Who's Your Shepherd? A Lectionary Reflection

Acts 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Who’s Your Shepherd?

The opening lines of Psalm 23 answers this question about as succinctly as one could hope for. “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” The shepherd image is a prominent one in Scripture. It’s to the shepherds that the angels appear bearing the announcement of the nativity and of course David is the shepherd king. As a congregational pastor I’m only too aware of this imagery as it relates to my vocation. I must say, however, that while congregations like the shepherd/sheep imagery, usually they’re thinking in chaplaincy-like terms and therefore don’t indulge all of the implications and nuances of this analogy. Most church members likely don’t envision themselves as being not too bright and thus in need of constant monitoring – when they’re not safely tucked into their pen. Even if they see themselves in the pastor as shepherd, if they envision themselves as sheep, it’s usually in rather independent terms, even though the biblical texts tend not to entertain thoughts of feral sheep. But however we envision this relationship, it would be wise to remember that we pastors aren’t the Lord, who is my shepherd. It’s only by analogy and by imitation that any of us who claim this vocation can see ourselves in the role of shepherd – and even then only with great humility.

As we start with the words of Psalm 23, which is the Psalm for the fourth Sunday of Easter (year A), that reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd, we can consider the texts for this fourth Sunday of Easter, especially as they highlight the role of the shepherd. The one text that doesn’t address the shepherding image is Acts 2:42-47, where Luke lays out for us his vision of what the church looked like at its founding – a church that was devoted to the Apostles Teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. In this picture the Apostles not only engage in teaching, but they also amaze everyone with signs and wonders. And in words that may surprise good American Christians that embrace capitalism, this community is described as one that shares everything in common, having sold their possessions and used these proceeds for the common good of the community, so that none would be in need.

If we really want to know what an Acts 2 church looks like, perhaps we can find it pretty well spelled out here in these verses. They were a communal sort of people. This wasn’t a movement of rugged individualists, but people who understood that they must exist in relationship to each other. And maybe that’s where the shepherd/sheep image connects. This isn’t a feral church, full of individualists focused on their own spiritual improvement, but folks joined together by a common faith committed to the common good. It was a vision of spirituality that centered around teaching, fellowship (which is much more than sitting around at a coffee hour “chewing the fat”), food (here again this idea of breaking bread needs to be pondered and explored with some depth so that we might catch all of the nuances and implications -- that include the eucharist but likely means more than this), and finally there is the word about prayer, which reminds us that the church is more than simply a service group – it’s a community of faith linked together by a common faith. The church may be a flock, and it may have a shepherd, but that shepherd is not simply a religious leader, no matter how committed she or he might be, “for the Lord is my shepherd.”

As we read the biblical text we must always take care not to read our own modern sensibilities of pluralism and tolerance and even universalism into texts that can’t sustain these interpretations. We must also be careful about how we read our own needs and desires into the lives of the early Christians. Indeed, we must even be careful about how we understand Jesus, always mindful of Albert Schweitzer’s critique of the early quests for the historical Jesus – we have a tendency to look in the well and see our own reflections. I may have a fairly broad sense of whom God might welcome at the table, but at least some early Christians might not have been quite so welcoming.

I make these comments as preparation for hearing the message of John 10. If we listen rather closely we will hear Jesus offer a fairly narrow vision of the path to God’s realm. At least in John’s understanding, Jesus isn’t a religious pluralist. Anyone who enters the sheepfold, that protective pen we call the church, through any access point other than the gate (and Jesus is the gate) then they must be thieves or bandits who have climbed over the high protective wall. As John tells this story, which begins with Jesus answering the Pharisees, whom he has accused of spiritual blindness, the sheep will only follow the voice of the true shepherd – for they know the shepherd’s voice. If anyone, namely the Pharisees, seek access to the flock without going through the gate, then they are thieves. It would appear that John is concerned about false teachers seeking to gain access to the church, and are doing it secretively. When first given the message of the sheepfold and the thieves, the Pharisees don’t seem to get it so Jesus gets more explicit: “I am the gate for the sheep,” and only those who enter through that gate “will be saved.” The Lord is the true shepherd and they, who are in John’s estimation blind guides, are false shepherds. Now, we must remember that John is known for his caricatures of the Pharisees, so we must remember that while the Pharisees may have seen things differently from Jesus, they sought to be faithful shepherds of Israel. More positively, however, we can and should see Jesus as the one who guides us and cares for us and protects us. He is our shepherd, who guides us through dark valleys to places of peace and sustenance.

I end with the reading from 1 Peter, who encourages the church(es) to whom this letter is written to endure their suffering patiently. If you suffer for what is good and right, then it will be credited to you as God’s approval. Then we’re reminded that just as Christ has suffered for us, having committed no sin, when abused he didn’t return the abuse, and when threatened didn’t threaten. Instead Christ entrusted himself “to the one who judges justly.” It is worth noting that this word about suffering for the sake of righteousness is given to slaves, who may have endured harsh treatment from their masters. It’s not surprising that the creators of the lectionary have separated out this text from its context, but we need to hear the broader context. Many early Christians were slaves, and being unable to live in freedom, were being encouraged to think more broadly about their place in the realm of God. Remember that Christ has suffered, and so follow his example. He is the one who has born our sins upon his body, and by doing so has brought us healing (salvation). It is an image that draws upon the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53.

We can understand this passage speaking to early Christians seeking to survive an oppressively hierarchical culture. The question that faces us as we seek to understand this text, and others like it, in a contemporary age. We are not in a situation where our survival depends on being submissive to slave owners or oppressive governments. In addition, submission may not be the way we are to live our lives as followers of Jesus. Resistance against oppression is likely our calling – though this would be nonviolent and not violent. Oppressive systemic situations need to be dealt with, for they stand counter to the ways of the one who is the “shepherd and guardian of our souls.” As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, as we deal with this passage, especially if we’re preachers, we need to start with the assumption that the kinds of hierarchical social structures we find listed in 1 Peter 2 are not in line with the ways of a “God of unconditional love whose purpose is for all people to live together in egalitarian relationships of love” [Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, pp. 58-59]. Allen and Williamson also suggest that when it comes to suffering we need to affirm the principle that (1) “God does not want people to suffer, (2) that God feels such suffering and supports people through it, and (3) that God is actively working to end conditions that lead to suffering” [p. 59].

The Psalm with which we began this conversation answers the question of who is your shepherd by reminding us that the Lord is our Shepherd, and therefore we shall not want. The Lord leads us to green grass and still waters, even if the path takes us through dark valleys. In the end, because the shepherd is with us, we can even dine in the presence of our enemies without fear. There are various kinds of shepherds, but as Christians we are called to follow the Lord our shepherd and live our lives in accordance with God’s nature and purpose. Knowing what that is, of course, requires discernment.


Brian said…
Bob - You taught me something new today. I was of the impression that the false shepherds/teachers that John was addressing had to do with early strands of gnosticism. That was why John has a more cosmic sound to it, even using gnostic terms such as "logos". I'd never learned that it could also mean the Pharisees, although much in John is addressing "the Jews". I know at the time of John's gospel there was much pain over division within Judaism between Jews who believed Jesus was the messiah vs those who did not (thus the inflammatory tone of some passages).

Good Shepherd Sunday is one of my favorites. You bring up a good point though. It can be twisted by unscrupulous pastors into "follow me".
Robert Cornwall said…
Brian, the debate with gnostics does stand behind much of this, but I was reminded reading Ron and Clark's commentary that you have to start this conversation with John 9, where the debate partners are the Pharisees. I probably would have gone the same direction had they not pushed me back into the previous chapter.

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