An Off the Wall Shepherd

by Alyce M. McKenzie on Monday, April 27, 2020

An Off the Wall Shepherd

In the Sunday School Room

In the Sunday School room of the church I attended as a child there was that picture of Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders on the back wall. After a while I didn’t really see it anymore. It was just a pleasant portrait on the back wall of our room There it remains to the present day, in my mind and memory, a hazy, pleasant background picture of Jesus I thought was just meant to be comforting for children.

It turns out that the Good Shepherd is not an image intended to comfort children. It is an image intended to inspire the faith of adults in difficult times.  It is an image meant to counter forces that would isolate them from each other and undermine their faith in Christ.  It’s an image tailor made for times like these.

In the first century House Church  

Travel back 20 centuries from that Sunday School room to one of the house churches to which John wrote near the end of the first century. The congregation consisted of Jewish Christians who had been evicted from the synagogues for their conviction of Jesus’ Messianic identity. And then you hear the leader read this passage in which Jesus promises “I am the Good Shepherd. From previous worship services you remember other “I am” sayings.” Jesus is the bread, the light, a path, a gate, a vine.  Your heart is made more peaceful in remembering that Jesus fulfills the necessities of life, providing for your basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

As a Jewish Christian, these images would have helped you hold onto your heritage in an isolating time. Your manna in the wilderness has become Jesus, the Bread of Heaven. Your light, symbol of the law, is now identified with Messiah to whom the Torah bore witness. The way promised to the one who follows God’s wisdom and law is now identified with Jesus the Way. (Koester 233) And the shepherd, a common sight across the ancient Mediterranean world and a common metaphor for leadership, is now Jesus the Good Shepherd.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” is one of seven “I am” sayings by which John portrays Jesus’ identity to the house churches to whom he wrote near the end of the first century.

These “I am” sayings in the gospel of John are simply stated and easily grasped at a basic level. They are, at the same time, invitations into a lifelong relationship with Jesus in which we live into the promises they make. That means that the Good Shepherd who was there for me as a child is still here for me as an adult seeking to grow in faith amid personal and cultural challenges to that faith. John’s Gospel has been aptly described as “a book in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim” (Robert Kysar, The Fourth Evangelist and his Gospel, 6).

Jesus’ Identity Shapes Ours

Each promise says something about Christology, who Jesus is. Jesus is the Son who is one with the Father and thereby capable of providing for our needs in this crisis and beyond.  

Christology (Who Jesus is)

Food – I am the bread of life (6:35)

Light – I am the light of the world (8:12)

A path to follow – I am the Way, the truth and the life (14:6)

A gate to get onto the path – I am the Gate for the sheep.” (10:7)

Someone trustworthy to follow – I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)

An eternal journey – I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)

A life that bears the fruit of that walk – I am the True Vine (15:1)

Each promise also says something about discipleship, who we are. We are unified in Christ.  Because there is one and only one Good Shepherd, there is one flock that gathers around him. In a time of social distancing, it is encouraging to remember that when we are with Christ, even though by ourselves, we are one with the whole flock.

Discipleship (Who we are)

Since Jesus is food, discipleship means gathering around the table.

Since Jesus is light, discipleship means coming out of our dark corners and gathering in the middle of the room together.

Since Jesus is a path to follow, discipleship means walking together along it.

Since Jesus is an eternal journey, discipleship means a group pilgrimage of walking in the way that leads to life.

Since Jesus is the Vine, discipleship means being the branches, people whose lives derive their fruitfulness from him.

Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then discipleship means being sheep who find their life and well- being in his care.

Discipleship (Who we are to be)

So far so good. We have been comforted by the “I am” sayings and reminded of our unity in Jesus. Now for the challenge. Jesus connects the Good Shepherd with the cross. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11). This calls to mind the medical professionals and other essential workers who risk their lives so others can self isolate to slow the spread of the virus. Taken together, the Good Shepherd and the Cross are two powerful symbols for the unity of believers in John’s Gospel. 10:15-16 and 11:51-52 connect Jesus’ death with the oneness of believers. 

Craig Koester says that the 7 “I am” sayings “create a centripetal effect, bringing believers into relationship with each other by reinforcing their common relationship to Jesus” (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community, 230). We yearn to be in relationship with each other in these isolating days in which it seems like the centrifugal (Latin for “center fleeing”) force of the corona virus threatens to overcome the centripetal (Latin for “center-seeking) force of divine love and community.

If you have ever ridden on an amusement park ride called, variously The Milk Churn, the Tornado or the Meteorite, you have experienced centrifugal force. The ride consists of a circular horizontal platform with vertical cage like wall around the edge. The platform is attached to a motor on a hydraulic arm. The ride starts out by spinning until the centrifugal force is enough to push riders against the wall. At that time, the friction between the riders' backs and the walls is enough to hold them against the wall. For a while. Until you realize you are hanging in mid-air with your back against the wall.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not content to stay on the wall of that long ago Sunday School room. He is in our midst in troubled times, calling us back to our center. There we stand on the steady ground of God’s promises to provide for our needs, reminded that our most basic spiritual need is to live our lives for one another.

Sources Consulted

Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)

Robert Kysar, The Fourth Evangelist and His Gospel: An Examination of Contemporary Scholarship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1975).

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