Today is colloquially known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we celebrate Easter with at least one Sunday discussing the metaphor of sheep. Another metaphor the gospel of John loves is the metaphor of light. Here's a little glimpse into the nature of the relationship between sheep and light from a sheep farmer in Virginia:
"One evening just after dark, I was driving my Buick up our gravel driveway. As I rounded the first turn, my headlights illuminated a flock of sheep standing about 20 feet in front of me. One of the evangelical ones must have whispered to her buddies, “Run to the light!” because they all turned and headed straight for the car. Bonk! Bonk! Bonk! One after the other, they plunged headfirst into my front grill and then staggered off to the side to let the others have a turn. I honked the horn, but that just seemed to confuse them more. The sheep sped up, and my car rocked as every ewe threw herself at it. Finally, when they were all sprawled on the edges of the driveway, I edged past them and drove on to the house. They staggered to their feet and followed me in."
This story is from Ginny Neil who writes a blog about the sheep farm she owns with her husband in the mountains of Virginia. Ginny received quite the welcome home party that night. For most of us, even if we have no personal experiences with sheep, we have spent our lives hearing about the wily nature of sheep. They run away, they go where you don't want them to, they are always somehow in your way. Yet, sheep get a bad rap from many people. Not everything about sheep is bad. Sheep follow their leader, as notably shown in the story from Ginny, sheep are communal, they live in flocks, and sheep are each unique.
One of the most iconic images Jesus gives us to teach us about who he is is the Good Shepherd. Jesus compares a good shepherd to a bad shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who calls each of his sheep by name. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who protects the sheep from harm. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who carries the sheep home when they get lost. Interestingly enough, the gospel passage for today stops one verse short of where Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd. In this passage Jesus says, I am the gate. Its a slightly more confusing image, Jesus being a gate. However, we understand the metaphor. Jesus is saying that all the sheep must go through him, or we must go through him to get to the kingdom of heaven. Sheep tend to be great at following each other. When we choose to follow Jesus, he will show us the way through the gate. By going through Jesus, we can find and have abundant life, more than we have ever dreamed of. By following our Savior, we become part of God's people.
Naturally, since this image of the Good Shepherd is such an important one to how we understand ourselves in the church, we have Good Shepherd stained glass windows - both in the church and in the chapel. The Good Shepherd is a comforting metaphor, allowing us to know that Jesus is always caring for us. As Jesus goes on to say in the gospel of John, "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus would do anything for his people.
In the passage from Acts, well, we don't see any sheep. At least, not literally. The passage does talk about Jesus' followers and what they are doing, so in a way, it is metaphorically about Jesus' sheep. His disciples are the ones who have heard his voice and responded. And its clear that these sheep, the group of Jesus' followers in Acts have some of the characteristics of sheep. Let's face it, they probably smelled. More seriously, they are communal, they share space and food and possessions. In everything I have ever read or experienced of sheep, they are herd animals, they live in flocks. They stick together, communally, for safety and survival.
In some sense, that is what we do all the time as well. In family groups, friend groups, and community groups, we rely on our communities in times of joy and sorrow. We stick together with other people for safety and survival. We share our food and our possessions in different ways with those around us. Yet, in our increasingly individualistic society, we are losing some of the values of what it means to be communal creatures. In the passage from Acts, you can see what value the community brings to each of the members - teaching, fellowship, mentors, dinner and meal partners, the ability to share possessions needed. We tend to look at this passage as an example of agreeable community - everything was perfect in the early church. However, we know this wasn't the case. The early church still had plenty of disagreements and discussions about what they were supposed to be doing. They each had to listen for Jesus' voice calling out to them. They worked out their disagreements, as far as they were able, staying in community together.
You may be thinking, last week I told you that we would be talking about the Holy Spirit and yet I haven't mentioned the Holy Spirit once! Do not be afraid! Here comes the Holy Spirit. Dun dun dun! What does the Holy Spirit have to do with sheep or Jesus being the Good Shepherd? Well, we already agreed with St. Augustine that the Trinity never works alone. So the Holy Spirit must be part of the act of Jesus tending the sheep of his pasture. Whether the Holy Spirit is acting in the sheep in order for them to respond or helping Jesus wrangle the sheep, the Holy Spirit is present. Now, it may be simply because of the nature of the Holy Spirit's home life, but I tend to see the Holy Spirits' presence as a requirement in any act of communal nature. Flocks of sheep cannot be flocks of sheep without the instinct for survival that tells them that being in a group is safer, and communities of Jesus followers cannot be communities without the Holy Spirit. What connects and binds us together in community is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that which makes us the sheep of Jesus' flock.
Lastly, the metaphor extends to each of us. Even though sheep live their lives as part of a flock, live their entire lives in a community, they are each unique. Just as the flock of sheep now around me, we are each unique in our community. Bringing together gifts and abilities from different people allows us to work together to accomplish more than we could ever do by ourselves. Knowing one's place as a sheep of God's fold means following Jesus, living together in community, and being true to God's calling for you. Follow Jesus the Good Shepherd. Share in the community of Jesus' sheep. Listen for His voice calling out to you. The Good Shepherd cares for you.
PS. I was joined in the pulpit by a small flock of sheep for this morning's sermon.