Who is Jesus for you – for the church – for anyone? Many books have been published about him in recent years, so you have to figure he’s important. Some my favorite speak of Jesus as a teacher within, a Mediterranean peasant, and an apocalyptic prophet. He married, or maybe not. He and Mary Magdalene lived quietly and happily after Easter, or maybe not. One of my favorites is subtitled: “How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.” He remains a figure of power, influence and intrigue who refuses to be nailed down.
Jesus says who he is: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Like me, you may not have much experience with many shepherds or sheep. Metaphorically, we are like sheep – messy, wander off, get lost or in trouble. They are stubborn, fight, and often need rescue. Unlike us, they do heed their shepherd’s voice. You may have never met a shepherd. Don’t undersell them. They got a pie named for them. You don’t hear of “clergy pie.”
For Jesus two shepherd types exist: good ones and hired hands. The difference is the good shepherd has skin in the game. They own the sheep, and would die protecting them. The hired hand is salaried, no real investment. Trouble arises and they run off. Ordained people are sometimes called shepherds. Jesus is the only good one. You probably won’t believe this, but in my earlier years I could be funny. Someone would ask: “So how did you decide to become a pastor?” I answer: “I grew up going to church all the time. I tried to get away from it in college, but couldn’t. So if I have to go to church, might as well get paid for it.” We priests are closer to hirelings – and while some churches can be clergy killers, no pastor I know, willingly dies for cranky church folks.
Sheep and shepherds are prominent throughout Israel’s history. Kings are called Israel’s Shepherd, after David, who had been a shepherd before making “king.” The shepherd king represents and rules for God on earth. Few were very good at it. They ignored God, fleeced the flock for their benefit. They failed and disaster came calling. Israel’s prophets begin to believe one day God would send a Good Shepherd to lead the sheep home – all of them, outliers too. They’ll recognize his voice and follow.
Here’s where it gets tough. Hearing and voice recognition of Jesus come to us in other voices, like scripture, being grounded in the story, talking faith with others, even in nature or the church. Hearing doesn’t mean we follow. Other voices can sound more interesting – and crowd Jesus out. We wander away. Someone says something untrue about you. A voice in your head says, “That person is mean. Attack back. Defend yourself. You don’t want people to think you’re wrong.” We go into a defensive mode without thinking, and attack back. We’ve closed our hearts to the Shepherd’s voice inside us. When churches do that, we lose our mission and purpose – the love that holds us – and one another. We grow angry, fearful, scared – not much good to ourselves or others. The Shepherd’s voice though keeps calling us until we finally get in line behind him.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In a different way, we lay down our lives for the Shepherd. We die to voices that keep us from his. Then he can lift us to new places. A Zen story tells of two monks returning to their monastery. Morning rains made the road a mess. They come upon a beautiful young girl standing at the edge of a large puddle, unable to get through without ruining her clothes. Though monks are to have nothing to do with females, one offers to carry her across. The other watches and says nothing. Hours later he finally says, “I want to talk to you about that girl.” His friend says, “Dear Brother, are you still carrying her? I put her down hours ago.” Other voices sticking in our minds and hearts, those we won’t put down, become poison that kills our souls. They have the power to shape and form us, too. So, listen carefully and wisely.
His is the voice of unconditional love. His life, death and resurrection reveal the love he and the Father share – love that draws us in and transforms us. Divine love is not a feeling or emotion. It is a state of being – a force and spirit that flows from the father and son into and through us to one another. Flowing through us others may be lifted into the life of God’s love – as they experience it in us. Outside such love we stay locked in fear, mean-spiritedness; we gossip and demean others, and defend our false egos.
Beatrice Bruteau, author and mystic, says our spiritual reality begins in “the free act of self-giving.” To get there, we listen for the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow. Each member of the human race is an “I am.” As we mature into the Shepherd’s life we radiate “May you be,” for one another. We become channels of unconditional divine love. That may be hard for us to do sometimes. Remember, divine love is a state of being, not an emotion.
In life and in death we belong to the Shepherd, who belongs to God, whose love melds us into one flock. Unlike sheep we get to choose whether we’ll head butt or love one another. We too hear our Shepherd’s voice, but unlike sheep we won’t always follow. “I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” May we rejoice that he knows us and lives for us, much more than we’ll know and live for him. Maybe that’s why so much is written about him. Regardless of how closely we follow, Jesus is always and finally will be our redeemer.