Something happened to me in about the seventh grade: it was no longer cool to be a Christian. That doesn’t mean that the popular crowd in middle school converted to Islam or Buddhism, but my peers and I stopped letting our identity as “good little churchgoing boys and girls” define us. Actually, that had less to do with religion and more to do with growing up. Teenagers learn to define what is cool by that which their parents do not do. So if one’s parents want him to go to Sunday school that becomes the epitome of uncool. We didn’t develop a hostility toward religion, but we stopped being proud of our faith.
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and our gospel lesson articulates the counterpoint of Paul’s conversion. Jesus commissions his disciples by saying, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” When I think of this passage, I think of my adolescence. Perhaps that’s because I can remember my youth minister saying that as Christian teenagers in the 1990s we were like sheep in the midst of wolves. Looking back, none of us got picked on because we were Christians. In fact, had I professed another faith or chosen no faith at all, I would have almost certainly opened myself up to far more ridicule than I received as an average Alabama kid. But there was still an element of truth to that youth minister’s message: by the time we were in high school, a definite distance had grown between our faith and our friendships.
Should I have been a better influence on others? Should I have openly opposed the underage drinking or the teenage promiscuity? As a Christian, was Jesus sending me into the hot bed of high school shenanigans in order to witness to my peers about the real message of our faith? I don’t know. But I do know that the one thing I wanted more than anything else in all the world was to fit in. I needed a community to which I could belong. Athlete, nerd, choirboy—I needed some identity that would make me a part of a group. And being the school prophet was not appealing.
As a Christian, I didn’t feel like I had been sent into a hostile land where Christians were killed for their faith. That sense of “sheep amidst wolves” didn’t apply. But I did feel like I needed to be like everyone else. I was a sheep surrounded by wolves, and the only way I was going to survive was by putting on a wolf costume. Actually, almost all of us were sheep wearing wolf costumes, but that didn’t matter. Once someone decided that we were supposed to look like wolves, we all scrambled to put on the appropriate outfit.
At times, I’m most thankful that high school is far behind me. But Jesus’ message isn’t just for teenagers. What about the adult world? How are we being sent out as sheep into the midst of wolves? I think there’s an even greater pressure now to let the world define who I am rather than to let my faith stand in contrast to the world. I don’t think the world is openly encouraging me to drink to excess or to be unfaithful in my marriage, but it is seducing me to think that I should look like everyone else. Wealth, power, prestige, and accomplishments are what matter in our society. Those are not the things that define the Christian, yet, if I want to fit in in the wolf-suited world, I can’t stand out as the guy who thinks we should all take a vow of poverty. Supper clubs aren’t usually the best place to call on others to repent. Pretty soon, invitations to dinner stop coming, and the sheep finds himself stranded.
But Jesus says that we should not worry. God will provide us with what we need to say in that moment. In order for that to happen, however, we must be open to the Spirit’s speaking. We must be willing to let God speak to us and through us in that moment. And the only way that happens is by realizing that we already belong to a community of sheep. As followers of Jesus, we have a shepherd who loves us and calls us by name. If I can internalize that—if I can be reminded of how much God loves me—then I don’t have to worry about whether my peers will accept me. I’m already included in God’s family—sheep amidst sheep.