The early followers of Jesus wrestled with understanding who Jesus was, who they were as an emerging community, and they struggled with WHOSE they were. Jesus used a zoological metaphor about the Good shepherd and the vocation of shepherding, to explain. Sheep and shepherding seem disconnected from our neat and tidy suburbanite lives. You do not see many shepherds and sheep here in hot, humid, Southwest Florida, but raising sheep was a vital occupation in 1st century Palestine. It was hard work, and the shepherd’s life was constantly at risk from the threat of wolves and bandits. Good shepherds knew the risk and yet, spent long months moving their herds from cool streams to lush grazing plains, and to the safety of the home pen. Good shepherds literally laid down their lives for their sheep, even though sheep can be peculiar animals that have some interesting behavioral characteristics.
For instance, sheep instinctively flock together, follow a leader, and socially they can be either sweet and gentle as lambs, or crabby and dangerous as rams. Sheep will band together in large groups for protection from predators, and they crave social contact. Sheep must maintain visual contact with other sheep to prevent stress, and to avoid becoming highly agitated if separated from the rest of the flock. Sheep follow a leader and when one sheep moves the rest will follow, even if it is not a good idea. This instinct is so strong that it caused “400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey to jump off a cliff, because one of the sheep tried to cross ravine, and the rest of the flock followed.” (1)
Lastly, lambs (baby sheep) and rams (adults) are as different as night and day. Lambs are very active, playful, and curious and they love to climb. Rams on the other hand, can be very aggressive and have been known to cause serious injuries to people. Never turn your back on a ram, or you may pay the price. Now, you do understand that I am describing sheep here, and I am not even trying to make a connection between sheep and good church folk. (wink, wink).
The Good Shepherd
Jesus used this metaphor to explain to his followers (then and now) that human behavior can be like sheep behavior. We band together for companionship and mutual support, we naturally follow a leader or leaders, and we crave social interaction. That whole lamb vs. ram part though, I will leave that up to your own imagination. But as for me, I know I am mostly a gentle little lamb, but if I do not get enough sleep, enough food, some aviation time, or date night each week with my wife, I can be like a Dodge Truck; Ram tough.
The hearers of this metaphor about sheep and the Good Shepherd understood what Jesus was talking about, because sheep herding was familiar to everyone. What we need to hear in the story is this, “we Christians need one another” and we need Jesus! We have to rely on one another, and we need to come together, to mutually care for one another and to strengthen our faith journeys.
We also need to hear in Jesus’ metaphor that we have to rely on the Good Shepherd to lead us each day. Otherwise we have a tendency to fall back on our natural instincts to stray and leave the flock behind, becoming either like “indifferent, playful Lambs, or like angry, self-interested rams.” If we fall into either of these extremes in Christian community, we are blocked from spiritual growth, through the shepherding care and leadership of Jesus and the love and care we need to have for one another.
Love one another
“We ought to lay down our lives for one another.” That statement from John in his letter stands in defiance; to the way life celebrated in our culture today. The idea of serving the greater good, or risking one’s own safety for someone else’s may be a thing of a bygone era. Business and politics and life in general today is all about “dog eat dog,” “negotiate the best deal at all costs,” and only “the fittest survive.”
Our whole economic system is based on unfettered competition. Whatever happened to, “let’s do what is best for the world,” “let’s care for those who cannot care for themselves,” and “what you do for the least of these, you do for me.” In other words, what happened to “love one another?” Laying down our lives for each other requires us to release positions of power, influence, and acquisition to pursue what is best for the whole community, but fear causes us to resist that call.
Stan Wilson in a Christian Century article wrote, “I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other. We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level. ”(2) Jesus turns that concept upside down, and explains that we need to be like sheep, who flock together, trust one another, and most importantly, trust the Good Shepherd.
Sheep scatter and go rogue. Sometimes folks in the flock go astray and go their own way. We Christians cannot be Christians in isolation. We need intimacy, connectedness, and community to thrive. Healthy community requires that we become vulnerable to one another, letting our guard down some and yes, removing our masks of power and society status and thus, laying down our lives for one another. “But Eric, vulnerability is weakness,” you may say.
Brene’ Brown, PhD/LCSW author, speaker, and researcher of vulnerability and shame, writes in one of her books, “In our culture we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”
Our common life must be one in which, we trust the Good Shepherd to guide us, and we trust our sisters and brothers whom we need, and with whom we must lay down our lives, in order for real love to emerge. We need to let down the walls, get real with one another, be a little vulnerable, and allow love to emerge among us. We need to know WHO we are and WHOSE we are.
The Breakfast Club
In 1984, I first watched the blockbuster movie “The Breakfast Club” and it changed me. It was a film about five very different teenagers who because of bad behavior spent a whole Saturday in high school detention. Their discipline assignment was to write a 1000 word essay about “who they think they are.”
This unlikely gathering of dissimilar teens start out the day, trying to endure the next nine hours together, maintaining their distance from one another and promising not to allow the boundaries between them to crumble. But as they day progressed, and as they allowed themselves to be open, honest, and vulnerable to one another, they began to share more of their lives with each other. As you can imagine something amazing happened.
These teens became an unexpected community, a band of friends, or as the movie called them, “The Breakfast Club.” Their bogus masks, their made up identities, and their stoic personas fell away. These five unlikely teens became friends one day in an unlikely place, when through their vulnerability and unexpected love, their lives were changed forever. They found their common connection and community emerged.
When we the Body of Christ begin to understand that we are the flock of the Good Shepherd, when we understand our common connection in Our Lord Jesus Christ, community grows authentically, and nothing can get in the way of our mutual love. We must never forget WHO we are, and WHOSE we are.
Jesus calls us to be more than a mere gathering of friends, or a social club, or even a “Breakfast Club.” He gathers us into his loving arms as a community of love and transformation, a family who welcome change and experience new life. From that transformed group, Jesus sends us out those doors, as a lighthouse for other sheep that are not yet a part of this flock.
My sisters and brothers, we are not just poor little lambs, who have lost their way, scattered and tumbling off the cliffs of fear. We are followers of Jesus, a community of love and grace, and we follow the one leader, the one Lord, the God in flesh who loves us and who reminds us in all circumstances of life, “I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life for my sheep.” Are we willing to lay aside our masks of fear and distrust, so that like Our Shepherd, lay down our lives for one another?
2 Wilson, Stan. “Ties That Bind.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 9, 02 May 2006, p. 18.
3 Long, Kimberly Bracken. “The Shepherd Jesus.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 29, no. 3, 2006, pp. 51-54