Jesus the tough shepherd

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- These readings might well be titled ‘The genus of sheep’, what belonging means? When we in the UK think of sheep we tend to think of a well-manicured countryside like the Cotswolds with pretty animals happily gambolling in the sun. Even those who live in harsher environments in the Uplands of Britain, or Australia, New Zealand or even South Africa, will know that with the exception of the odd snake, sheep herding – humans apart – does not carry great risks. This was most definitely not the case when Jesus made them a metaphor for the Christian community in first century Palestine, or when John took up his saying in Asia Minor. We have to remember that those areas were tough, rugged landscapes which still produced many wild animals for the arenas of the Roman Empire, or provided a good days hunting for the elite of the time. Indeed, to be a shepherd was to be very much on the fringe of society, a rugged outsider, one who habitually lived away from human habitation for months on end, and lived with his ferocious dogs, guarding his flock from all comers.

Jesus’ metaphor (Jn 10:1-10) therefore speaks to a beleaguered community, one needing careful protection, vigilance, scrutiny of strangers, outsiders, and a suspicion, even hostility of those not immediately recognised as belonging to the community. By the time John wrote his Gospel in the 80-90’s CE it would even appear that splits within the Christian community were causing different interpretations of the faith. Jewish Christians were by then probably increasingly in a minority, as the faith went out to converts from paganism, as we clearly know from Paul’s Letters c mid 40’s-63 CE. Differences of understanding of the Christ event could easily fragment the group. John’s Gospel itself suggests that there were divisions among believers, and he himself could be quite scathing in his valuation of them, including those he described as ‘The Jews’. The Nicodemus dialogue, the meeting with the Samaritan woman and her city, not to mention the disciples gleaned from John the Baptist, may all point to disagreements as different groups struggled with the very exalted understanding of John’s group over the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and that to be granted to believers, as seen in John 17. Jesus criticisms of the ‘Thieves and brigands’ who do not enter by the ‘gate’ is highly suggestive of quite rigid divisions and of hostility over beliefs within the Christian communities of the Mediterranean.

It is common to think that after the Resurrection everyone who took to the faith followed a common party line. It is increasingly clear, both from the New Testament and from the Early Fathers that this was by no means the case, indeed, it has been the way of Christianity ever since as Church History shows. Admittedly, something rather like the Johannine view of it all could be said to have triumphed, bolstered by some of Paul’s earlier experiences and writings, but this is not something we should take for granted.

When we look at Luke’s description of the various Pentecost incidents of conversion, (Acts 2:14.36-41) it appears that he is writing initially of a more uniformly Jewish collection of converts and his emphasis is on the giving of the Holy Spirit. Subsequently his Gospel will stretch out to incorporate a largely Gentile audience and his emphasis will be on social concern, as is true of Matthew and Mark, rather than the developed theology of John or of St Paul. For Luke it is ‘Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ which is the critical element in belonging to the Christian community, and which guarantees the gift of the Spirit in each believer; although we do not get any explanation as to what this meant as clearly the apostles did give much more teaching than is included in our Readings.

We know that the Petrine Letters (1Pet 2:20-25) originated in Northern Turkey, probably around the turn of the first century CE. They appear to have been addressed to Christians under threat of external persecution, as is corroborated by Pliny’s letters to Trajan of about the same time. Pliny was Roman Governor of Bithynia and wrote of the punishments he was inflicting on Christians. This was a fairly early state attack on Christians. Previously they had mostly been small local affairs, reflecting local hostility to the faith, or even battles between local groups in which Christians came unstuck. What we seem to be finding is that as the faith became attractive to increasing numbers, and possibly even as their thinking of the faith and what it meant developed, they became more of a threat to the outside world. Certainly the author of the letters used the opportunity to reshape thoughts on Christian suffering, relating them to the passion of Christ himself. Paul had touched on this some 30 years earlier, but this gave the writer room really to mine what would become such a rich seam in Christian thought, as the believer identifies him/her self ever more securely in the life of the Saviour.

I wonder therefore if the choice of our Readings for this week don’t ‘open a window’, as it were, for our thinking and understanding, first of the Early Church, and secondly of our place within our communities and our involvement in the life of Christ. They take us a very long way from woolly, cuddly bundles and cosy, comforting Christianity – and almost certainly, they should.