The Shepherd, the Flock, and the Lamb – Carmen Retzlaff reflects on our identity of sheep in apocalyptic times.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C (2022, 2025)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, midway through the Easter season, is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday, because the lectionary readings repeat this familiar image of God and Christ. In the readings, God is a shepherd (Psalm 23), Christ is the lamb (Revelation 7), and Jesus insists that he and the Father are one, and no one will take his flock from his hand (John 10). The Bible constantly uses nature images to understand God and our relationship to God. We, the people of God, are consistently sheep: lost individuals, or in right relationship with our flock. God is both shepherd and, in the surprise reversal of the Jesus event, the lamb.
Revelation through an environmental lens takes on a radical new dimension for most Christian readers. Barbara Rossing, author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview), writes of her own moment of awareness of this dimension of this book, saying, “I had thought that the New Jerusalem was just a vision of heaven. It’s a vision of God coming down to earth, and it includes a river of life and the wondrous tree of life” (interview, Nov. 2006, Christian Century). In the Revelation text for Good Shepherd Sunday, the throne of God is in the new garden, offering shelter and showing the way to the springs of the water of life.
“For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17).
The image of earthly paradise as the New Jerusalem allows for seeing this life as not a prelude to eternal life, but a part of it. Rita Nakashima Brock, co-author of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Beacon Press), writes,
“In the book, Parker and I describe how early Christians worshiped in sanctuaries filled with images of life in paradise: the four blue rivers of Eden, golden Easter dawns, verdant canopies of trees, flocks of sheep and birds, Mary as the Queen of Heaven, and Jesus, diverse in age, race, and gender. This art focuses on incarnation of the Spirit in life, and the ancestors are shown as living presences in their resurrected glory. The mission of the church is to support people in resisting evil, heal the sick and brokenhearted, transform sin into moral accountability and courage, feed the hungry, and bless the earth as a great gift of God” (Nakishima Brock, R., Sept. 2021. “An Epidemic of Moral Injury,” Christian Century).
The image of comfort, the lamb wiping away our tears, is integral to the shepherd theme in the Bible. In Psalm 23 God leads us to rest beside still waters, finds us in valleys of shadows. Robert Alter notes in his translation of this Psalm,
“The Lord is my shepherd. Although the likening of God or a ruler to a shepherd is commonplace in this pastoral culture, this psalm is justly famous for the affecting simplicity and concreteness with which it realizes the metaphor. Thus, in the next line the shepherd leads his sheep to meadows where there is abundant grass and riverbanks and where the quiet waters run that the sheep can drink” (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation With Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, p. 78).
His translation of verses 2-3 and notes evoke the essential need we have for the shepherd, as well as how the shepherd saving us actually frees us to move out into the world, with human agency, and do the work of justice for our neighbors, including all of creation. We are saved at the brink of death, almost out of breath.
“In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
- makes me lie down. The verb used here, hirbits, is a specialized one for making animals lie down; hence the sheep-shepherd metaphor is carefully sustained.
- My life He brings back. Though “He restoreth my soul is time-honored, the Hebrew nefesh does not mean “soul” but “life breath” or “life.” The image is of some one who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life.
pathways to justice. With this phrase, the speaker glides from the sheep metaphor to speaking of himself in human terms” (Alter, 78).
In the John text for today, there is an equally intense word of comfort from Jesus, saying that not only will we be able to recognize the voice of our shepherd, to be able to follow him, but this shepherd will not let anyone take us from him.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
In Revelation, a lamb sits on the throne, who is also, somehow, the shepherd. The lamb who is also shepherd will find us, and hold on. Rossing talks of “lamb power:”
“The Jesus in Revelation is very powerful, but he conquers in a different way—not by killing people but by being killed, by giving his own life.
I borrow the term ‘lamb power’ from Ward Ewing at General Theological Seminary in New York. Lamb power is the power of suffering, the power of nonviolent love to change the world” (Rossing interview, Christian Century, Nov. 2006).
Sheep are communal – there are stories of a lost sheep being found, but the larger story is of the flock being protected by the shepherd. The lost sheep is healed when it is restored to community. Healing stories like Tabitha’s in Acts 9 are communal – the saints and widows rejoice when their loved one is returned to them. In Nadia Bolz-Weber’s words about Jesus, which apply to Peter and the apostles and early church as well,
“Because in these healing texts, Jesus does not just cure people’s diseases and cast out their demons and then say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ He’s always after more than that because the healing is never fully accomplished until there is a restoration to community. People are healed of a disease, and then he tells the folks just standing around to go and get them something to eat…In the Jesus business, community is always a part of healing. Even though community is never perfect” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. New York: Convergent Books, 2015, p. 88).
In Revelation 7:9, the community is all of humanity.
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).
From an eco-theological point of view, our community includes all of creation, and we must be healed together. We are not separate from Nature, all is connected. Howard Thurman wrote:
“Man cannot separate himself from nature without withering as a cut rose in a vase. One of the deceptive aspects of mind in man is to give him the illusion of being distinct from and over against but not part of nature. It is but a single leap thus to regard nature as being so complete other than himself that he may exploit it, plunder it, and rape it with impunity…The price that is being extracted for this is a deep sense of isolation, of being rootless and a vagabond…The collective psyche shrieks with the agony that it feels as a part of the death cry of a pillaged nature “(Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground. New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p.83-84).
Apocalyptic literature gives us a chance to face huge shifts in realities – deaths of the world as we know it. Rossing says,
“What is it that is coming to an end? That’s the question. In Revelation what is described as coming to an end is primarily the oikoumene, which I translate as ‘imperial world,’ the world under Roman rule. Rome laid claim to the whole oikoumene—the lands and the seas, world without end… Revelation proclaims that this imperial world must come to an end…We are facing an end right now in our culture. Christians need to address that sense of an end. Very likely the supply of oil is going to end in my lifetime. And because of global warming we face an end to glaciers and much else in the world as we know and love it. The New Testament proclaims that there’s a hope and a future beyond the end of oikoumene, beyond the end of empire. What may be ending today is our unsustainable way of life, but not the earth itself…The Christian vision is one of abundant life beyond the trappings of culture and whatever the empire promises. Though I say that the world is going to end, I think we need to proclaim a different understanding of that end. And we need to assure people that we have a future hope and relationship with God in Christ no matter what happens” (Rossing interview, Christian Century, Nov. 2006).
Nakishima Brock examines the COVID-19 pandemic as a modern example of apocalypse, and points to the need for healing through community and acknowledgement of this earth as our only home.
“Living in the aftermath of 2020, I invite us to think of this time as a chance to heal moral injury by focusing on nurturing trustworthy relationships that can weave our communities together as we support each other in recovering from so much suffering. We have no life but this life, no world but this world, and no future for flourishing but this struggle together, guided by our birthright, the Spirit of love. Apocalypse is heaven come to earth to reveal truth. If we pray ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ we need to mean it and to live it out—on this earth” (Nakishima Brock, Christian Century, Sept. 2021).
The sheep-shepherd image was familiar to the culture, time and place of Jesus’ earthly journey. It is less familiar to most of us, urban and suburban, not making our living from the land. Maybe it is even more remarkable, then, how resonant it is still, how much this metaphor proclaims the good news of God’s redeeming love.
Video of mesmerizing mass sheep herding https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDQw21ntR64
Originally written by Carmen Retzlaff in 2022.