When the World Draws a Line in the Sand, the Good Shepherd Is Always on the Other Side – The Rev. Michelle Meech
April 30, 2023
Today’s image on the front of the bulletin comes from Jyoti Sahi, an Indian Christian artist born in 1944. I found it on a website called globalworship where they had a series of paintings of Christ the Good Shepherd done by various Asian artists. I took a little time on this site, poring over the images from all over the world. Because we are focusing on the Good Shepherd this week, of course I was looking for Christ the Good Shepherd.
As a matter of interest, I also searched for Christ the King. And, on this website at least, the only arts that came up for Christ the King were Western – American and European. But the images and arts that came up for Christ the Good Shepherd were from all over the world. To me, this begs a question which, admittedly, is based on anecdotal evidence: Why is there more desire to identify with Christ the King in the Western mind? Why is the image of Christ the Good Shepherd more often rendered in areas of the world that are not invested in the Western mind set?
I know I’ve told you all this before, but it’s worth repeating that one of the earliest images we have of Jesus the Christ is the image of the Good Shepherd. Not Christ the king who reigns in glory. Not Christ the crucified or the risen Christ. Early Christians understood Christ as the Good Shepherd.
A short history lesson provides us with some context and thus, some understanding.
In the first 2 centuries after Jesus died, those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah came from both Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds. However, this was still a small group of people and, therefore, not a significant threat to the larger Roman Empire. But there were sporadic persecutions, some by the Roman government and some by local governors. Of course, this meant that Christians were not safe. This dynamic would not shift for over 200 years, until the year 324 when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. From that point on, Christianity has always been associated with worldly power and shifted its understanding of Christ to be one of worldly victor.
But back to the 100s and 200s…
In response to persecutions, Christians met in secret and learned to be skeptical of newcomers to the faith. Entering a Christian community, then, meant a long period of catechism or teaching before individuals were allowed to receive Eucharist.
In this context, Christ the Savior could not be equated with someone who had worldly power like a king or an emperor or a priest. It made no sense. Their savior had to be someone who would keep them safe, someone whose voice they knew and trusted. But why a shepherd?
Some of this obviously comes from the imagery found in Hebrew scripture, where the shepherd is used as a metaphor. But that’s not the only metaphor that is used so, again, why the shepherd.
Once more, we look at context. Animal sacrifices were common in Ancient Roman worship. Pigs, ox, and of course, sheep were the most popular. This ritual took place in an area that needed to be purified by this sacrifice. The animal, which they would call a victim, would be carried around the space and then killed in some ritually appropriate way, the flesh of the victim was placed on a fire, then wine and incense were thrown upon it.
Persecutions of human beings were seen as a similar kind of event – a cleansing, a purification. A victim or victims, were sacrificed to keep the population “pure.” The good shepherd, then, was the one who kept the sheep or the victim safe, the one whose voice they knew and could be trusted. It was a code for early Christians so that they knew they were among friends.
So, what are we doing as Christians? When I talk to non-Christians about the Christian faith, this concept of sacrifice is often brought up. How can we celebrate blood sacrifice, specifically one of a human being? How can this be God’s will? If it is God’s will that Jesus died, then the God we worship must not be a loving God.
It may or may not surprise you to know that I agree.
Rene Girard, a 20th century philosopher and theologian, studied human nature and how conflict erupts in community. He developed a theory about something he called the scapegoat mechanism in which a group in conflict seeks cohesion by blaming a person or persons for the group’s pain and suffering – a scapegoat.
It is not dissimilar to victim-blaming, which is a relatively new term developed to help us understand this tendency humans have to prioritize the system and societal norms and the privilege that comes with adhering to those norms.
When left unchecked, this human tendency develops into a desire for violence against the victim – or the scapegoat – and once the scapegoat is sacrificed (killed, ousted, marginalized), the group has, for a time, a sense of communal peace. The problem, of course, is that the individuals in the group risk their own death or marginalization if they challenge this whole mechanism. Therefore, they usually don’t question it. So, conflict occurs over and over again. Thus, the desire for violence occurs over and over again.
You can see this happening in groups all the time. I’ve heard it called “throwing someone under the bus” or the forming of adolescent cliques that exclude or bully others. In order to escape the threat of suspicion or expulsion ourselves… a kind of death… we look for somewhere else we can lay the blame. It happens in just about every human community, everywhere across the world.
This is what happened to Jesus. But this is not what we celebrate as Christians.
Instead, we see Jesus as the one who did not participate in this death-dealing ritual because he did not seek retribution. He does not choose power or privilege, nor is he a passive victim. He actively chooses love. And in his some of his last words, he offers us one of the greatest teachings of all: “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
James Alison, a theologian who has studied Girard expands this theory and helps us to see more clearly what God is doing in Christ. He says: “For God there are no “outsiders”, which means that any mechanism for the creation of “outsiders” is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that’s that.”
It is the fear of death that leads humans to maintaining group peace and solidarity by excluding odd or inconvenient “others” on the false assumption that their death is the basic means for achieving peace and cohesion. We have only to look at all of the political rhetoric aimed at LGBTQ people, especially those who are transgender, to see this in action.
But the revelation that unfolds over time through our scripture is one that challenges the desired belief, which comes from human weakness… that God wants to punish those who go against norms, and that this punishment should take the form of human exclusion and violence.
Jesus’ mind was formed not by rivalry and the need for victory over others, but by the complete trust in the overflowing, unending love of God that is given again and again to us because that is God’s nature. And the Gospels are the written witnesses of the disciples coming to understand Jesus’ mind. They could have been consumed by the need for retribution, believing the satanic lie that violence is necessary to achieve peace. Instead, however, in the weeks and months after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were looking back at those events through their own transformed minds and seeing Jesus as this overflowing love of God that gives us life.
This is what early Christians understood. Most likely because they were persecuted. They were the ones who were being victimized and thrown under the bus by those who followed the norms of society. They understood that Christ is the Good Shepherd. The one who challenges the lie that violence – that is, expulsion or death of any kind – is necessary for survival and peace. The Good Shepherd is the one who calls everyone to the Table – every single one.
The Table is where we learn what it means to accept grace and forgiveness. To let ourselves off the hook of our brutal self-judgment and become forgiven forgivers. Where we are fed by the nourishment of self-giving to become self-giving. Where we truly come to know that there is no death in God, no judgment in God. There is only love and the life offered by that love.
This is a truly subversive idea, to become forgiven forgivers. I think the biggest human misconception we have is that being forgiven is about being let back in. This may be true in human societal terms, where violence reigns instead of love.
But it’s not true with God because, in God’s eyes, we were never out. God never asked us to leave. God never kicked us out. As a matter of fact, there is no “out.” We do not read Genesis literally, but we understand it is a metaphor for the way we feel when we experience shame. Whenever we feel separated from God, it’s because we are ashamed and we left God of our own accord. And that is never God’s doing.
So in being forgiven forgivers, in coming to the Table, we are actively accepting God’s grace and doing the work to excavate the shame we carry so that we can learn to live without it. We learn this both for ourselves and for other people. Because, whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side. Every time.
What we learn at this Table is that nothing can break the love of God. The abundance of God’s love poured upon us is an ever-flowing stream. It never ends because there is no death in God. Only Life. Only Love. So we are fed from this Table in order to gain the strength to forgive ourselves for the ways we believe we don’t measure up.
So that we, from this place, can offer compassion to others when they are struggling. So that we can walk with ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death and learn to walk with others, knowing that our Good Shepherd, the Christ, is always there ready to carry us when we cannot walk on our own.
And we are talking about real life here, our physical lives. The Good Shepherd is much more than a metaphor for a spiritual experience. The Good Shepherd is carrying the many many many people who are oppressed by the greed of the few.
Low wage jobs, sky rocketing housing prices, lack of health care, environmental destruction, racism, for-profit prisons, men regulating the bodies of women, and, most especially right now… so-called Christians legislating against transgender people, making it illegal to wear preferred clothing, illegal to receive gender-affirming healthcare. Or, in the case of an elected member of the Montana House of Representatives, banning her from speaking on the floor of the house.
When the world draws a line in the sand, the Good Shepherd is always on the other side, gathering the sheep, reminding them of God’s love in a world that desires violence and control brought on by the need for power. The Good Shepherd is always with the vulnerable and the marginalized because God’s dream is one that overturns worldly power.
Jesus came to teach us that the worldly violence of “othering” is not of God. He offered himself to be the victim who does not seek retribution. And in so doing, teaches us what eternal life actually is. Eternal life is an end to violence. The violence we do to others. And the violence we do to ourselves.
This Eucharistic feast is one to which we are all invited to receive grace upon grace upon grace. Every Sunday morning, this Table is an open Table. God’s Holy Spirit works in each one of us and the life and the love offered here are available to all who choose to come, to all who feel called to come, for whatever reason.
For God’s love is freely given so that we may come to know that we are loved with wild abandon.
All are welcome at God’s Table.