Good Lord, another sheep reference. “I preach another sheep sermon over my dead body,” a preacher might say, and then turn looking to do a solid four minutes on the Collect of the Day. The preacher would then find that even the Collect of the Day is sheep reference.
Growing up at Trinity Red Bank, the one large stained-glass window we had was above the altar; it was, you guessed it, Christ the Good Shepherd in Tiffany glass, beautiful if not especially Trinitarian. Our image of the Good Shepherd make a bit more sense, this being Christ Church and not Trinity Church. I love how that image contrasts with the image of the Christ Child that dominates the window, the vulnerable and the strong, the stillness and the action, the Child worth everything and the Man who gave everything to prove our worth.
I guess sheep references aren’t going anywhere, given the hold the image of the Good Shepherd has on the Christian mind. Our language reflects it: words like pastor, pastoral care, they aren’t going anywhere.
Jesus was fond of the image and He was able to stretch the metaphor in His teaching. Today we hear about how the “sheep approach the protection of the sheepfold through the gate. Those who climb in by other ways—over the rocks and brambles—are either robbers or predators. The true shepherd enters and leaves first, calling their names; at the sound of his voice they follow. This passage is called a “figure” by (John the Evangelist). And when (Jesus’ disciples) seem not to grasp the figure fully, Jesus goes further, offering them what many have thought a somewhat disconnected second metaphor. All of a sudden, he is no longer the shepherd. He is the gate itself. But this shift is not a mixing of metaphors. Like many devoted shepherds, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.
“I once heard a description of Middle Eastern sheep-herding practices that ties these two images together. The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones, topped by barriers of briar. There is a small opening for the sheep to pass through. Once they are all in, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing or no one can get through without going over his body first, without confronting or even killing him.
“This particular kind of shepherd literally makes himself into a barrier gate, a role that requires not only care but courage. If any marauders or predators are to get to the sheep, they will only do so over the dead body of the shepherd.”1
“Over my dead body,” then, becomes less of a threat and more of an expectation. Thieves and robbers are bound to come, to do their best to steal and to kill and to destroy, for the sheep are of infinite value.
We have a baptism today, another reminder of the infinite value of even one of Christ’s little sheep. She is certainly vulnerable. It may be to much to ask for stillness. No one would ever question her worth. At that font she will find water and the Holy Spirit. She will be cleansed from sin, clothed in Christ, made one Body with Him and with us.
She will find there her Good Shepherd and her sheep-gate, metaphors not so much mixed as stacked. Starting there, she will learn to hear the voice of our Shepherd, to follow Him into the green pastures and beside the still waters. She will learn how Christ laid down His life that we may have life, and how He rose to life again, that we may have life everlasting.
We re-learn these things every time we do these things, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. So remember that you, beloved of God, are of infinite value, worth the life of God, and so is the person next to you, and the person who needs a little help at the Acme, and all the people God sees fit to put in our way every day. The sheep, it seems, are worth protecting, over Christ’s dead body. Who do you know who needs to hear that today?
1. John Kavanaugh, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/4EasterA050717/theword_embodied.html