Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Colossians 1:3]
A few years ago, I was walking to my Jeep Compass which was sitting in a parking lot in Maryland where I was living at the time. As I approached my car, I found on the ground a double-sided portrait of Jesus on a rectangular piece of cardboard the size of a playing card. The portrait was one that is quite well-known. It depicted Jesus as a shepherd with a shepherd’s staff in his left hand and carrying a lamb on his right arm while walking in front of a flock of sheep. The source of the portrait was the 19th century painting by Bernard Plockhorst. I really liked this little copy of the Plockhorst painting and decided to keep it. It even had a little hole in the one corner that made it possible for me to hang it from my rearview mirror using a Mardi Gras necklace. When I traded my Jeep in in 2011 for the current car I drive, a lime green Ford Fiesta Hatchback—affectionately known as the Kermitmobile—I made sure to transfer that little portrait to my new car. So, after the service today, if you are curious and want to see this little portrait of Jesus as the good shepherd hanging from my rearview mirror, just go outside to the Kermitmobile and take a peek. Unfortunately, after years in the sunlight, the colors have faded a bit. Nonetheless, I still enjoy seeing it whenever I am in my car. It always brings me comfort, makes me smile, and reminds me that I am just a meek little sheep with a funny mustache in Christ’s care.
Regarding the image of Jesus, I would guess that since the beginning of Christianity, there are probably thousands upon thousands of various depictions of what Jesus looked like in probably every art medium that exists today. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late 2nd century and is found on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. Concerning the standard depiction of Jesus that we are familiar with today in which Jesus is sporting a beard and long hair, that depiction first came about at around 300 CE and this was eventually set in the 6th century in Eastern Christianity and even later in the West. What’s interesting is that there are no descriptions of what Jesus looked like in any of the gospels. But because of the standard version of his appearance that has been handed down to us through the centuries, we can recognize an image of Jesus, whether it is through a painting, picture, sculpture or whatever art medium.
But what about the image of Jesus as the good shepherd? It turns out that the most common of the earliest images found in the Roman catacombs depicted a beardless youth in a pastoral scene herding sheep. It is believed that the shepherd seen in these images is one of the earliest depictions of Jesus—not only as the good shepherd, but just Jesus as himself. The fact that the good shepherd images of Jesus found on the walls of the Roman catacombs was common indicates the significance of Jesus as the good shepherd, which is the focus of today’s gospel passage from John. Just like that little portrait of Jesus hanging in my car that continuously gives me comfort, that same image of Jesus as the good shepherd apparently gave comfort to those who were interring their loved ones in the tombs of the catacombs centuries ago.
Today’s gospel passage and the metaphor Jesus uses to describe himself as the good shepherd is a well-known and much loved biblical passage because of the image it conveys. Jesus provides us comfort by guiding, guarding, and protecting us—he says that as the good shepherd he would lay down his life for his flock. And indeed that is exactly what Jesus did through his crucifixion. Then to make the good shepherd metaphor even more comforting, we tie it to Psalm 23 where the first words we utter are The Lord is my shepherd. How can one not think about how comforting Jesus as our shepherd is when we have images from this beautiful psalm about lying in green pastures and walking near still waters and being with us when danger is near?
And what about the sheep as a metaphor? It’s more than obvious that the sheep represents us. This metaphor was the subject of a rather spirited, or one might even say an argument, I had with a friend of mine several years ago that involved that good shepherd portrait that hangs in my car. On this one particular day several years ago, I picked my friend up at his home for a night out. This friend, who at the time was undecided about whether he was an atheist or an agnostic, immediately noticed my good shepherd portrait and asked why I was using a car air freshener knowing that they make me sneeze. That’s when I learned that what I had hanging from my rearview mirror was some stranger’s used, no-longer-fragrant air freshener. I proceeded to explain to my friend that I liked the picture and its significance to me because of my faith and the comforting image of Jesus as the good shepherd leading me through life as part of his flock. My friend’s response? He told me that sheep are stupid animals and will follow anybody! Now, my son, Jonathan, will tell you that it takes a lot to get me riled up and it is extremely difficult for anyone to find a button to push on me. Well, my friend found a button with that response of his. But instead of pushing the button, I felt more like he stomped on it! I interpreted his response to mean that Christians are stupid and that’s why they follow Jesus! It did not go over well with me! So, our night out was spent discussing the issue. And it was a good discussion, too. Our conversation enlightened my friend and gave him a better understanding of where I stood as a Christian.
My friend also learned that as Christians we fully love and trust God because we know that God loves us and has a relationship with us just like his relationship with Jesus as noted in verses 14 and 15: 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. This bond between the good shepherd and the sheep—namely, that bond between Jesus and us—is so intimate. Where Jesus leads, we follow because we know that it is through our faith that we have salvation and that Jesus will never lead us astray. As for those who of their own accord turn their backs on God and wander away, Jesus, the good shepherd, who knows his flock, will seek them out to bring them back home so there will only be one flock as noted in verse 16. Jesus wants us to gather as one flock. Yes, to gather together. Gathering is one of two core mission values here at St. Peter’s to help us grow in discipleship—in following Christ, like sheep following the good shepherd.
As Jesus noted in verse 16, as a flock, we will follow his voice. And where will we hear his voice after we have gathered here at church? We will hear the good shepherd’s voice through the Word, when we listen to the sermons, as well as through the Sacraments. We will also hear his voice through the liturgy, prayers, the hymns we sing, and during the various Christian education venues. Gathering together as a flock and together hearing the good shepherd’s voice also foments further discussions that will enhance our faith and discipleship. By being together we can make efforts to get on the same page to following Christ and living good Christian lives. Truly, the voice of the good shepherd is all around us while we are gathered.
Moreover, gathering is important because it is through gathering that the community of faith comes together to make us a community of faith unified under Christ. In an article titled Why We Gather, Brad Watson writes the following: Gatherings reorients our worship. Our hearts respond and proclaim truth we believe and struggle to believe. We are challenged and invited to worship the one true God. In many cases, the singing, taking in communion, hearing the scriptures taught, calls us to repentance and is the first act of repentance. We return to worshiping God instead of ourselves, other gods, and idols. Worship gatherings are rhythmic celebrations reminding of who God is and what he had done. Watson also contends that gathering denotes unity and nurtures unity in the church that not only facilitates discipleship, but also facilitates mission work to help those in need both locally and worldwide.
And what would happen if gathering was not emphasized for a church? Well, it probably would have an opposite effect, I would think. Instead of unity there would probably be disunity with an inability for us to help each other grow and nurture each other’s discipleship. There would be no facilitating of discussions or enhancing our faith by gathering together—we instead would be scattered about and not much of an effective community of faith in fulfilling mission work to help those in need as well as ourselves.
I would argue that gathering as a flock under Christ, the good shepherd, is a wise move. It’s a win-win situation with Christ as our guide, our guardian, and our protector. So, let us be more cognizant of the shepherd’s voice whenever and wherever we gather. As a flock, we can help each other learn much as well as do to make good disciples of ourselves. Amen.