(During the service today we baptised Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo. It was lovely to welcome them, and their families and friends, to Seal Church. )
“I am the good shepherd” says Jesus in the reading we’ve just heard. The idea of Jesus as a good shepherd is so familiar to us today that we probably don’t give it a second thought. We are very used to seeing pictures of Jesus carrying lambs – there’s one in the stained glass window behind the font, so you’ll be able to see it if you’re close enough when we baptise Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo. Of course, Jesus wasn’t a shepherd – he was a carpenter. But we understand what the image is saying. Shepherds are leaders, guiding and protecting their flock from danger, finding good grazing and water for them. That’s the point. It’s about leadership and care.
But when Jesus first likened himself to a good shepherd, and when the early Christians first wrote about him like that, it would been a real surprise and huge challenge to many people.
Imagine you were one of those early Christians, in the first few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, as his message was starting to spread around the Mediterranean. They were a mixed bunch, so if you were one of them you might have grown up in the Jewish faith, like Jesus, or you might be from a Gentile background, non-Jewish – maybe Greek or Roman.
If you were Jewish you’d have been very familiar with the idea of the leader as a shepherd. Your scriptures, the books we call the Old Testament, were full of shepherding language. It went back to that great king of Israel, King David. He’d started out as a little shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath. There’s a picture on the back of your hymn sheets to remind you of the story.
He’d learned his courage and his trust in God from being a shepherd, he said, fighting lions and bears who threatened his sheep. If you were Jewish he was the greatest leader your people had ever had, so it’s no surprise that shepherding had become a model for leadership. The scriptures even described God as a shepherd, the best shepherd of all. “The Lord is my shepherd” said the psalm we’ve just sung as a hymn. So if you came from a Jewish background it was all this imagery you had in your mind when you heard Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd.
If you were Greek or Roman, though, you’d have had images of your own to draw on. Look at the second of the images I’ve put on your sheets.At first sight it looks as if it might be Jesus, but it isn’t. It’s actually the Greek god Hermes. He was often pictured carrying a lamb, which was meant to represent your soul. Hermes was the one who carried you into the afterlife. So if you were one of those Christians who had a Greek or Roman background, this was the kind of shepherd you’d have been thinking of.
Either way – Jewish or Gentile – for Jesus to call himself the Good Shepherd sounded rather presumptuous, and it’s no wonder that those who were opposed to him found it hard to stomach. Who did he think he was? Another King David, a god like Hermes? To many he was just an upstart young carpenter from a backwater of Israel, and one who had ended up crucified for his impertinence. And wasn’t that the final proof that he was a pretty useless leader? How could God be with him and have blessed him if he had ended up dead on a cross?
But his followers stubbornly kept walking in his footsteps anyway, proclaiming that he had risen from the dead, that the cross had not been the end of the story. Whatever they understood and meant by that, the fact that they were so convinced of it – convinced enough to die for preaching it – tells us that they’d experienced something pretty powerful. As far as they were concerned he was still very much with them, and he was a leader worth following. They were convinced too that his way was a good way, a way that led to life – the way of a good shepherd. The shepherd imagery and language they’d grown up with was the natural way of reflecting that for them.
The third picture on the sheet, from around the time Christianity was eventually accepted by the Romans is very similar to the Hermes statue, but is probably meant to be Christ.And by the fifth century the transformation is complete.
In the mosaic from Ravenna the shepherd has grown a halo and carries a cross – this is obviously Jesus.
Anyway – that is the history lesson over. Why does any of this matter? Why, especially, does it matter when we come to baptise Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo?
It matters because one of the biggest worries any parent has – and I speak as a mum myself – is about who and what our children are going to be led by, what will influence them and what direction their lives will take as a result. Like all of us, they will be surrounded by a thousand voices calling to them, beckoning them, driving them this way and that. There will be the voices of the media – traditional and new. There will be politicians and campaigners and advertisers. Buy probably still the strongest influence of all will come from their peers. Peer pressure is as old as the hills, but has lost none of its power. People generally want to fit in with those around them, to do what their friends do.
We might like to think we are rational, independent people who carve out our own path through the world, but the truth is that we all follow leaders of one sort or another, and so will our children. And we know that. What matters is that as far as we can, we make a conscious choice, for ourselves and for them, about which of those voices we will pay heed to, which paths to follow, so that we, and they, don’t just end up drifting along, trailing after whoever sounds loudest or most superficially attractive.
Baptism is a service with a host of meanings. It speaks of God’s love for each of us, of his promise that nothing can destroy that love. It reminds us that we are part of a family, wider than our own family, the family of God. But parents who come to me to ask for baptism for their children often tell me that an important reason for them is that they want to set them on a good road, to give them a good path to follow. In a moment I’ll ask these children’s parents and godparents “Do you turn to Christ?” I’ll ask them to choose their direction of travel, to choose what they are heading towards. I’ll ask them to put behind them whatever it is that blocks that path, sin and evil, the things that weigh us down. I will ask them to make these promises not just for the children, but for themselves as well, because we can’t take others where we haven’t been ourselves.
Walking that path isn’t easy; listening for the voice of the shepherd, in the midst of all those other voices around us, isn’t simple. We can’t just say the say the right words, learn the rituals, wear a cross and think we’ve got it all done and dusted. We can’t just do the things that Christians have done in the past, parrot their beliefs and understanding, and assume that will be fine either. There’s wisdom to be found in old ways, but every generation of Christians has to find out anew what following Christ means for them as they face the questions and challenges of their own time.
But if we aren’t sure of the way ahead we can be sure that the way of Christ is a way of love, which leads to people growing in love. It’s a way of justice, which gives priority to those at the bottom of the heap, who need it most. It is a way of service, not one in which we cling anxiously to our own status and security. If we hear a voice calling to us and it’s not calling us towards those things, if it is calling us towards a life that is smaller, meaner, less loving, then whatever it is, it isn’t the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Today, we pray for Mylo, Lyra and Ottilie. We pray that they’ll learn to pick out the voice of Jesus from the babble of all those other things that will call to them, so that they can follow a path that leads to abundant life, full of the love and joy that God wants for them. It’s worth the effort, worth the risk, taking that journey, because along the way there are green pastures, still waters, comfort and strength in the dark valleys too. And they will be welcomed and loved by the Good Shepherd, with a place at his table, whatever happens to them, whatever they do. And God’s promise is that the same is true for all of us.