By Andrew McGowan
One of the initially less-impressive exhibits in the Yale University Art Gallery is a series of quite simple paintings, mere fragments from a decorated plaster wall. They are faded almost to monochrome, and reflect a rather rudimentary drawing ability. There is woman at a well, waiting for some message or visitor; a man lies on a bed, with another man extending his hand toward him, and then stands and carries his bed; close by two men walk, apparently on the water, next to a boat; below, a group of women carrying torches approach what may be a tomb.
You may well have seen much prettier versions of these stories, and yes they should sound familiar; but you have never seen older versions of them. For these are the few remains of the oldest known Christian church; they began life in the town of Dura Europos in Syria, in territory occupied now by Isis.
These images were not in anything we would quickly recognize as a church; it was a house, adapted for use by the Christian community by opening two rooms into one to allow the assembly to meet for worship. Across the courtyard from this space was the room from which these paintings came, where baptisms took place.
Entering and crossing the room, the candidate was invited by these images to think of herself as among those coming to find an empty tomb, to expect healing of soul (and perhaps of body) like the paralytic, to imagine leaping like Peter into water and finding Jesus there. And the end of the room was a font — not a free-standing bowl for mere sprinkling, but a small pool or bath built into the floor with a canopy over it, big enough to climb into — and on the wall above the baptismal pool was the image of a man carrying a sheep across his shoulders, and a flock going before them to drink at a stream.
So both today’s and last week’s Gospels — of Peter and his impulsive plunge — are on these ancient walls. This similarity between modern lectionary and ancient art is not entirely coincidental. Baptism and Scripture have interpreted one another for Christians over many centuries, and the lectionary in the Easter season still reflects aspects of this ancient tradition. This is of course Jesus as Good Shepherd — incidentally, this and the images of him with Peter and the paralytic man are together probably our three oldest pictures of Jesus.
In any case, the candidate for baptism coming toward this image could perhaps imagine this shepherd speaking the words from today’s Gospel: “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.”
Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of how the ancient Syrian coming for baptism could see Jesus as a shepherd, offering care and restoration.
We have sheep where I come from — Australia — 75 million of them, in fact, which is three for every person. We tease New Zealanders that they have only 30 million sheep, but that that is still seven per person in their country. Sheep have their place in the great scheme of things, and certainly did in ancient subsistence economy — not first for meat, but for the sustainable and relatively benign production of wool and milk products. The shepherd who cares for the sheep and knows them by name, sheep who hear his voice, have a symbiotic relationship with him. And hence we have various biblical images and metaphors, with kings depicted as shepherds, and famously the Psalm attributed to David who calls the Lord his shepherd, caring for him in life and death.
But being compared to a sheep only goes so far. Sheep are not very smart, and are rather passive and dependent. There are aspects of our lives when we necessarily do experience vulnerability, when we feel powerless — events have spiraled out of our hands, and we look for help. The assurance of a good shepherd may be a welcome one at these times. But sheep are sometimes slaughtered, their powerlessness meeting its ultimate end.
The epistle today from the Revelation to John presented a different image. Now a lamb, not a shepherd, is the powerful figure: “there was a great multitude that no one could count … from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white.” “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” … “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This lamb has lost its life, and yet is alive. And as a result, those around the throne live too: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; but more than this, “the Lamb at the center of the throne” has somehow become their shepherd, “and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
To be a sheep is no virtue in itself; all sheep have some shepherd or other. But this shepherd is different. This shepherd is a sheep also; he does not rule from a safe distance but from among his people.
So when this shepherd calls us to baptism, he does not call us to passivity or subservience but to new life that has been won through his own vulnerability. The mystery of Easter is not that God’s power external to our world offers some escape from it; rather just as Jesus was in the water when Peter leapt in, so too Jesus is not only shepherd but lamb, our companion in uncertainty and not just a hedge against it.
Meeting our Good Shepherd again, we are reminded not just that he is a shepherd but that he is good. “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.”
The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology.