By the Reverend Dr. Warren Crews
The second common symbol was the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, usually with a lamb slung over his shoulder. This symbol was often painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs. All this changed dramatically, when the Roman general Constantine became emperor, and declared himself a Christian. He ended the use of the cross for crucifixions, and declared it to be the preferred symbol for Christianity. Even so, it took a long time for most Christians to embrace this once hated symbol of Roman terrorism. They hung onto the Good Shepherd symbol as long as they could, but in the end the Cross won out.
Today a growing number of people are once again uncomfortable with the Cross as Christianity's symbol, because they associate it with violence and death, as opposed to the peaceful, life-giving Good Shepherd, the subject of today's gospel lesson. One person who would have been perplexed by such a discussion is St. Paul. His writings are full of references to the Cross, and none about the Good Shepherd. In fact, Paul said that he was determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. For Paul, the Cross overthrew the world's understanding of wisdom and power. So--why was the Good Shepherd imagery so popular in early Christianity? Where did it come from? It is primarily found in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John. The Christian communities founded by the apostle John treasured this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who would do anything to rescue a wayward sheep. And, it is still easy for most Christians to identify with such a Good Shepherd. The peaceful symbol of shepherds and sheep seems such an appropriate symbol for a religion that emphasizes sacrificial love, rather than power and violence. Yet, for most of us the Cross also remains such an integral part of our Christian identity. Is there any way we can hang onto both symbols, the Cross and the Good Shepherd as legitimate, compatible expressions of Christianity?
Perhaps, one way to do that is to notice what John has to say about the character of the true shepherd of our souls. The Good Shepherd is the one who is forever ready to protect his sheep at all costs. The Good Shepherd escorts the flock through the valley of the shadow of death, as we are told in Psalm 23, which was surely behind the imagery of chapter 10. For us, what a powerful image the Good Shepherd is during this pandemic, when so many are risking their lives for all of us! Throughout the Gospel of John, we find Jesus as being referred to as the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will himself also become the Passover Lamb, who gives his life to save his people. Today, with so many heroic first responders putting their own lives in great danger to save those infected by the virus, are they not very visible reminders of the power of Jesus’ sacrificial love.
So, my friends, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, it is good for us to hold all those images together. Our Good Shepherd, who guides and cares for us, who comes looking for us when we stray, is the very same Lamb, who gave his life that the whole world might not perish, but have everlasting life. This Good Shepherd is also Christ the King, who comes in power to set us free from all that oppresses us. All of these symbols are truly gospel—truly great good news. I invite you to rejoice in this gospel gladness, and to share it with anyone who will listen. Alleluia! Amen.
The Reverend Dr. Warren Crews is co-priest in charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org