“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1)
Jeremiah prophesies God’s condemnation of leaders who forsake their people, shepherds who neglect the flock. The leaders have consolidated their authority with terror, and have driven away the people with abusive power. They manipulate the needs of the community for their own gain, for their own benefit. Their corrupt leadership is a constant torment to the flock. In distress the sheep scatter. They are a fearful flock. They hope for a righteous shepherd who will care for them with justice, with mercy, with love.
In the catacombs in Rome, when early Christians held their worship services in the caves under the city, hiding from persecution, they would paint the walls with images from their favorite Bible stories, scenes to comfort them, to give them hope. Archeologists have discovered that a favorite image for those Christians was Jesus as the good shepherd, with him carrying a lamb over his shoulders, returning the lost one to the flock.
In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, we hear where those early Christians got this image of Jesus. “[Jesus] had compassion for them,” we read in verse 34, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).
To name Jesus as the shepherd of the people is to give him the role that the Bible assigns to God. If we keep on reading in Jeremiah, for example, we find God as the true shepherd, the only shepherd, who will care for the people (Jer. 31:10).
God as the true shepherd, the good shepherd, isn’t unique to Jeremiah. We hear such descriptions of God throughout the Scriptures. Like we heard in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God as the shepherd who guides the flock along still waters and into green pastures. God as the shepherd who leads the people into a life that restores the soul, a shepherd who offers comfort in the valleys of life.
Jesus is that shepherd, Jesus as the shepherd of God’s people, the one who guides us, who comforts and restores us. That’s what we believe. And the follow up question is how we access the shepherd’s care. That question never goes away. Church after church, throughout the tradition of our faith, gives some kind of answer to that question. Every Christian tradition is an answer to that question, an embodied response. So, for example, some churches set apart their pastors as shepherds who represent Christ—the pastor as the person who plays the role of Christ the shepherd in the congregation. These forms of church set up a division of labor in terms of who is a priest, who is a shepherd.
We’re part of a tradition that believes in the priesthood of all believers, that each person becomes a priest at their baptism, each of us called to be a representative of God’s care, God’s justice, the love of God for the world. All of us share in the work of Christ. Everyone is commissioned with the role of representing God’s life among us. That what we believe the Holy Spirit does in us.
So, back to the question about how to access the shepherd’s care. How we organize ourselves as a congregation is one answer to that question; our way of being church is a response to the question about God’s care. This is not just as a theological problem for us to settle in our heads; it’s a theological concern we answer with our lives, with our church lives, our Christian lives, our belonging together as God’s people, as the flock under the care of Jesus, our shepherd.
We’re an egalitarian community where we share authority. That means no one is a shepherd all by themselves, and that we are all shepherds entrusted with the care of each other’s soul. As a community, the Spirit of God commissions us to shepherd one another. This is our collective ordination as the people of God, as a congregation under the care of Jesus. We call this mutual admonition, our role to look after each other, to care for each other’s lives, to listen together for the voice of the good shepherd who leads us into green pastures, the one who restores our souls.
We didn’t invent this way of being church together. We read accounts of this understanding of church life throughout history. One important story that has been passed down to us, this one from the fourteenth century, has to do with a community that called themselves “the friends of God.” They lived in the highlands of Germany, outside the city of Strasbourg. Their devotion to God involved a devotion to one another. Each offered God’s care to the other. Rulman Merswin, a member of that community, described their lives as mutual submission to God. We submitted to the other “in God’s place,” he wrote, we promised to mutually uplift each other through obedience to God. To use the language from our Bible passages for today, we could say that they shepherded one another.
That’s our calling. That’s who we are. That’s God’s vision for church life. That’s what I’ve learned here, with you. We learn to trust each other’s guidance. We listen for God as we listen to one another, the spirit of Jesus speaking through our collective discernment. We listen for the shepherd’s voice as we hash things out, we discern as we argue, we open ourselves to God’s Spirit as we struggle to get a sense for the truth.
That’s what I’ve learned over the years from you all, from our way of being church together, when we talk and listen, when we work and play, when we pray and eat—and all of it as our communion with God and each other.
We also can’t forget that sheep wander. That we’re a wandering people. I think that’s important to recognize in our passages. We shouldn’t be surprised when we wander away from church from time to time; the question is how to welcome each other back. Throughout the Bible, we learn again and again that the people of God wander away from each other, and that God is always out there regathering us, like a shepherd.
The good news here, in these passages, is that, with Jesus as our shepherd, we can settle into a gentle confidence, of trust, in God’s care, because we know that the one who has called us will not abandon us, even when we wander.
 See the Vatican’s entry on “The Christian Catacombs,” https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_commissions/archeo/inglese/documents/rc_com_archeo_doc_20011010_cataccrist_en.html#Pastore