From beyond death and the empty tomb, the risen Lord says to us—“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd hanging above my desk, and whenever I look up I meet the eyes of the Lord looking back at me with anxious concern. He stands amidst his little flock with a staff grasped firmly in his hand and a little lamb lying across his shoulders. And in spite of the pretty flowers blooming around his feet and the curtain of heavenly gold behind him, this Shepherd is all business. He is aware that the wolf pack is lurking somewhere nearby, and he is ready. His face is beautiful, as beautiful as the artist can make it, but his expression is intensely watchful and deeply worried.
To this his sheep make a lively contrast. They have the clueless, vacant expression that sheep really do have. They look stupid—there’s no way around it–but at the same time there is in their eyes a sullen glint of willfulness. These sheep are, in every possible way, trouble. The Shepherd can never completely manage them, but he can never abandon them either. He is burdened by their vulnerability. Their utter dependency renders him vulnerable. They are a big nuisance, but Shepherd and sheep are bound together by the unbreakable promise deeper than words.
It is easy to get soppy over the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd—but if you consider the situation of the church that produced my Coptic icon, sentimentality melts away in the harsh light of its context. The Coptic Orthodox community that produced my icon is presently living under terrible stress. It is a very ancient branch of Christianity. When Muslim armies overran Egypt in AD 639, they found a land that was overwhelmingly Christian, with already ancient traditions. By the year AD 1400, however, under the pressure of Arab immigration and gradual conversion to Islam, Egypt had become a predominantly Muslim country.
The Christianity did not die out, however. It did what the Christian faith always does where it is a minority—it kept its head down and endured. So Coptic Christianity lived side by side with Islam for centuries, isolated from the western Church, with its own liturgical and artistic traditions and its own pope. Its churches kept a low profile. Its women covered their heads. A few Copts prospered, but most remained poor, part of a distinctly second-class minority, subject to discrimination but reluctantly tolerated. At present the population of Egypt remains twenty percent Coptic Christian.
Lately, however, with the growth of Islamic fundamentalism the Copts have become the focus of growing oppression and violence in their own country. Their churches have been looted and burned by angry mobs while Egyptian police looked on. Coptic women and girls have been kidnapped and forced to convert and marry Moslem men. Essentially, it is a form of legalized enslavement. This pattern—conversion by abduction–is becoming an all too familiar one in Africa and the Middle East. Since under Egyptian law returning to Christianity after conversion to Islam is punishable by death, this is simply a form of legalized enslavement. The Egyptian economy is a mess. To escape persecution and unemployment at home, many Copts have immigrated, seeking jobs. Recently twenty-one young Coptic men, who had gone to Libya seeking work in the oilfields, were captured by Islamic militants connected to ISIS. In video produced by the Islamic State and disseminated online shows them being beheaded as they called out to the “Lord Jesus Christ.” Their only crime was their confession of faith. No wonder Jesus Good Shepherd in my Coptic Christian icon looks worried.
I’m deeply worried too, beloved. What will be the end of all this? I imagine that question has occurred to you as well. The direction of the world is taking is certainly beyond the control of any human being. No nation or organization of nations seems capable of keeping the wolf pack at bay. The sheep are helpless. The wolves are also essentially helpless—that’s what makes them so very vicious. But when I contemplate the icon above my desk, it also speaks a word of comfort in the midst of world that seems to be dissolving into chaos. It isn’t a word of easy comfort—it’s complicated comfort. But it is all the comfort we are going to get. And it is enclosed in those words the risen Lord speaks to us—“I am the good shepherd.”
In the Book of Exodus when he encounters Moses “beyond the wilderness,” the LORD introduces himself as “I am who I am.” (The wonderful story of Moses’ dialogue with the burning bush is found in the third chapter of Exodus.) The Name is a little circular sentence, a description and not really a name in any usual sense. (I suppose that’s because God, one and only from all eternity, had no one else to name him. He named himself. He could have called himself anything, of course, but when we name ourselves we always end up describing ourselves somehow–I am a husband. I am a brother. I am a lineman for the county.) Grammatically “I am who I am” might be rendered equally well as “I was who I was” and “I will be who I will be”—the tense of Hebrew verbs must be discovered from their context and this one has no context. So it is left intentionally ambivalent. Eternal, God also reveals himself in time. It is an assertion of the speaker’s present existence, but it carries with it the assertion that he has always been—that there never was a past without him–and the assurance that he will always be present, and that he will have more to say about himself. And he does—much, much more.
In Hebrew the Name that isn’t really a name is pronounced “Yahweh.” (The King James Bible mistranslates it “Jehovah.”) The Book of Exodus says that Moses received the Name shoeless and in awe before a bush that “was burning, but yet was not consumed”—a symbol of God’s overwhelming, inexhaustible glory. This Name was never intended to be bandied about carelessly. It had about it a dangerous spiritual radio-activity, a holiness that could be fatal to the reckless and the absent-minded. (1 Chronicles 13:9-10 presents us with a vivid illustration of what can happen to those who deal carelessly with holy things.) Indeed, the Name was so sacred that God-fearing Jews used a number of circumlocutions to avoid pronouncing it—the LORD, the Almighty, God Most High. In the Old Testament, God is the sum of all of those names, but he is also something more than all of them combined–the eternal stranger.
For us Jesus Christ is the something more God has to say for himself. In him the eternal stranger “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). So when in the Gospel of John Jesus of reveals his identity to disciples, he uses that little sacred sentence from Exodus—I am—and then he adds to it a number of predicates: I am the Bread of Life; I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; I am the Light of the World; I am the True Vine; I am the Good Shepherd. Jesus is identifying himself with the eternal “I am” who met Moses in the burning bush. But at the same time Jesus makes that identification concrete for us. He says exactly how he is God for us–I am your Good Shepherd.
It takes a very great artist—a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio–to raise the objects of our worship above the sentimental. I suppose we are all to blame—we human beings are always uneasy in the presence of the holy. We should be. It is, after all, a dangerous thing. And for self-protection we have a tendency to prettify and render harmless the objects of our worship. And if I look at my Coptic icon objectively, I can see how the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd has been made just a little schmaltzy.
There was, however, nothing soppy or romantic about the situation of shepherds in Jesus’ time. As a class they ranked very low indeed. The work of itinerants, without home or family, shepherding was something no one did unless he had to. It was a job for the least and the poorest and for the youngest. To get them out of the house, young boys were sometimes sent out to tend sheep, like David in the Old Testament. Some shepherds were cowardly and dishonest, others faithful and brave. And they needed to be brave, because the job was dangerous. There were the wild beasts to contend with. There were, the proverbial wolves of course, and in that time the Asiatic lion had not as yet been hunted to the edge of extinction. Then there were the human rustlers as well. The sheep were prey to everything and everyone. The shepherd’s was a life of a thousand hardships and alarms.
So when the risen Lord says—“I am the Good Shepherd”—he is not only identifying himself with the least and lowliest members of society. He is also taking on the burden of the outcast who shares the life of the flock he tends. He shares their perils and their hardships. He thirsts when they are thirsty. When they are hungry and cold he hungers and shivers. The Shepherd is with them.
That is who God is for us, beloved. The theological formulas we commonly use to talk about him are only that, words with no actual relevance for our everyday lives. It is the Risen Lord–the ‘I am with you”—who is God for us. In his words and actions, and particularly in the cross to which his courage and faithfulness brought him, our experience of God is summed up. And cross is the single fact about God that cannot be erased. According to the gospels Christ’s resurrection did not remove the hideous evidences of his execution. All the witnesses make a point of saying that he rose with torn hands and feet. So we see God most clearly as a suffering and abiding God, the Good Shepherd who lives with his sheep, suffers and dies with his sheep, and then leads them through the passage from death to life again.
This is what we most desperately need, beloved–a Good Shepherd who is with us in every circumstance of our lives, but especially in our most gruesome and desperate ones. So the most essential gospel—the best cheering good news for us–is enclosed in that long, elegant sentence from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39)
The apostle’s conviction based upon his own experience—that nothing whatsoever can detach us from the loving care of the Good Shepherd. Sometimes our feelings run counter to that assertion. We feel separated from everything–unworthy, empty, discouraged, perplexed,
afraid, altogether alone and strangers even to ourselves—helpless, like swimmers caught in the rip current of our emotions.
Here in Florida we all know about rip currents, those narrow, powerful channels of fast moving water—stronger than any swimmer—that run parallel to our beaches. Those who get caught in them, terrified by their relentless force, often try to swim straight back to shore and risk being worn out in the struggle and drown. Lifeguards rescue thousands of people each year, but many who could be saved still perish because they fight against the power of the current instead of going with it and swimming back to the land at an angle.
There is a rip current of despair that runs through the universe, beloved. All of us, at one time or another, have felt its terrifying strength, but some people, like helpless swimmers, get caught in that cold, dark current and cannot escape. Their feelings of emptiness overwhelm everything else. Self-destruction seems the only escape from a force they cannot resist. Consequences mean nothing to those caught in this current. The effects of their decisions will have upon those who are left behind mean nothing. Nothing means anything. The terrible strength of that rip-current carries them away from everything—even themselves.
But it cannot separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Good Shepherd. Nothing can. No one of us can really comprehend the depth of that emptiness to which human beings can descend. The only one who can is Jesus, the Good Shepherd who, as he was dying, cried out—My God, My God, why have you forsaken me! The Lord comprehends our emptiness and despair completely, and he with us no matter where we go—as the Apostle Paul says, neither “height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He is with us. No sorrow is too great or too trivial for him to share.
On the way home from church the other Sunday we saw the end of a sad little drama being played out. A large tortoise-shell cat was lying in the street. It had just been hit by a passing car. The cat’s owner, a young woman, was standing next to the street still in her pink pajamas with her hands over her mouth, shaking her head back and forth in sorrow and disbelief. A little boy was standing next to her, looking up at the woman and then at the cat, lying motionless in the street, his mouth open and his eyes wide, trying to understand what had just happened. And the woman—I suppose she was the boy’s mother though she hardly looked old enough—was shouting at every car that passed—“Don’t hit my cat. Oh, please, please don’t hit my cat.” Too late for that, of course. The tortoise-shell cat was already as dead as dead can be. All that was alive—and it so very much alive that it swallowed up everything else—was her terrible, aching sense of loss.
The memory of that little scene hasn’t left me. I can recall it now as clearly if it were taking place right now before my eyes. And it is—all around us, beloved. It is possible for us to imagine that young woman’s grief at losing her pet, but it is not possible for us to share it. Some sorrows are vast and seemingly, others are sharp and brief, but you and I can never reach another person’s center where those griefs live. But only Christ the Good Shepherd lives to live them with us.
There are a lot of the people, very good, intelligent people, who look at a world of suffering and doubt God’s existence. If he does exist why doesn’t he step do something about the terrible things that we see happening? They call out to someone to change the course of things. “Don’t hit my cat,” the young woman in pink pajamas cries. “Oh, please, please don’t hit my cat.” But the cars keep going by. I have a lot of sympathy for the doubter, because I share those doubts and questionings. But our problem isn’t with God, beloved, but with our expectations of God. In order to see his glory we have to recognize his limitations. Yes, God does indeed have limitations, in spite of the formulas we have learned. He suffers with us and struggles with us against the multitudinous evils that surround us. He is the Good Shepherd, not the Great Fixer.
Who is your God anyway? It is a question we need to continually ask ourselves. There is a whole class of fanatics out there who feel that it is up to them to protect the honor and glory of God and his prophets by sacrificing their own lives and the lives of others. It is the most absurd and pathetic of all delusions. What do they think they can protect God from, when the worst thing imaginable has already happened to God—and is even now happening? “I am who I am” suffers with the universe he created and dies with the world to which he revealed himself. The whole truth about God is enclosed in the cross of Jesus Christ. There are an ocean of words about God, about his mercy and his glory. You could drown in that ocean of words, and many people do. But in the end there is nothing that is worth saying about God except the words of the risen Christ speaks to us– “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.”