I had the sense, as a child, that God’s goodness and mercy would only follow me all of the days of my life if I was “good” and Christian. And I had the sense that good and Christian was a narrow way.
This meant two things. First, only “good” people, loving and kind people, people who had not erred or strayed or made mistakes or broken the law or never “back-slid” were the sheep worthy of grace and mercy. Second, only Christian people were in the fold. Not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs — no, the steadfastly loving God had only space for those of us who accepted Jesus and our Lord and Savior AND who had lived sinless lives.
My child-like sense of “good” shifted when I was a teen serving as an elder in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Being up close and personal with my pastor, the late Rev. Oliver Brown, III and the adults around the table were first- hand lessons of the wide-open space of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
These good people — ordained people — were flawed and funny. They fussed and fought. They forgave each other, as God forgave them. My idea of good stretched and breathed and exhaled judgment and inhaled, experientially, that only God is good, that God in Jesus Christ shows this goodness in a particular way, and that all of God’s people are flawed and loved.
As a young adult before seminary, living life in the world, working, loving, breaking up, making up, having growing pains about identity and purpose and vocation, my spiritual muscles strengthened around the concept of the good shepherd who would love me enough to come and get me if I wandered.
Jesus is the ideal shepherd, the model shepherd, the best kind of shepherd; the one who makes the promises of God available to all of God’s people by laying down his life for the sheep.
I had not yet made the leap but most certainly have now to John 10:16.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This loving Shepherd has a huge and diverse flock. I spent three days last week with some of them, some of the greatest theological minds in the nation — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh — in a cohort of leaders committed to the interreligious movement for justice. All of us are sheep — gregarious like sheep, independent and likely to chart a new path to green pastures, all of us working so hard that we need God to help us to lie down there and drink living waters and to have our breath and souls restored.
These amazing leaders belong to the Good Shepherd. I know this now; they are listening to God’s voice in their own languages, with their own symbols and rituals and sacred texts. Like me, they are seeking love and justice and peace. We are one flock, beloved by one shepherd who anoints us with the oil of gladness and with a spirit of boldness to work fervently for a more just society in which all lives matter and in which everyone has enough.
When I was in seminary, I happened upon Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Daybreak Books, 1970). The shepherd imagery in our sacred texts burst into my imagination in so many new ways.
Human beings are remarkably like sheep. Sociable. Gregarious. Prone to wander off the path in search of greener grass. Needing to be rescued from the wilderness and the wild things that live in it. Occasionally that wild thing is in us.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life, not just for the sheep that stay in the fold, who keep to the path, who follow the Shepherd willingly, but for all of the sheep. Those who are sick and needing special care. Those whose bodies need healing oil. Those who fall down and can’t get up by themselves. Those who have lost their way and need help getting home.
My shepherd also deeply cares for those who have broken the rules, those who have transgressed and need to be forgiven. Those who have been locked up and isolated for crimes and who need to be restored to life ‘on the outside.’ Those who are disenfranchised and need to find their way back into right relationship with their families and communities. My shepherd binds up the broken hearted, breaks the chains of injustice, and releases the captives for rehabilitation.
We are, all of us, capable of great love and compassion. We are also, all of us, capable of breaking the rules, making regrettable decisions, and suffering the consequences of stepping off the right path. There is danger off the path, there are predators off the path, and there is injury off the path. And the Shepherd rights our way.
We are the sheep of God’s pasture, God is our God ( Ezekiel 34:31) and the Good Shepherd puts his life on the line to save us from harm, to protect us from the wild in the wilderness. The Good Shepherd restores our souls and heals the world.
In this Eastertide, here is what love looks like to me: Jesus lays down his life for the sheep. For all of the sheep. For all of the people. This is about relationship and intimacy. Between God and Jesus, and among God’s people. I believe there are no outsiders in the Reign of God. Jesus leads the way to abundant life because he is the life. For all of the sheep. All of the sheep hear Jesus’ voice and recognize it. It is spoken in the ethic of love. It is spoken in acts of justice and compassion. It is spoken in healing and restoration. It is spoken in connection and community. It is spoken in forgiveness and reconciliation.
Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis , Ph.D. is the Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church and Executive Director of The Middle Project, a leadership training institute for people of faith. Via RNS .