To be called a sheep is not a very flattering thing. It is a term usually used when referring to a person who doesn’t think for themselves but just blindly follows everyone else. Sadly this is often how people see Christians – as sheep. People who blindly follow a religion without thinking for themselves.
People who have been brainwashed to blindly accept teachings from a book written thousands of years ago that has no relevance today. I’m sure you’ve heard that reference before and maybe have even been called a sheep yourself for believing in God.
When you see sheep in a paddock you can understand why they have that image of blindly following. The shepherd just has to get one or two sheep going a certain way and the rest will follow. You’ll even see that if one sheep jumps an imaginary fence that the rest will also jump that fence which is not there. But is that the image of sheep that Jesus wants us to have of ourselves as he calls himself our Good Shepherd?
Is Jesus calling himself our Shepherd because he expects us to blindly follow him without any thought process? Not at all. That’s not the image that Jesus is wanting to portray by calling himself our Shepherd and we his sheep. The relationship of Shepherd and his sheep is one of trust.
Listen to how Jesus interacts with Peter when he restores him as his Apostle. Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
Jesus’ concern for us was not that we blindly followed him but that we were cared for and nurtured. Shepherds were often considered to be at the bottom of the rung of success in Jesus’ time – hence the continuing humble birth when the angels first appear to Shepherds to tell of Jesus’ birth.
But listen to David when he is begging to be given the opportunity to fight Goliath. He calls on his credentials as a Shepherd when speaking to King Saul: David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; all to protect his sheep.
And Jesus too talks about us as sheep and his care and concern for us when he is prepared to walk away from everything to come and find us
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.
Does that sound like a God who just wants us to blindly follow him with no regard at all for us? Or then we have today’s explanation by Jesus of what it means to be our Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Being sheep is nothing about us – it is all about Jesus being our shepherd. He lays down HIS life for us.
That’s what he did on Good Friday – he laid down his life for us in order that we may be raised to new life as he was when we die.
This relationship of sheep and shepherd is about the shepherds love and devotion to us and not about any expectation on us to blindly follow and be subservient to him. And that’s exactly what John said in our 2nd reading:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us. Jesus greatest concern is for those who do not put their faith and trust in him because no one cares for us like God who created us. Jesus calls them “the hired hands” – people who have no vested interest in us so they protect only themselves and at the first sign of trouble they leave us for dead: The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
It’s all about “care”. And our first reading from Acts is very clear what that care all about – it’s about our eternal life. Jesus came as our Good Shepherd to lead us home to our eternal life in Heaven as he lays down his life for us – as God made him who had no sin to become our sin so that we might become his righteousness. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And that is confirmed also by our Psalm today: Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
As we journey through life it is very easy to be led astray by false shepherds. We follow the almighty dollar. We follow our careers. We follow our possessions – believing these will bring us hope and security.
What these do is that they can make us quite selfish – thinking of ourselves – just like the hired hand. In times of trouble, false shepherds are no help – they flee at first chance; Our careers, our money, our possessions – these are useless when we are confronting serious life and death issues.
But Jesus laid down his life for us so we can be assured of eternal life through him.
Being a sheep also means being a part of a community, a herd. Community is where we find support and security particularly during those times of concern and insecurity, which we all face. When Peter sank while walking on the water because of his concerns over the wind and the waves – Jesus took his hand and placed him back in the boat with the other disciples.
When the Good Shepherd found the lost sheep he carried him home – back to the flock of sheep. Sheep know that they need other sheep, desperately – because their very lives depend on it. That’s why they follow the shepherd because they know that they are safe in his hands.
Likewise, God places us within communities of faith to strengthen our faith and also to use us to strengthen one another. As John said in our 2nd reading: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
I have no problem being called a sheep. Just like I have no problem when people say that my Christian faith is a crutch. Even though it’s intended as an insult that’s exactly what my faith is. We use a crutch when we are hurt and need support. Your rod and your staff – they comfort me. We don’t blindly follow a religion as Christians – we follow our Good Shepherd because he has promised to take us home with him to heaven.
So let us not be ashamed to be called sheep in following Jesus for there is no other name by which we can be saved.