John 10: 11-18 (NIV)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise to you Lord Christ.
Sermon “A Shepherding Image of God”
What is your image of God? Have you ever thought about that? It’s one of the most important aspects of any discernment process, because ultimately our image of God guides us into how we live our faith. I was confronted with this process in spiritual direction several years ago. One of the gifts of meeting with a spiritual director is discovering how we see God. If we see God as an angry judge, it’s likely how we’ll live out our faith personally and how we will likely interact with the world. If we picture a loving merciful God, then we might ask if we’re really able to be loving and merciful to ourselves and to others. It’s actually a lot harder than what you might think. The author A.W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
The other way to reflect on our image of God is by using an actual image. When we think of God, what or who do we see? There’s this song by Michael Gungor, a Christian musician, by the title God is not a white man. The first few lives are “God is not a man. God is not a white man. God is not a man sitting on a cloud.” While it might seem obvious, too many of us still hold onto images like this. The song continues, “God cannot be bought. God will not be boxed in. God will not be owned by religion.” And the chorus is “God is love and God loves everyone.” This artist, Gungor, is offering to us what his image of God is and is not. That’s what images can do for us. They can help us form a healthy image of God from our own experiences of the divine and from what we know of God through prayer, worship and Scripture. What is your image of God?
One of the most famous and beloved images among almost all Christian denominations is the “Good Shepherd.” It’s an image that I have certainly connected with during my life. Part of the reason is the image of the Good Shepherd painting that was hanging in the small rural Methodist Church I grew up in. Even though I tend to call him “Kenny Loggins Jesus,” after the country singer, they look alike, what stood out to me was this gentle, caring, kind Shepherd gently holding his sheep. The other way I connected with this image was years later as Candace and I toured Rome. The image of the “Good Shepherd”, as I learned, was an image used often by the early church.
What I discovered in Rome is that the Christian catacombs contain many of the earliest Christian works of art that gives us a lot of information about the early church and art. Some of the early images included a dove, ship, an anchor, and of course the Greek ichthus or fish that was used for early Christians. Then there’s this other image, the Good Shepherd, which is used around 120 times in the Roman catacombs. (You can see some of these images on the screens.) You often see this image of the shepherd carrying his sheep. A prayer often used in the ancient church asked for their dead to be carried to heaven on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. Before Christianity became the legal religion of the Roman Empire, the shepherd image was used to depict Jesus before they were allowed to do so.
Where did the early church get this image? There are many references in Scripture, but everyone knows, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The famous words of Psalm 23. There is another version of this Psalm I want to share with you this morning. It’s out of Pastor Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of the Bible. Listen to these words and consider how it makes you feel and what image speaks deeply to you:
“23 1-3 God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. 4 Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. 5 You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.
6 Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”
How did that make you feel? For me, when I first read it, I struck by its comfort and gentleness. “You let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.” What beautiful words and a powerful image of God as our shepherd. We find a comforting, loving, and guiding God.
Jesus even used this image in the Gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd.” When Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, we immediately receive an assurance of his never ending and never failing care, protection, and love for us. He is not a hired hand where they are not his sheep, no, he knows his sheep, because they belong to him. They have an intimate relationship with the shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus said. Not only that, but this Good Shepherd lays his life down for his sheep. Jesus gives his life for his sheep, for all of us.
The affirmation that John is making in his Gospel is that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for us, who guides us, who laid his life down for us, and as we continue in this Easter season, we proclaim that Christ was raised to new life for us. That’s a powerful image of God. It’s one that is referred to by our Epistle reading for today. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ,” I would add the description “Good Shepherd,” “laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our siblings.” How do we lay down our lives? We live it through actions and truth, in all we do, think, and say. “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” There’s that image of God again. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep, all of us, and we are to love one another.
In our time, in our daily context, this image of the Good Shepherd is such a beautiful and personal image of a shepherd, of being carried, cared for, and loved. That is so important! There’s something deeper here too. In a society that is so divided on everything, politically, socially, and within the church, the Good Shepherd speaks to a larger body and a connected people. Did you notice what Jesus says in the Gospel of John? “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” What, Jesus? Who are these other sheep?
It’s likely that Jesus is referring to the Gentiles making the illustration that this shepherd, Jesus, is not just for Israel, but for the whole world, “God so loved the world.”
I want to know who the other sheep are, but Jesus doesn’t reveal that. Instead, Jesus tells us to love them all. That’s what 1 John says: “Love one another as he (Jesus) commanded us.” Yet for whatever reason, we tend to hold onto the Good Shepherd as only our Good Shepherd. We want to be the only ones carried on his shoulders to heaven and there’s no room for anyone else. It’s this exclusive stance that keeps people out of the fold and out of the church. Yet our God is one who would leave the 99 sheep to find the one. That’s the Good Shepherd. The one who would have sheep that are not of this sheep pin or fold and goes out of his way to find them.
Too often the church tends to be an exclusive club rather than a community of believers and doubters, sinners and saints, trying to follow this shepherd into better pastures of life. Whenever we put up fences or barriers between people based on any difference; race, class, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. we live and act counter to the Gospel.
It’s really easy to place limitations on God’s love and put our image of God in a box. Yet the letter of 1 John tells us that “God is greater than our hearts.” Which means that God’s love, God’s shepherding is bigger than any limitations I try to place on God.
Fr. Michael Renniger preached a powerful sermon on this text where he said, “Human beings are so good at setting limits around God’s love. We tell ourselves that we are qualified to determine who’s in, and who’s out; who’s included, who’s excluded; who is holy (and who is not). And we sometimes approach the scriptures, not expecting to be surprised by God, but hoping to find a line or two which will bolster convictions we’ve already created in our minds, convictions based, less on the Gospel, more on our political, cultural or fear-based assumptions.”
When Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd, I pray that we will know that he is our Good Shepherd, but he has other sheep too. Maybe we don’t know who they are, but Jesus loves them just the same and will find a way to shepherd them too. What is your image of the divine? What is your image of God? Again this all comes back to our image of God. We might need to shed old images of God that exclude others and instead embrace a Good Shepherd that is for everyone, where no one is left out of Jesus’ embrace, love, and fold. That’s an image of God we can hold onto!
Before we offer our Easter Affirmation this morning, I want to lead us in a brief prayer exercise. During this time, I will simply use some names or descriptions for God then lead us in prayer at the end, but I want to invite you to close your eyes and just allow God to speak through these images.
Almighty God Creating God Redeeming God Sustaining God
Light of the World Resurrection and Life The True Vine The Bread of Life
Hope of the World Good Shepherd
O God, Shepherd of all your people,
deliver us from all troubles,
worries and cares that assail us,
that we may always do
what is pleasing in your sight,
and remain safe
in the care of our Good Shepherd; Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Source: Paul C. Straman, based on a prayer from the Roman Breviary.