After the resurrection of Jesus not only are we confirmed siblings of Jesus—we learned last week—but Jesus redefines what it means to be a friend in Christ.
Good, healthy religion helps us recognize and recover God’s imagein everything. It is to mirror things correctly, deeply, and fully until all things know who they truly are.Whenever I hold up a mirror to myself there’s no hiding the image of myself that I see. The mirror conveys truth, whether it makes me feel good or not.
Christ the Shepherd Sunday—normally recognized on the Fourth Sunday of Easter every year—is about our image of Jesus, indeed our image of God. What is our image of God? How do we envision, imagine, God, in Christ Jesus?
One way we understand our image of God is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and the church. Not that we are God. But we reflect God’s image, as the creation story from Genesis declares. We might not be altogether and always pleased by what we see.
Well, what image does the Gospel reveal about the ‘Good Shepherd’? Let’s start there. The first thing I’d point out is what the image of ‘Good Shepherd’ doesn’t suggest.
Often we fall into the trap of romanticizing our friendships in the church or as Christians. The Good Shepherd image can indeed lead us astray when it blurs the boundaries in caring relationships. That is, we strive to be ‘nice’ at the expense of being truthful. When caring means avoiding difficult yet necessary conversations. When caring means overstepping emotional boundaries and forgetting how responsibility is shared in a healthy relationship. When caring means side-stepping a challenge because we are pre-occupied by pleasing others at all cost.
Unfortuanately the ‘Good Shepherd’ image of God can keep the church stuck in this romanticized picture of Christian relationships.
And who are these sheep? “I just wanna be a sheep Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba” we like to sing with the children. The image of sheep, on the surface, suggests that the sheep are all alike. That the church ought to be populated with like-minded individuals who all conform to the same beliefs and behaviour. To be part of the sheep pen, you all need to be the same.
Yet, the truth is far from this idealistic, romanticized view. The truth is that no individual creature on this earth – whether animal, plant, human, geological – is perfectly identical to another. Each of the sheep under the care of the shepherd has unique attributes unlike any other.
What is more, from the stories of the Gospels about sheep and Jesus the Shepherd, we see that Jesus will go after the one sheep who does not conform.We have called this story, “The Lost Sheep”. But I would see this story as part of the larger Gospel theme pointing to the resurrected Christ who honours and celebrates the wonderful differences in our humanity. It’s our uniqueness that reflects a healthy religion and community, not the pressure to conform. In recognizing our diversity, then, we can truly celebrate our unity in Christ.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”The Good Shepherd is all about including others who for whatever reason are different.
Brian McLaren, Christian writer, theologian and pastor, shares a story about making true friendships in Christ – not a utilitarian friendship (what’s in it for me?) nor the religious version of ‘network marketing’ (how can I peddle my wares?). He writes about making a genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbours into knowing, appreciating, being curious about, liking and enjoying another person in all their uniqueness. One of the most dramatic of these friendships began in the aftermath of 9/11/2001:
“Like a lot of churches,” Mclaren writes, “our little congregation held a prayer service. While praying, I felt a voice speaking, as it were, in my chest: Your Muslim neighbours are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them.The next morning, I wrote and made copies of a letter extending, belatedly, friendship toward Muslim communities in my area, and offering solidarity and help if simmering anti-Muslim sentiments should be translated into action. I drove to the three mosques nearby—I had never visited them before—and tried to deliver my letter in person. . . .
“[At the third mosque,] I clumsily introduced myself [to the imam] as the pastor from down the street . . . I then handed him my letter, which he opened and read as I stood there awkwardly. I remember the imam, a man short in stature, slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up into my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were more moist.
“Suddenly, he threw his arms around me—a perfect stranger. . . . I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother. . . . My host welcomed me not with hostility or even suspicion, but with the open heart of a friend. And so that day a friendship began between an Evangelical pastor named Brian and a Muslim imam we’ll call Ahmad. . . .”
Our enemies and friends, where do they exist? The fact and truth that Ahmad—or anyone— is a friend to one person and an enemy to another should make us think. Where is the enemy? Where is the friend? In our own lives—what’s inside of us—has more to do with the answer to those questions. And maybe it takes a lifetime of struggling with that question to come finally to the throne of grace, where the Good Shepherd welcomes and affirms not only you and your kind, but all who have been shown the love of God in Christ Jesus.
On earth, our task is to reach out in loving friendship. This year, again, Multfaith Housing Initiative in Ottawa is holding its annual Tulipathon walk.As a patron of MHI, I have participated in this annaul event which raises needed funds to provide safe, affordable housing for newcomers to Canada, the vulnerable and homeless. I invite you to support me and Jessica walk three kilometres on May 30 as we walk as Christians in loving solidaridity with all people of faith.
Richard Rohr, “God Is Not Only ‘Over There’”, Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, 18 April 2021).
Cited in Richard Rohr, “Making New Friends”, ibid., 15 April 2021.