Scripture for “Good Shepherd Sunday:”
Acts 4.5–12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16–24; John 10.11–18
We live in a predominantly urban environment, even in Menorca, which means that some of the finer points of the agricultural parables and analogies of Jesus are lost on us.
Having recently watched sheep on the hillsides of Mallorca for several days, I noticed that not only are the sheep trusted to roam freely, but to a certain degree, they watch out for one another, calling not just between ewes and lambs.
Jesus speaks of himself as the shepherd, and yet anyone familiar with flocks of sheep would know that they are not entirely helpless or mindless. What this might suggest to us is that communal support only works if we take the initiative to offer support to one another, and to seek support from one another, when it’s needed.
There is more to this. Jesus doesn’t necessarily make it easy! He speaks of, “other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” and forces us to look beyond the comfortable environment of our own communities and culture. These words would have been encouraging to the early church, which drew its membership from flocks well beyond its original fold in Jerusalem or even Israel.
In the film The Greatest Showman, a rather romanticised account of P.T. Barnum’s establishment of the first circus, a group of what would have been described at the time as “freaks” is brought together – and finds a sense of belonging and identity that makes them into a family that they would not otherwise have had. There is a clear analogy with the early church, forced to create new bonds of attachment and affection.
There are lots of Christians who expect the church to be a sort of bastion of something called family values. And there is some basis for this – but with a twist. The early church tore asunder a lot of traditional family bonds, as people who followed Jesus found themselves disconnected from their own families. And so those early Christians had to form a new family of their own, and learn to blend their differences into a community of faith.
They were the “freaks” of their time, which the apostles, following the lead and commandment of Jesus, had to forge into a new family, with its own bonds – a flock in which the sheep followed their good shepherd by doing what he asked them to do. This flock, of which he was the shepherd, gained a sense of identity.
Whenever we are tempted to seek homogeneity in the church, we might want to remember P.T. Barnum’s freak show and recall that it mirrors the origins of the church. We have no business calling ourselves followers of Christ if we don’t practise radical inclusion and welcome, and if we don’t offer a spirit of family to those who come to join us, no matter how different from us they may be.
The shepherd has great faith in us, the sheep of his flock. We are not expected to be “dumb” sheep. As the first letter of John captures it: “We should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another,” because that shows the confidence, the trust and the faith that God has placed in us through Jesus Christ.
We owe it to the one whose life was sacrificed on the altar of human pride, selfishness and indifference, to respond to that confidence, trust and faith by demonstrating our faith in him and following his example, without placing boundaries and borders on the extent of our love for one another – remembering that it has to transcend the limits of our flock.
Our shepherd has indeed laid down his life for us. As his extended flock, are we willing to call to one another, to listen, and to respond in love?