By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
The earliest Christian image of Jesus is as a shepherd. He is pictured as a young man carrying a sheep over his shoulders. I have seen it in the Roman catacombs where early Christians worshipped secretly out of fear of the Roman authorities. Jesus as a shepherd is the theme for this Sunday. Most of us are unfamiliar with the ways of sheep and shepherds although we learned a bit staying a night or two on an English sheep farm in the Exmoor. I learned that sheep are not the sharpest of animals and need to be tended by dogs and humans. Yet even if we know little about sheep and shepherds, it is an image we still can understand—Jesus is the one who seeks after the sheep, who tends the flock and even leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one who is lost. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep rather than run away when the wolf comes. In Scripture, David is a shepherd boy who defended his people even taking on the giant Goliath yet refers to the Lord as his shepherd comforting and leading to green pastures and still waters. The Lord gives good give things—prepares a table in the presence of our enemies, gives so much that our cup “runneth over.” Goodness and mercy are ours in this life and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus is the shepherd who models for us the love of God for the people of God.
The word “pastor” means “shepherd” and this passage is not only descriptive of Jesus who fulfilled God’s will in his life and death, but it is also a passage which confronts Christian pastors and teachers. The Christian ministry is never really a profession but a calling. It is not a job but a service. It is at the same time protecting the flock and seeking the lost; caring for those who belong to the sheepfold already and seeking those who are not yet of the fold but are still sheep of the Lord.
I was reading recently about the growth of the Christian Church in China. It has been rapid during the past couple of decades, doubling, tripling in numbers. Many of the intellectual leaders express interest in Christianity. The first time Christianity appeared in China, it was during the 700s and 800s introduced by Nestorian monks. It was almost totally eradicated under imperial persecution. The second time was through Franciscan missionaries who followed the Silk Road of Marco Polo and witnessed to Kublai Khan. Christians were quite successful until the late 1500s. Christianity was eradicated again. The third movement started in the late nineteenth century by European and American missionaries.
On the staff of my first parish, Edison Park Lutheran Church, our visitation pastor, Talbert Ronning, grew up in China. His father was one of the first Norwegian American missionaries and his brother, Chester Ronning, later became the Canadian ambassador to Red China and was a personal friend of Chou En-lai. Yet by 1950 all foreign missionaries were drive out of mainland China including the Ronnings and in the period of the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76, it was believed that all real Christianity had again been eliminated. There was only one church open in the whole country, a show church, attended by George and Barbara Bush and members of the foreign legations in Beijing. But a strange thing happened. When China opened up again, the Church that had been persecuted and driven underground had doubled and tripled in size. We ask why? God worked through the people. It became an indigenous Church, a Chinese Church, rather than one of foreign missions. It was the witness of good leaders who were shepherds tending their sheep—and the believing flock who relied on the voice of Jesus and the strength that he provided them.
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I would like to share three stories of this time given by Father John Tong, a priest in Hong Kong. They deal with the Catholic situation but it has been much the same for Protestants. One story he told was of Christian heroism. Part of being a good shepherd to lead boldly and forthrightly:
In 1966 a swarm of Red Guards and several times as many onlookers forced their way into a Catholic cathedral in central China. They dragged the statues of the Virgin from the side of the altar to the main door of the church and were about to smash it to pieces when one Red Guard handed the hammer to the bishop with the order, “You smash it.”
The bishop politely returned the hammer and said in a firm, strong voice, “You may use this hammer to break my bones and smash my skull, but I will not lift a finger against the Mother of God.” The leader lowered the Hammer, the Red Guards left, the crowds went home and the bishop was left alone. The church was later shut down and occupied by the government but fifteen years later it was returned to the diocese and the bishop and some of the old priests and sisters resumed their pastoral work. People flocked to the church including some of those Red Guards and bystanders who were impressed by the courage and loyalty of their bishop.
There is a way of being a good shepherd by standing up to the wolves which attack the flock. There is also a witness through patience in suffering and a more personal witness of God’s love in Christ. This story comes from a Chinese prison, a water prison:
Now a water prison is a small, dark dungeon with a narrow concrete table in the middle. The room is flooded so that only the table is above the water. The guards would put stubborn prisoners on the table every morning tied back to back. They would sit all day on that concrete table with no space to move. This would go on for forty days or until the men went crazy, signed a confession or fell into the water and drowned. A Catholic priest was put into a water prison. His companion tied to him complained and cursed from the first day but the priest decided to meditate and pray./ Before long the non-Christian became curious as to how his partner could be so serene and began to ask him questions. The priest took the opportunity to explain the Christian faith until the man as Philip had been asked by the Ethiopian eunuch, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And he was baptized in the waters of the water prison.
The third story is not as dramatic—but then much of our Christian witness for pastors and the average church member alike is just to be faithful and believing no matter where one finds oneself:
This is a story of a young priest who had a parish of about two hundred members in the time before the communist takeover of China in 1949. In the persecution that followed, he was no longer allowed to function as a priest but was instead assigned to carry charcoal, making home deliveries on foot up and down the alleys of a hilly city. That was a hardship for an educated man who was not accustomed to manual labor.
He asked himself, “Why am I doing this? Is this the reward I get for following Christ? Am I meant to carry a heavy load on my shoulders all day long?” But after awhile, he adjusted to his new job and decided to do it as a Christian. He could not preach to people when he delivered the charcoal, but he could have a Christian attitude toward all those he met.
In the 1980s he was finally allowed to reopen his little church, but he could still not witness outside the church building. Yet instead of the original two hundred (or however many still remained alive and faithful) his little church was filled with eight hundred worshipers on a Sunday. The people remembered him as the charcoal carrier whose attitude was so special he gave a convincing witness to Jesus by how he carried his load.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He was faithful unto death on the cross. As he told his followers, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” None of us can be as good a shepherd as Jesus, but in our humanness, our frailty, our struggles and imperfections, we can still bear witness that we have heard the voice of the shepherd. We can live and act as the people of God, the flock of the Good Shepherd. We are confident that the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, James D. Kegel. Used by permission