Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday (Year B)
Sermon for 3rd Sunday After Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday) April 24th, 2021
If you went to the city of Rome right now and went down into the earth about 20 metres or so, what you are likely to find is a vast network of catacombs – tunnels with niches and rooms in which the dead were buried.
You see, it was illegal to bury the dead in Rome in ancient times within the old walls of the city for reasons of health and hygiene, so the catacombs run underneath the old part of the city sometimes stretching for as long as 20km under the outskirts. It is an immense network of darkness and bone.
Those catacombs are also, in one sense, the site of the first Christian churches.
In the very early years of Christianity, when the Rome was still a pagan empire, members of this new, divergent, and strange Jewish cult who followed a man they claimed to be the son of God – a God who died by execution, a notion completely incomprehensible to Roman pagan sensibilities – members of this group underwent severe persecution by Roman authorities.
In fact it wasn’t until the year 313 that the persecution of Christians formally ended with the issuing of the Edict of Milan, to that point Christians, whose beliefs were in serious ideological conflict with the pagan practices of Rome, were fair game.
Often, Christians were used as entertainment in gladiatorial rings, thrown into the colosseums with starved and wild wolves and lions to be torn apart as crowds cheered and jeered from the stadium seating.
Being a Christian during these few centuries – as it is in many parts of the world today – was a life-or-death kind of thing.
And so in response to these persecutions Christianity literally went underground. They fled into that immense network of catacombs and there found secret places in which they could gather, sing, pray, worship, and receive the Eucharist. It was there, too, that their own loved ones were buried. And just as we go out and decorate the graves of people we have loved and lost, they also adorned the catacombs – the tombs and the places of worship – with images dear to their hearts.
The most common depiction of Jesus that you find in the catacombs, still on the walls 20 meters under ground today?
Jesus the Good Shepherd.
It’s an image and a depiction whose appeal has lasted ever since. How many funerals have you been to in your lifetime that didn’t recite the 23rd Psalm, or didn’t sing The Lord’s My Shepherd, or didn’t use John 10 as one of the readings? Precious few, I would imagine.
It is an image and depiction of Jesus that brings us incredible comfort, an image that brought comfort to fellow Christians in 2nd century Rome who literally watched their friends and family die in a cage with wild animals because of their faith in Jesus. And so of course an image of Jesus the shepherd, the one who walks with us through the darkest valleys of our life is going to have some staying power and is going to speak to those Christians just as powerfully in the year 221 as it speaks to us in the year 2021 when we find ourselves facing our greatest challenges and longing for a shepherd to guide us.
But there is a real danger when it comes to the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
The danger of sentimentality.
I would say that for every time the 23rd psalm is said with someone on their death bed, there is also produced somewhere in the world a schmaltzy wall hanging or picture of a blonde-haired Jesus looking like the fourth member of the Bee Gees and clutching a white, fluffy, and impossibly cute lamb to his chest.
Now for some even these images bring comfort, but we can’t let cutseyness overshadow the power of the image of Jesus the Shepherd.
Because in 3rd century Rome, for those Christians who faced the daily threat of being arrested and thrown into a pit with wolves, it was not sentimentality or cuteness that gave them hope, but rather a real and strong sense that they were sheep who needed a shepherd to overcome the power of the wolves, a shepherd who would (and did) die for them.
The image is an enduring one for us now as well because deep down each and every one of us knows what it means to be like a lost sheep needing a shepherd.
We don’t need to look very far in the world to see examples of how people, how humanity, needs a guidance beyond itself, how it needs the love of the shepherd as well as the stern guidance of the crook when we start to go astray.
But besides the world around us, we all know the dark valley, we all know fear, we all know loneliness and what it feels like to be set adrift without a rudder, wandering the hillsides without a shepherd. We all know what it is like to lack something we need and to deeply desire it.
Remember as a child how frightening dark places were – attics, forests, basements, barns – remember how quickly the fear fled from you when an adult took your hand to guide you. Even if there were dangers in those places, you felt safe. This is the kind of safety and lack of fear the Psalmist is talking about in the 23rd Psalm. You will still have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but because of Jesus you will not walk alone.
The ancient Christians no doubt found comfort in worshiping in the catacombs, so close to and surrounded by reminders of death because they lived so much closer to death than we do today, yet in those places the reminders they painted for themselves were ones of protection and comfort.
Because for us, death, even the kinds of horrific death persecuted people face today in various parts of the world, are, through the resurrection of Jesus, turned into light and life by God.
The whole point of this Easter season is to remind us over and over again that because of Jesus, because of his death, because of his resurrection, death has changed.
It is no longer an end, perhaps it is actually a beginning. It is the door and gate to our true home in and with God. Jesus has robbed death of its power to destroy and made it a way of life.
Yet it remains for us a dark valley, and one that we will be no doubt afraid to walk through when the time comes, but it is a valley – the early Christians in those catacombs teach us – in which we will never be alone and through which we will find life.