“Jesus said, “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.”
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Both the gospel and the psalm use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd. It is not a leap to know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we humans are the sheep. In the time scripture was written, these metaphors would have been readily understood as a way to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Other Biblical leaders, Abraham, David, and Amos were shepherds or traveled with herds of sheep. It was natural to call God’s people, a flock. These metaphors, when originally written, brought actual meaning to the hearers.
However, for most living here and now, the image of a shepherd is not part of our day to day experience. I can honestly say I have never met someone whose job was to watch over sheep. And yet I can understand a good shepherd because of what I have heard in these passages.
Also, most probably our first-hand knowledge of sheep is limited. We enjoy the products the animals provide—beautiful wool and good tasting meat but that’s about it. We take others words about sheep—they are animals without much intelligence, followers who are quickly lost without a good leader. The actual metaphor loses some of its power without experience of the reference.
As I said, I do not know any real-life shepherds. However, I have had an encounter with a group of sheep that for me provides a picture of what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel.
Some years ago I visited Iona, a small island in the Hebrides. Iona was the spot that Columba used as a base to bring Celtic Christianity to Scotland in 563. The island, just a little over 3 square miles, has become a place of religious pilgrimage and spiritual retreats. It is the burial place for approximately 60 kings, including MacBeth and Duncan! There are fewer than 200 people who live on the island year round and many of those raise sheep as their main source of income. The sheep wander the island freely.
I was there near the summer solstice when the days have about 20 hours of sun. Late one night I walked alone to the west shore to see a gorgeous sunset. On the way I encountered a large group of sheep. They were as interested in me as I was in them so I paused as they neared me. One of the larger rams had those beautiful curved horns and I was a bit afraid at first. We each stood our ground and looked into the other’s eyes. We both decided the other did not pose a danger and we rested quietly together there for a while. I then continued my trek and the ram continued his grazing in that same spot. After the sun had gone down I returned the same way I had come. That same ram was still in that spot, watching for me to come back. He then accompanied me as I walked to the gate of his field and again made eye contact as I left. Perhaps sheep are followers, but certainly not stupid! This metaphor of sheep changed for me after that real life experience.
Because of being “up close and personal” in that large group of sheep, I was interested in knowing more. I identified at least six different breeds of sheep, many whose names I cannot pronounce. The variety was incredible. Some had black faces, some white faces, some were rounder than others. Some had long black legs, and others shorter white legs. I was fascinated by those with pink faces. Some of their wool was coarse and some soft and fluffy. Some had large curved horns. Each of the sheep had a painted owner’s mark, a bright red stripe, a yellow cross, a circle of blue and so on. All of the sheep graze together until spring when they are gathered and separated for shearing. Though different looking, they were able to co-exist in a peaceable and calm way, each getting what they needed.
Taking the metaphor of sheep representing human beings, I wonder. Certainly there is a wide diversity in people’s appearance, as was true of the sheep but did that Scottish flock hold a message for us that Jesus wanted us to know?
“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.”
I believe Jesus acknowledges and encourages diversity in his followers with this statement.
At the time this scripture was written the sheep that did not belong to the fold were most likely the Gentiles. And the writer of this passage was encouraging inclusion of the Gentiles as equals in Christianity.
Today we know that the body of Christ includes all nations, races and people. There is diversity in Christ’s church worldwide. We know this and yet do we embrace this diversity?
I wonder, “Who are the gentiles of our day?” Who are the “other sheep” who do not belong to this fold?
I ask you to keep in mind the image of that large group of sheep of all kinds grazing quietly together, including, accepting and watching over me that night. Can we not do the same to the “other sheep” of our time?
Jesus, our Good Shephard, said, 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. Amen.