezekiel, six hundred years earlier, who had gotten the attention of their great-great-great-great grandparents and said, “Thus says the Lord!” And because up to that point of Ezekiel’s career there had been only fire and pestilence and sword and judgment, and because by that point all God’s people were sitting in exile, sheep scattered across a foreign land, servants of a foreign king, and because the people needed freedom not only from spiritual bondage but also from political captivity, the words that came next were truly good news. Thus says the Lord: “I will be the shepherd. I will search for my sheep; I will seek them out; I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered. I will banish wild animals from their land, and they shall live in safety.”
See, the Bible’s image of the Good Shepherd is not just language of comfort. It’s also political discourse. In the words of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “the Good Shepherd is all about power and rule, about God’s kingdom and the world’s kingdoms, about God appointing a true king, not where there had been a vacuum waiting for someone to fill it, but where there had been too many kings.” God appointing a true king in a place where there had been too many kings.
That’s why this language of shepherd shook the thrones of the ancient Babylonian kings and the seats of power of the religious and political establishment in Jesus’ day and—if we are listening well—shakes even the seats in which we sit today. Because there, here, in the midst of too many kings, God is determined to take God’s rightful place.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” goes the psalm. But the sentiment is almost laughable. There is so much we want. I want a cure for cancer and a cure for climate change and a cure for allergies. I want the people I love to live forever; I want the candidates I vote for to win the office; I want to be right 100% of the time. I want everyone I know to like me and to understand me and to think highly of me and maybe even to be a little jealous of me. I want a clear word from the Lord. I want a green thumb and a tropical vacation and car with heated seats. I will not venture to guess what you want—it is probably far less trivial than what I want, but I feel sure you wouldn’t have much trouble finishing the sentence.
But to hear and believe and live into the good news of the Good Shepherd is to release our grasp on all our wants and trust that Christ is sufficient for us. It is to tear down from their thrones the people and possessions and prospects we would anoint as kings and strip our lives down to this one compelling loyalty, to Christ and Christ alone.
The strangeness of the gospel is that just as we are letting go of the comforts to which we cling, Christ is closing his grasp on us. Jesus’ last promise in this chapter is this: “No one will snatch them from my hands.” The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, the vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields in London, describes it this way:
“Back in the time of the dinosaurs, when we used to have bulky electrical devices called video cassette recorders, I had a favourite tape of 100 great cricket catches. The last catch of all on the tape had a batsman hook the ball miles up into the sky. The ball went so high the camera had no chance of sighting it so it followed the fielder. It picked him up on the boundary at third man, or about 11 o’clock to the noncricket fan, and followed him an incredible distance round to fine leg, or about 1 o’clock, until he stretched out and caught the ball inches from the turf, whereupon he granted himself the statutory couple of dramatic rolls, before miraculously coming up with the ball. The amazing thing was, he was never going to drop that ball. Not when it was miles in the air, not when it took amazing speed to reach it, not when it nearly hit the ground, not even when arms and wrists and elbows and chest all fell upon one another in a great heap. He was never going to drop that ball.
Jesus is like that fielder, and we’re like that ball. We may be wild, miles high in the sky, out of control, going anywhere. But Jesus has his eye on us, makes the amazing long journey to reach us, incurring all sorts of injuries in the process. Yet he’s never going to drop that ball. On the video, it looks impossible. It doesn’t matter how many times you watch it – and trust me, my younger self watched it a bunch of times – you can’t believe any fielder in the world is going to make that catch. But you also know he’s never going to drop that ball. Hear Jesus say those words to you: no one will snatch you out of my hand. No one. No one will snatch you out of my hand.”
This, then, is the paradox of the shepherd: his astonishing comfort comes as we surrender more and more of ourselves. Christ does not stop at simply soothing our hurt hearts, but demands our souls, our lives, our all. His is a tender embrace that simultaneously protects us from the evil one and summons out of us our whole allegiance. His is a gentle hand that wipes away our tears and banishes our fears and holds us fast even as he invites us to release our grip on everything that is not him. His is the prodding crook which guides us toward the green pastures even as it pushes us into ever more radical postures of trust. And his are the open arms, which persistently, continually, beckon us home.
 Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd from Early Christian Art,” Harvard Theological Review.
 Peter Gomes, “Good Shepherd, Good Sheep,” in Currents in Theology and Mission, 30.04.
 N.T. Wright, John for Everyone.
 “strip life down to one compelling loyalty” is Walter Brueggemann’s phrase.
 The Reverend Doctor Sam Wells, “No One Will Snatch them Out of My Hand,” 21 April 2013, accessible at stmartin-in-the-field.org.