In one of the shortest gospels, the Lord says ‘My sheep hear my voice.’ He speaking about us. How many of you feel really good about being called sheep. It is not that we do not compare ourselves to animals. We say – he works like a horse. He is as busy as a beaver. Or he is a bull of a man or a bull in a china shop, or he eats like a horse, strong as an ox, a lone wolf, a stubborn goat. But sheep? Sheep seem helpless, codependent. They are not rugged individualists. They are lost if they are not led. Yet Christ calls us His sheep. He does not call us His wolves or bulls or horses but His sheep. What’s behind this?
One of the earliest depictions of Christ is as the Good Shepherd. He is shown as a young man carrying a lamb around His neck. But what is very important is where this earliest image of the Good Shepherd is found. It is found in the catacombs. A place you associate with death. And it says something about the faith of the early Christians. They saw in Christ, the most complete answer to death. He is the Good Shepherd, because only he can rescue us from power of death. Centuries before Christ, the beautiful psalm shows this connection between the Good Shepherd and death ‘If I should walk in the ravine of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For you are there with your club and your staff and these are comforting to me.’
My brothers and sisters, we may flatter ourselves that we are strong, resilient, courageous, indestructible, independent. But when it comes to death and sin we are totally helpless. Human strength, human will power, human ingenuity is as nothing before this wall. We have never found and will never find a cure for these dark realities – sin and death. Death terrified ancient people because it always was a drop off the precipice. One moment you were alive and vital –the next moment dead. With our superior medical systems death is less and less a drop off the precipice and more of a slow slide down a slope. But the end point is the same – death. This is one disease they will never find a cure for. And before death we are helpless. We do not know the way out or if there is a way out. We are like sheep, helplessly milling around and unless Someone shows us the way forward we are lost. Only Christ has found the way through. That is why we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter in the time of resurrection.
Out of curiosity I checked on the various symbols for the ancient gods. Gods our early Christian forbears would have worshipped before they converted to Christ. I looked to see what they saw in their gods. Jupiter had the lightning bolt, the golden eagle, the oak tree. Neptune, the sea god his trident. Pluto the god of the underworld, his helmet of darkness and his three headed guard dog. Mars the war god, his blood stained spear, the wild boar and the vulture. Apollo, the sun and the lyre and the bow and arrow. Thor the Norse god his hammer. All impressive symbols but if you look closely the common thread running through them is power. Not much has changed you know. Look at what we worship today. Look at our idols – our sports idols, our beautiful stars, our business tycoons, our military heroes. Power and glory still attracts us. Now contrast this with Christ. How does the Bible depict Him? He is the Lamb of God. Our second reading calls Him, the Lamb that was slain. Not power but powerlessness. How strange.
When you ask man to conjure up a god, he conjures a powerful god. When the God who made heaven and earth reveals Himself – He is the lamb that was slain for us. It is so counter intuitive that it’s got to be true. Only God could think like this. Man thinks of power. But God is about love. God all powerful, all mighty, the Pantocrator comes among us as the lamb that was slain for us. None of the ancient gods took on death. They occupied a deathless realm removed from out troubled one. They were there and we were here and the great chasm of death separated us. They did not know death from the inside. But Christ took on our flesh so that He could take on our death and thus conquer death for our sake. Only the Lamb that was slain can be the Good Shepherd for us. Only He who knows death from the inside and who rose from the dead can lead us out of the valley of death. But are we ready to be sheep again?
Are we ready to follow? My sheep hear my voice. Whose voice do we hear? Is it the voice of our own pride or do we truly seek to hear the voice of Christ – in His Word, in His Church, in the voice of our conscience. Do we listen or is our internal noise drowning out this quiet voice?
Following Christ is again a counter intuitive thing. Human maturity is a matter of becoming more independent. We grow up and leave behind our childish dependence and take responsibility for our actions and our future. No one expects a 50 year old to behave as a 5 year old. But the life in Christ is the reverse, we mature into spiritual adults only by becoming childlike and dependent on Christ. Without me you can do nothing – He has told us this. It does not flatter our ego but it is true. Now the bulls, the horses, the wolves cannot understand this. But the sheep do. They know only Christ can save us. They put aside their pride and humble themselves to follow Him alone.