Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
Jesus said: ‘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.’
The Good Shepherd – not an image many of us are particularly familiar with in our day to day life. I’m not aware of many shepherds, or sheep for that matter, here in the West End of Edinburgh. It is, however, a well-known image from the bible, no doubt because it emerges among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.
It’s an image with a long history. Jesus’ use of it surely has Psalm 23 in the background – that beloved psalm we just heard sung, that was no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death.
The Good Shepherd is not only in scripture an image of God, however. It also is used by the prophets to critique those who have failed to tend the flock as they ought, those leaders who have failed in their duty to nourish and sustain the people – whose leadership is in stark contrast to that paradigm of the Good Shepherd. Here is an example from the prophet Ezekiel:
‘The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds.’
Jesus’ meditation from John’s Gospel that we heard this morning, draws on that long tradition and understanding of what a Good Shepherd looks like and is. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, John is making an explicit claim about the divinity of Jesus – here is the one in whom the Good Shepherd that is God is known, in whom the Father is met and seen. And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. The most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the Good Shepherd.
And that image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image too in the early church. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, how we are called to live. It may well be, in our more urban settings, where the pastoral is either little known or at least distanced; or is romanticised, so that the sharp edges – the real times of trouble and fear that call forth the skill and care of the Shepherd – are lost; it may well be that it feels a distant image, no longer central.
As we stand on the brink of a Scottish Parliamentary election, however, the questions posed by Ezekiel’s use of the image are bound to strike us. How do those who now seek political office, whose calling is the welfare, the wellbeing and the wholeness of the people – how do they measure up to the image of the Shepherd? If we thought that despair at politicians was a modern phenomenon we have only to listen to Ezekiel.
But to explore the image of the Good Shepherd is not simply about castigating politicians; I fear that is all too easy in our cynical age. The image of the Good Shepherd certainly asks questions about the motive and desire of those who seek to lead and gain our trust: are they more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good and because they care. Those are important and legitimate questions to bring to our consideration of who we might vote for. Today, as well as the Good Shepherd, the church invites us to mark Vocations Sunday: the language of vocation suggests that life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others. That sense of vocation has been re-discovered in this past year in the stresses and strains of the pandemic, in the re-valuing of meaningful life; but it is also in danger of constantly being lost in the stories we hear and tell of cynical self-interest. Whilst we shouldn’t be naïve about personal ambition – and the warnings of Ezekiel may well ring in our ears – we also need to recognise that public service does still drive much politics, however cynical a reading we might be usually offered.
But perhaps the even more vital question posed by the image of the Good Shepherd, is one that is addressed to all of us. It is the question of where we draw the boundaries of the flock. Who is it that the shepherd is called to serve, and who will learn to trust; in the service of whom, does the Shepherd lay down their life? That question, of how we create and serve a cohesive society, a flock, who have sense of themselves as a whole, as well as as individuals – that is a crucial question for our own times. Do we do that by drawing the boundaries tighter, being clearer about who is in and who is out? And yet, Jesus the Good Shepherd lived out that care of the Father by meeting and dining and healing those thought to be beyond the walls of the flock – the sinners and outcasts. He lays down his life because that refusal to limit God’s love has drawn him into conflict with a leadership who constantly want to draw the boundaries tighter. Jesus the Good Shepherd asks awkward questions of the ways we limit God’s love. As 1 John puts it: 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 to help?
Those are hard questions to negotiate and work out in the political realm, I have no doubt. And they are not simply questions to put politicians on the spot, but questions for all of us, in our own vocation and building up of the common good. For the Good Shepherd is an image of the Risen Christ – and something we are all called therefore to embody and live out, a way of living into which we are formed by the act of sharing a meal together around this table. The Good Shepherd is not something simply to castigate or despair or judge our politicians by; but a vision we are called to enact and live out in our time and place, our own vocation. Amen.