When I was 19 I spent a week in Chicago. It was one of the more memorable trips I’ve ever taken, so forgive me if I’ve told you about it before. I was there with my college class and we were volunteering at this inner-city church for a week over March break. The church was housed in a former synagogue and across the street there was this old, run down mansion that they’d purchased at the same time. While we were there part of our job was to clean out the old house because they were converting this multi-bedroom house in a drug rehab centre.
Now one of the most impressive things about this church community is that they were absolutely committed to the belief that the Gospel of Christ could transform people, it could change lives. And the reason they believed that so strongly is that the people who were running the programs were the same people who had gone through those programs in the first place. The people setting up the rehab centre were people who had dealt with substance addictions themselves. The people who were running the soup kitchen were volunteers from the community who fed their families in large part because of the church’s community meals. These were people who had experienced first hand the saving power of Jesus Christ and who had been transformed because of it. They weren’t content to simply sit on the side and enjoy their newfound comforts, when they saw that their lives were being changed they took hold of it and they started to reach out in loving kindness to the world around them. Catholic spiritual writer and priest, Henri Nouwen called this the phenomenon of the ‘wounded healer’; the person who bandages the brokenness of others, not out of a place of comfort, or responsibility, or top-down charity, but out of a place of solidarity, out of a place of understanding, out of their own experience of brokenness and healing.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
There’s an icon in the church, a representation of Jesus as the figure of the Good Shepherd. It’s one of the oldest images of Jesus in the world — the image of Christ moving towards you, with a lamb flung over his shoulders.
It’s a great image in many ways because it says so much about the extent of God’s love and God’s provision for us. But if we only treat it at the surface level there’s a whole depth of theology that we miss. On the surface the image shows Christ tending and caring for his sheep. It reminds us of that illustration he once used, if there are a hundred sheep and one goes astray, what does the shepherd do but go looking for the lost sheep? It reminds us of that comforting psalm we read this morning, Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’. The image reminds us of today’s gospel reading from John 10: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. The Good Shepherd is the one who takes care of the sheep. We can see all these things in the person of Jesus in the icon of the good shepherd.
But the truly surprising and radical claim about the image of the Good Shepherd is that in John’s gospel account, another image for Jesus that appears over and over again, is the image of Jesus as the lamb of God. From the very beginning when John the Baptist proclaims “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” to the very end where John’s theology likens Jesus to the sacrificial lamb used at Passover, we get this image of Jesus as a lamb, and we start to realize that within the icon of the Good Shepherd Jesus is everywhere. Jesus is the Shepherd and Jesus is the Lamb.
It says something really important about the love and the concern that God has for us. For one, it speaks once again of the incarnation, of the fact that Jesus becomes one of us. It’s pretty easy to accept within the image of the Good Shepherd that Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. But to realize that Jesus himself becomes one of the sheep in order to experience the brokenness of the world alongside us, that’s the revolutionary claim of Christianity.
DISCIPLES MAKING DISCIPLES
It also forces us to confront our beliefs in a God who simply comforts and nurtures us and never asks anything of us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, but it doesn’t stop there. As our epistle reading today tells us “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We are the ones who are saved, by grace, for grace—to be grace to the world. If we are sheep we are sheep who are called by the voice of the shepherd to follow him, and following him in this life means becoming like him, it means patterning our lives on his life.
Through his passion, his death, and his resurrection, Jesus saves us, but our salvation isn’t simply paradise, it isn’t some fluffy clouds. It doesn’t exist just to make us happy and comfortable. Our salvation exists to make us brave. When we experience brokenness, and sorrow, and heartache, and pain, and struggle, Jesus offers us hope. He offers the promise of a new creation. He offers the promise of guidance, and protection, and care. Instead of getting lost or getting trapped inside our brokenness he promises to lead us out, but we can’t allow that to make us complacent, instead it should make us courageous. We are called by the voice of the shepherd to take on the mantle of being the hands and the feet of Christ in the world. We’re called to challenge ourselves and our world to greater love, and greater inclusion.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” Jesus says. The kingdom is always bigger than the lines we draw in the sand. The kingdom is always greater than we can see. And oftentimes it’s greater even than we want it to be. That’s the point of salvation. It’s constantly expanding, it’s constantly drawing more and more people in, more and more of Creation in, and we are a part of making that happen.
We are the church, the vehicle of God’s grace in this world and we are called to follow Christ out into the world. We are human. We are vulnerable but we can be healed, and because of that we are called, to be courageous and to speak words of hope and words of healing for all the world to hear. The voice of the Good Shepherd beckons. Will you choose to follow?