Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sheep again, that well-worn metaphor. The Bible tells of countless flocks and many working shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, and the shepherds of Bethlehem. The image of a shepherd tending a flock (the latter a frequent stand-in for the people of Israel) recurs often. In the Old Testament, shepherd imagery may point to God, the promised Messiah, or human leaders appointed by God: prophets, priests, and kings. Some of those human shepherds are said to have scattered their sheep, as in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34. In such passages, a worthy shepherd is typically promised to gather from the scattered remnants a new, well cared for flock.
Sheep, as I’ve noted in previous lectionary reflections, are not intelligent. Left alone, they wander off, get into tight spots, tumble over cliffs, and fall to predators. After centuries of human-directed selection and husbandry, whatever survival skills wild sheep began with have long since been bred out of their descendants. To be called “the sheep of his flock” is no compliment.
Even so, this week’s readings might tempt us to smug self-recognition, as if, after a perfunctory admission of past stupidities, we are now undoubtedly the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice and will soon enough stand in the presence of the enthroned Lamb (who is, paradoxically, the eternal shepherd). It’s tempting to see those flock-scattering shepherds as someone the other: first century Jewish leaders, members of other churches and denominations, clergy or theologians whose actions or convictions we find appalling. It’s tempting to imagine we know who is and who isn’t on the right side of salvation history. We may well be among the sheep who listen, and we may fervently hope to one day stand before the Lamb, but the smugness and certainty must go.
Christians remain a visibly scattered flock, broken into dispersed remnants, each remembering something of the shepherd’s voice – its cadences, timbre, or modulation – and hoping we’ve got the important parts right. These wooly bands have, perhaps, stumbled closer together over the last century, but we are not yet one.
Therein lies another temptation: imagining that we, the sheep, can organize or force ourselves back into a single flock, as if we have the intelligence to plan such a thing, the power to make it happen, or the imagination to envision what unity – rather than uniformity – would look like. The sacrificed Lamb may be the eternal shepherd, but we are, and remain for the foreseeable future, mere sheep.
I have a dear friend who was chrismated as a child in the Orthodox faith, traveled awhile in Evangelical circles through early adulthood, and is once again immersed in the Orthodoxy of his youth, though with a generous ecumenical vision gained through encounters with Christians from various traditions. He and I were engaged in another of our discussions about East-West unity when he prefaced a reply with the phrase, “If unity is what God wills for us…” I was struck by the conditionality in his words, the “if” rather than “because.”
“Of course God wills us to be one,” I thought. Jesus says as much in John 17:21. But the temptation – for me at least – is to imagine I know my role in that reunification or that I might help restore unity in ways I can understand and direct. I want to be one of those sheep that organizes the others. As if such socially adept sheep existed. As if mere sheep can choose to be shepherd.
I am a sheep. My task is to feed on the lush or barren pastures to which the shepherd chooses to lead me. My task is to listen – first and foremost for the voice of the shepherd, but also for the bleating of my fellow sheep, whether in my own little band, a neighboring one, or a group just over the crest of the hill, whom I’d imagined lost forever. There are other sheep who’ve forgotten the voice entirely, though the shepherd remembers them. Their bleating is no less coherent than mine. They’re not a problem to be solved. They, too, are beloved. My task is to be patient, to wait on the shepherd’s voice.
I’m not giving up on working for Christian unity. I may have some small role to play in that mystery, but it will not be of my choosing nor will its result be the fruit of my doing. Whatever unity awaits – on either side of the eschaton – will almost certainly come as a surprise. I’ll likely find it disappointing at first, as if God’s fullness should conform to my expectations. In the end, those who long for unity may need to acquire a taste for the real thing.
For now, though, I feed on the good Word, on the gift of prayer, and on the many graces I’ve been granted. I listen for the call of other sheep, even those with whom I sincerely disagree. They may know something of the shepherd’s voice I’ve forgotten or ignored. They can help me to hear that voice rightly, or at least better than I hear it now.
For them, O Lord, teach me to be truly grateful, and let me graze in your green meadows awhile longer. I’m a slow learner. I am a sheep.