April 17th, 2016
Sheep aren’t all that smart. That’s the word I’ve heard from people who raise them and take care of them. Border collies, that herd sheep, are so smart they actually scare people. Horses are pretty smart, and they seem to have feelings and ideas of their own about things. They definitely have personalities. But sheep—the best thing you can say about sheep is that they are useful. They produce wool, they taste good on Easter, and they are pretty cute when they’re little, like most mammals. But to say that we are sheep, the sheep of the Lord, as if the Lord is our shepherd, is actually insulting if you think about it. Sheep are dumb animals, frightened, bleating, always huddling together being scared of everything. And sometimes, they’re really cute—but most of the time they smell. And then to say that Jesus—our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Pantokrator and Autobasileia, is a Lamb!
"Silly," "stupid," "irrational," "simple." "Wicked," "hateful," "obstinate," "anti-social." "Extravagant," "perverse." “Incestuous cannibals.” “Atheists.” Those are just some of the things people called the early Christians. Christians were a strange group, at first Jews, and then, after the Temple was destroyed, a progressively trans-ethnic coalition of people who believed the same Scriptures as the Jews, but with a different interpretation. They were sheep—just like the right-wingers call liberals, they were ‘sheeple’, believing in nonsense, engaged in questionable ethical activity. According to the ethos of the Roman era, the Christians were deficient because they didn’t have a hereditary priesthood, because people mingled together from different economic strata, because they refused to acknowledge the existence of any god but theirs, because, and don’t underestimate this, men had to change the way they acted toward women. They had strict ethical codes, many of which seemed to press against the social mores of the day. You see this in Jesus’ life all the time: he ate with whom? He talked with whom? He did what?
We should remember that context when we speak about the letter of Revelation. It was issued to people who were perplexing to the public at large, sometimes reviled, occasionally even killed. And, sometimes, they were blamed by the Emperors for causing trouble and slaughtered-like sheep. It wasn’t easy being a Christian. There were real questions to be asked: what if another Christian betrayed his church, and people died because of it? Could he come back to the fellowship, have a change of heart? What about the folks who gave in and offered incense to the Emperor in order to escape the punishment of the state, while others got thrown in jail or worse? Revelation is a letter to people wondering things like these, and telling them to hold on, that despite their failings, or the failings of some of them, the Lord is faithful. You can imagine those ancient communities later receiving the Gospel of John, and hearing the words of Jesus, and being comforted: My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. No one will snatch them out of my hand. The message of the letter of Revelation is that suffering will come; the path of commitment is hard; stand firm, and follow the Lamb, who saves the world.
The Lamb calls to us—Jesus speaks to us. These churches in the seven cities of the book of Revelation had heard his voice, and they trusted their Lamb, their shepherd. They listened to his voice. The sheep know the shepherd, and they listen to his voice, to his instructions, his songs. Christ is a lamb because he is not a shepherd who does not know what it is like to be sheep, but knows us intimately, all our weaknesses and our sins, and yet tenderly cares for us. The heard him, and they trusted him, and it was not easy—not all the name callings, the imprisonments, and even the occasional killings. They stood firm, as the world around them swirled in the struggles of power and reputation and honor and wealth—they stood and they pointed to their shepherd and said, “To him belongs the glory, and honor, and power, and might—to the Lamb! That dumb little sheep, savior of the world.”
Who can stand? In prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose day on the church calendar is April 9th asked this question. He well knew that evil has a good face—all our good impulses and intentions are not immune to it. He said, “The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion. That evil should appear in the form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, social justice is absolutely bewildering for one coming from the world of ethical concepts we have received. For the Christian who lives the by the Bible, it is the very confirmation of the abysmal wickedness of evil.” He was writing, of course, about the Nazi and fascist catchwords, but about more than that. He was warning the church about the trap of falling into the values of the time and saying that these values are the values of God. There is no good thing we humans create that is not also infected by evil—no achievement of social justice that does not bring with it another frontier of justice, no historical achievement that does not hide another historical inhumanity. No clearer example this did Bonhoeffer need save the example most readily available: the Reich coopted all the noble impulses of the people, and bent them to its will.
So, he wrote, “Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.” In other words, a sheep. The person who has a response to this world, in all its evil, in all its ways of raging, is the one whom the shepherd knows, and the one that listens to the shepherds voice.
And for us and for our example, we have Christ. Where we falter and fall, Christ stands fast. Jesus failed at social justice work, regime change, and as faithful as he was to the law, he was not a fanatic, and as much as he scorned Rome, he was not a fanatic. But the one who made the world gave himself to the world, and stood fast in his promise to save the world. He is our shepherd, and he holds us fast. Nothing can take us from his hand. Amen.
The Rev. John Flack