The past few weeks, I’ve had a number of interesting, often dispiriting conversations. I’ve listened to homeless individuals or families who are struggling to get on their feet, gain some stability, and make new lives for themselves. I’ve talked to academics on the job market whose hopes and dreams for a tenure-track job, the goal for which they’ve been working so hard for so many years, seems little more than pie in the sky. I’ve talked to people who are hurting in all sorts of ways and grasping for something to hold onto in difficult, sometimes hopeless circumstances.
Looking a bit more broadly, we hear more and more about the increasing inequities in our society, the growing gap between the very rich and the rest of us, the lack of affordable housing, and well-paying jobs. Here in Madison and Dane County, we’ve been confronted with the vast racial inequities that include a wide gap in achievement in our schools, in economic success, in incarceration. All of this points to a fundamental reality in our nation today. That the old social compact, the notion that if one works hard, they will be able to achieve the American dream of a good job, a nice house, and a comfortable life.
Still, the symbols and myths of America as a land of opportunity and endless optimism continue to hold sway for many of us. Some of us look back to the past in nostalgia, and into the future with fear, and seek to ensure that our hopes and dreams are fulfilled, even if the dreams of others are dashed and lives ruined. Others of us are full of sadness, uncertainty, and even despair as we wonder how we might come together as a nation and world to create a society in which all can flourish.
Even a day like Mother’s Day can be fraught with conflicting emotions. For all the joy of celebrating relationships of mothers and their children, for many of us, Mother’s Day brings up other memories and emotions. Some of us grieve the loss of our mothers or children; others suffer the pain of broken relationships or wounds inflicted by our mothers or children. Some of us grieve that we aren’t or weren’t mothers and some of us are quite simply alienated from it all. Still, the saccharine platitudes of Hallmark work their power on all of us, raising our expectations, creating an unreal ideal, and reopening old wounds
Such is the power of images, in our cultural and family life, and in the church. Our scriptures today present us with two powerful, persistent, evocative, even seductive images. From Acts, we have the description of the common life of the Jerusalem community of Jesus’ followers. And from the gospel of John as well as Psalm 23, images of the good shepherd and sheep. Both of them have caught the imagination of Christians over the centuries and both of them, in their different ways, have had a profound effect on Christian communities, piety, and devotion.
The Book of Acts is the continuation of the gospel of Luke. Thematically, the two are a single work, as Luke tells the story of the spread of the Gospel and the Jesus movement from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke presents an idealized image of the history of early Christianity, in which conflict is resolved, there is clear leadership, and the Holy Spirit works powerfully to transform the lives of Jesus’ followers. Nowhere is this idealized portrait more potent than in the verses we heard today.
Some of what Luke tells us is pretty straightforward and the sort of activities we regularly engage in as a Christian community: teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. Other aspects of their common life are less familiar to us. Miracles, for example, holding all things in common. We read this account and are tempted either to use it as an unrealistic standard by which to judge our contemporary churches, or write it off as unrealistic idealism. Indeed, those two options are pretty much the way past Christians have approached this text. For some, it has proved to be an indictment of Christianity and has proved to be a model for reform. For others, the life of the church in the first chapters of Acts has no bearing whatsoever on contemporary Christianity.
One could make similar arguments about the image of the Good Shepherd. Whatever its emotional appeal in the twenty-first century, it hearkens back to an idyllic, simpler world that we can’t recover. What does the Good Shepherd have to do with the fast-paced, technologically-driven world of contemporary America?
I’d like to problematize our responses and appropriations of these images. In the first place, the Good Shepherd. For all the sweetness and pietistic emotion attached to the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, there’s another side. In Hebrew scripture, in the Jewish tradition, the image of the shepherd was not only about God’s care for us, it was also an image of political power and royalty. David, the founder of the monarchy, was called from keeping the sheep. Throughout Hebrew scripture, the monarch is depicted as a shepherd, just as God is depicted as shepherd. The two images united to form a powerful ideology that persisted long after the monarchy’s fall. By using this imagery, Jesus—and the gospel writer—are not just creating an emotional tug to the idea of God as protector and comforter, they are also offering a subtle critique of the power of Rome and reminding the gospel’s readers of who is really in charge and what the reign of God will look like.
There’s something else that’s important about this image and the larger discourse from which it comes. John 10 is not an isolated section of the gospel. It follows immediately the story of Jesus healing the man born blind and as is the case throughout the gospel, the miracle or sign is followed by an explanation of it. John 10 is that explanation. You may recall that the blind man slowly comes to understand who Jesus is through the interrogation by the authorities, who get increasingly exasperated by him. At the end of the story, the blind man comes to faith, he sees, after Jesus comes back and speaks to him. In the story, we see Jesus taking care of the blind man, first by restoring his sight, then by helping him come to faith. On another level, Jesus’ actions are a direct challenge to the religious authorities.
So by exploring the image of the Good Shepherd, the gospel is interpreting the healing story, helping us understand what happened and who Jesus is. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus offers abundant life as well as protection to his followers. As the gate, Jesus provides access to that abundant life. At the heart of it all is relationship—the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and follow him. And the contrast between the shepherd and the thieves and bandits who would seize and kill the sheep couldn’t be clearer.
Therein lies the connection between our two images, of the rustic sheepfold in John 10 and the idealized Christian community of Acts 2. Both of them are holding up to us a vision of what life under the leadership of Jesus Christ is. John calls it abundant life. And so it is. The image of the Good Shepherd is often interpreted highly individualistically—as about my relationship with Jesus, Jesus’ care and compassion, protection of me. But it is also communal. Jesus is the good shepherd of all the sheep, even some who are not of this fold.
Acts reminds us of the importance of our shared common life. We may find the notion of sharing our goods with others a bit far-fetched. This isn’t about our annual stewardship campaign, or even a capital fund drive. What Acts is describing is much more radical—shared property. And it’s pretty clear both from Acts and other sources that this wasn’t widely practiced or particularly successful in the early Church. Still it points to something quite important. Common life, shared life, does involve “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers.” It also includes the sharing of concerns, burdens, and joys. Why wouldn’t it include sharing everything?
Abundant life, life lived in the presence of God’s abundant grace, should celebrate the gifts God has given us and invite us to share as abundantly as God has shared with us. May we so experience the joy of God’s grace that we want to share it with the world.