The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
We hear it so often. But really, as a society, we’re pretty conditioned to operate as loners. Sure, we play team sports, we have team meetings at work, we set aside “family time.” But often our focus and motivation is self-preservation. When push comes to shove, we take another task on ourselves rather than asking for help. We store up our treasures for a rainy day. We make the choice to push ourselves and then feel martyred by our sacrifice. And sometimes, our affection for independence makes it difficult to be led.
A properly functioning flock of sheep is a community that is made up of more than sheep. It turns out that sheep are not inherently all that smart. A group of sheep left on its own is certainly still a “flock of sheep”, but if one sheep turns his back on the rest of the flock to go after some tasty grass the rest of the group might leave him and then he is stuck there by himself. Sheep are naturally most comfortable when they are with one another. In fact, sick sheep are often identified because they tend to wander off by themselves. If a flock is left without a guardian they are almost totally open to predators…they have no way to fight back, they cannot stand up well if they fall on their sides…they don’t even have top teeth to give a good bite with! Sheep need a leader. They need a guardian. They need a guide. Sheep are dependent on their shepherd.
As followers of Christ, we choose to belong to a community of fellow believers. Ideally, that community works together toward a common vision and community care. There are benefits to belonging to such a community, and there are also responsibilities. The community also has to be led – perhaps by one, or by some who agree to lead for the good of the community.
So how do we hold it all together? How do we reconcile our individual entitlement with the deep cellular need for others and for a leader? How do we hold together the need to be empowered and the need to work with others to maintain order and to create harmony?
Shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection, communities of believers came together for fellowship, civility (frankly), safety, and support (It wasn’t easy or particularly popular to be a follower of Jesus). In the Jewish communities, there was a tradition of the synagogue and covenant community. Groups of Jews who followed the teachings of Jesus grew “churches” out of this tradition. Early converts to Christianity certainly needed the protection of a community against persecution in their society.
The scriptures for this week all reference the boundaries, benefits and responsibilities of these early communities of followers, and in each, it is important to look at where the leader is in the community.
In Acts, the author describes the behaviors that unified perhaps the earliest community of Christians, who were directly connected to the apostles. The description is of a community that lived communally, sharing their resources so that all had what they needed. And their community was growing. The apostles were out teaching and recruiting. The community cared for newcomers, embracing them and helping them understand what it meant to be part of the community. For these early communities, Jesus was not just a story from the past. These communities housed eyewitnesses. They had founders among them – some of their leaders were among the Twelve. They were still working out a lot of kinks…rules, expectations…and they were still uncovering the mystery.
The Psalm is a familiar one, naming the Lord as Shepherd. A key to all of these communities was unification through a caretaker – a shepherd, God, a resurrected Jesus, a spiritual connection with teachings about justice and mercy and grace. In response to the comfort of that care giving, the Psalmist describes the ability to face dark times and to be at peace. In ancient Jewish society, the extended family was a primary community. There was a leader – a patriarch. The Psalmist is praising the ultimate caretaker of the Hebrew race – God, while acknowledging a place within the “flock” – the community.
The letter that we know as 1 Peter was probably written to a community in Rome that did not gather around a common Jewish heritage. The letter girds the community for resisting persecution that they face. In the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity was a maligned foreign religion. Converts were rejected not just by their civic community, but by their families as well. The letter urges converts to imitate Christ in the face of all of this suffering and persecution. The letter itself is a strong encouraging voice.
In John, we read the familiar parable of the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd doesn’t just know his sheep; he knows them by Name. The sheep know the shepherd’s Voice. It is interesting to see the modification of the sheep / shepherd image here because Jesus is not just the Shepherd, he is also the gate through which the flock must pass. Continue reading past 10:10, and you’ll see this is no “hired hand.” This Shepherd will lay down his life. This is a leader that will make sacrifices for the flock. It’s hard to draw much about the shape of the community, except to understand that Jesus tells this story once and his listeners do not understand. He continues to retell and retell. The shepherd is also very patient!
As followers of Christ, we are called into community. A flock, a community, is not a closed group. In our comings and goings (through the “Gate”), we sometimes choose to act in our own best interest and sometimes we choose to act in the interest of a greater group. Sometimes the stray sheep endangers the flock by distracting the Shepherd. We have opportunities and responsibilities to work with one another within our community (within our flock), but if we accept these images given in scripture, we also know that we do all of this within sight of a guiding and protecting Shepherd.
- Who do we allow to lead and when? What if we are called to lead? Are we equipped?
- Do you accept the idea of Jesus (or God) being your / our Shepherd?
- When is it most difficult to be part of a community? Why?
- What is the minimum required for a community to exist?
- What is the difference between harmony and dissonance in a community?
- To what communities do you belong?
“The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.”