(Isaiah 40:11) ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’
The use of sheep as metaphor or as symbolism is used quite widely and extensively in the Bible. The lectionary readings this morning all make use of that symbolism as metaphor in various ways. The Hebrew people of course would be quite familiar with such use as seen in the use of the Passover lamb, and as used here in the passage I started with from Isaiah and other such passages such as ‘we all like sheep have gone astray’ (Isaiah 53:6), a rich, layered and vivid metaphor. Of course sheep in a mostly rural cultural world would be a common image and experience for many and therefore a useful teaching tool or method.
But what about today in a culture where Biblical literacy is low, where the mostly urban Western church is at the margins of society and according to statisticians struggling to survive? How do we read, comprehend and apprehend these passages? In fact, how different does the church today look in its practice, culture, belief etc. compared to what we just read about this morning? Did you see the difference?
Let’s look again at Acts 2:46, ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…’. Not in the church or school hall or someone’s house, but in the Judaist temple courts.
One of the things that fascinate me about where I come from, South Africa, is the way that the wind shapes the landscape of sand dunes along the beaches or sand dunes in the deserts. No sandy landscape ever remains the same but is constantly changed by the winds of change. Unlike a mountain range where you can pin point the best peak, the desert is a constantly changing landscape. It reminds me of the church and our history.
Here Luke writing in Acts gives us a glimpse of the landscape of Christianity. At this point for the most part, these were Jews proclaiming the Jewish Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah and expressing that faith within the confounds of their Jewish faith. Here in chapter 2 we see them practice their faith within the Jewish temple courts. For most of us as Gentiles we somehow have to jump the contextual gap in order to really understand the context, nature and consequences of this landscape. Some writers have attempted to help us do just that such as Philip Yancey in his book, ‘the Jesus I never knew’ and Scott MacKnight in his book, ‘the Jesus Creed’. Others have taken this context and the development of Western thought even further such as Amos Yong in his book, ‘Beyond the Impasse’ and asked, “what the gospel might look like if its primary dialogue partners were not Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or Whitehead, but rather Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu and so on”.
Bishop Shelby Spong in his book, ‘Liberating the gospels’ suggests these Jewish books became Gentile captives! This meeting in temple courts as recoded in Acts 2 became more and more difficult as Jewish animosity and impatience for this then Jewish cult grew. Furthermore, with Jewish tensions rising with Rome, culminated by the destruction of the temple in 70c.e, the new Jewish faith wanted to break ties with its Jewish heritage if it wanted to survive. Spong suggests that by the early years of the 2nd century, the Christian church had become an almost exclusively Gentile church.
The story of Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 illustrate just the extent of the cultural tension. Murray in his book ‘Church after Christendom’ says “the significance of this incident, of course, is that, for the first time, a full-blown, card-carrying, pork-eating, uncircumcised Gentile had been converted, filled with the Spirit and baptised” (p4). What categories could we place in that sentence today to indicate the changing landscape of faith and church today?
The point I am trying to make or at least suggest, is that the dunes we sheep inhabit today were very different from the dunes of these readings and I suggest will be very different from the dunes of the future. The winds of the Spirit continue to blow and change the landscape of the church. This is hard for sheep like us.
What does the shepherd leading his flock through constantly changing landscapes look or sound like? Are we tempted to ignore his voice and in the hope of false security hang onto that which gives us more security than the faith following action of listening to the shepherd? Such a different metaphor as sheep in the desert is not one that instantly captures our imagination but wait.
John 10:10 says that he has come to give life and life in all its fullness. As part of my role in training curates and the continuing development of clergy in their ministry, what a beautiful and challenging image of a growing and life sustaining church and Christian, of sheep healthy and living life to the full in the desert! What a challenge to our concept of discipleship, that listening to the shepherds voice we can be healthy, growing, life sustaining sheep in the desert!
May we embrace the winds of the Spirit in the days and weeks to come as we approach Pentecost and may we hear the still, small voice of our shepherd in that wind calling us as sheep in the desert to follow him.