Saturday, 16 April 2016

Shepherd and Sheep

"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. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one." (John 10:27-30)
There's a starkly beautiful song on Blur's album, Magic Whip, called Pyongyang. In which Damon Albarn sings hauntingly about the former palace in which the founder and perpetual president of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, rests with his son, King Jong-il.
Kid the mausoleum has fallen
And the perfect avenues
Will seem empty without you
And the pink light that bathed the great leaders is fading
Cared for by specialist Russian embalmers, in glass boxes, housed in that building that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to convert from a home for the living to a home for the dead - the two dictators aspire to a creepy form of immortality.

Why do they do this? Why preserve the mortal remains of dead leaders? Why call someone a "perpetual president" when he is absolutely no use whatsoever, and the official doctrine of the state is that there is no God - and therefore no persistence after death? The answer is of course that it is a state cult - a kind of religion, to fill the gap where any belief in God, any kind of hope might be found. The irony being that the modernist philosophy of Communism - with its belief in progress bringing liberation - has become reduced here to a backward-looking personality cult. And looking backwards to two people who were monsters.

You don't have to go as far as Korea to see a dead man in a box, of course. The founder member of Living in a Box was Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher. Jezza sits in a glass box in University College Library. He wanted his body preserved in this way so that his friends could gather round him to celebrate the founder of what he called "the greatest happiness system of morals." As you might imagine, what actually happens is that the tourists come to gawp at him. And the students of Kings College have been known to steal his head and hold it to ransom occasionally.
Living in a Box

I share these macabre stories to reflect that dependency on human aptitudes eventually fall from desperate solemnity to farce. The Russians are prepared to spend about $200,000 per annum to keep Lenin looking - well, "good" is probably stretching it. But they probably figure it's worth it for the tourism.

 The prophets of Israel used to sound out against bad "shepherds" - leaders of the nations that - literally - fleeced their flocks. And the Kim family of Korea and Lenin, while glorifying themselves and claiming they were acting for their people, certainly did that. The latest round of accusations against David Cameron and other politicians are based on the belief - or at least the claim - that they were acting for themselves, when they should have been acting for the country.

And then we come to a passage of scripture where we see a different model. There's Jesus in John 10. Jesus the Shepherd. The one that leads, and looks after the sheep. A really strong claim because God is frequently referred to as a shepherd. Psalm 23 being the most famous. And God is compared to the shepherds of Israel that extorted from the people of Israel and Judah - that exploited and regarded the people as akin to slaves. God, we're told, is not like that. God is a shepherd that cares for the sheep.

 The thing I'd like to throw into the mix here is where Jesus says "I and the Father are one". If the Father and Son are one - then Jesus can call himself the Good Shepherd - the one who calls to his sheep. But in  Rev 7 - we discover a remarkable thing about the shepherd. And that is that he can also be described as a lamb. Specifically, a sacrificial lamb - one who was slain to give life to others. Both shepherd and sheep.

Still with me? This is a roller-coaster of mixed metaphor, I know. No Biblical literalism can act as our guide at this point. So Jesus is both shepherd - God. And sheep - i.e. one of us. He will protect and love us forever. There's an amazingly beautiful picture of love and closeness - we know his voice, and he knows us. But the relationship is even closer than that. He's actually one of us.

It's maybe been heavy going picture language, here. But I hope the picture makes sense. The God who is our ruler, our creator, our guide and our protector - our shepherd - is also our companion, our brother and sister, our sacrifice. God does not hide above us, but walks among us. God does not just look down on us, but becomes one of us.

And we as Christians look forwards - to the day when we hear the voice of our shepherd, and know it as fresh as those disciples did in Galilee and Judea. When we gather round the Lamb, with our palm branches, to bow down and worship. When we forget the false prophets, the failed futures and empty promises of the world in which we live, and know our Shepherd as we are known.


  1. I share these macabre stories to reflect that dependency on human aptitudes eventually fall from desperate solemnity to farce.

    Then you've a pretty limited view of history. Slavs have been preserving bodies for centuries - there are mummified monks in the Pecherskiy Monastery in Kiev that have been there for centuries. There's no eventually about it: most people find it more comfortable (clergy like yourself particularly so) to live in graveyards.

    1. Unless the Slavs put their preserved bodies in glass boxes, in the capital, at the centre of a giant atheist cu!t, I don't see the connection.

      Graveyards are not my favourite places. Especially Dunstable cemetery at night. Which is very odd.

  2. I love the paradoxical imagery but at the same time it does rather make my head ache - which is a paradox in itself I suppose. Thank you.


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