Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Shepherd or Good Shepherd?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

We all know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd--that he is the one who laid down his life for the sheep. I wonder, though, whether our confidence in Jesus as the ultimate good shepherd has obscured the fact that he calls all of us to be the same for our own flock.

Today is the feast of Cyprian, and the liturgical red that we use lets the cat out of the bag. He was the Bishop of Carthage and also a martyr. As a bishop, he is remembered as a shepherd of his people, and, as a martyr, he is commemorated for having given up his life for his flock. But Cyprian's story isn't as simple as that. He wasn't always admired in that way.

Carthage is the historic capital of Tunisia, that little country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I don't know how well you did in geography, but take a look at the map of northern Africa and notice how close Tunisia is to Italy. In the early third century, when Cyprian was alive, Carthage was the most important Roman city in Africa. It was the focus Christianity in Africa, which was firmly established there by the second century. Cyprian was born a pagan but converted to the faith at the age of 35. A skilled lawyer, he brought that intellectual gift to the faith and advanced quickly, becoming the most important African Christian writer until Jerome and Augustine. He was elected bishop at a young age because of his popularity among the people, but the older clergy in that area were not happy with his election and worked to undermine his authority. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Northern Africa enjoyed relative immunity from the persecutions of the second century. Although geographically close to Rome, the political and economic climate in that province allowed for Christians to worship without fear. That changed, however, under the Decian persecution of 250. The Romans intensified their pursuit of illicit sects, and Christians throughout the Empire, including those in and around Carthage, were forced to make sacrifices in the pagan temples. Under threat of execution, some gave in, many others ran away. Among those who fled was Cyprian, who was accused of cowardice but who refuted those accusations by appealing to his role as bishop and shepherd. He argued that the faithful needed someone to guide them during this time of trial--a logical, perhaps faithful, but not altogether convincing point. (Thanks, New Advent.)

After the Decian persecution, the church reassembled itself, and it faced a new controversy: what to do with those who had given into the demands of the Empire and made sacrifices to the pagan gods. Should these "libelli" or "loose ones" be readmitted to the faith without much fuss, or should they, as Cyprian argued, be forced to undergo extensive public penance to demonstrate their commitment to the faith? The controversy continued. Cyprian's opponents seized the opportunity to further undermine his authority. A rival bishop was elected and there was considerable confusion as one pope succeeded another, but, ultimately, the authority of the Church in Rome prevailed, and the libelli were forced to repent, and Cyprian's authority was confirmed...sort of.

Church politics aside, it's hard to follow a leader in whom one has no confidence. Cyprian's ministry was never free of conflict. His departure during the Decian persecution was seen as a betrayal that he couldn't quite shake...until his death. In 256 a new persecution erupted, this time under the Emperor Valerian. He ordered that all Christian deacons, priests, and bishops should be executed without hesitation. Among the many who were arrested and killed were two popes. This time Cyprian did not run. When arrested, he admitted that he was a Christian. When asked for the names of the priests under his supervision, he refused to identify them. When asked whether he would reconsider and abandon the Christian faith, he replied, "A good will which knows God cannot be altered." Under arrest, he wrote a letter to the faithful, exhorting the godly benefits of giving one's life for the sake of Christ, a sentence he received when he was beheaded in Carthage in 258.

What's the difference between a shepherd and a good shepherd? Jesus says, "The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away." "The good shepherd," he says, "lays down his life for the sheep." What sort of shepherd are you--a hired hand or a good shepherd?

Some might think that the title "good shepherd" belongs only to Jesus. Perhaps, with capital letters, that is a unique designation. But Peter wrote, "Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away." (1 Peter 5:1-4, 10-11). Surely the one who heard Jesus say, "Tend my lambs" and "Feed my sheep," understood what it meant to be a good shepherd to God's people, but he uses the term "chief shepherd" instead of "good shepherd" to describe Jesus, and I think partly that's because Peter understood that all of those who lead other disciples of Jesus have a calling to serve them as good shepherds.

You may not be a bishop. You may not be a priest. You may not be a senior warden or a Sunday school teacher or a youth advisor. But you are called to be a good shepherd--to stand up and not run away. Does that mean martyrdom? I think it does--perhaps not a physical martyrdom but a spiritual one. What does it mean to sacrifice your life for the sake of Christ--to lay yourself down in the service of others? Might you stand up to injustice even though it costs you some friends? Might you advocate for the poor even though such social reforms are unpopular? Might you stand up for racial justice even though the majority culture will label you as a traitor? In what way is God calling you to sacrifice your own success to pursue God's success? In what way are you supposed to take up your own cross and walk the road that leads to Calvary? In the end, Cyprian got it right: being a shepherd means giving everything up for the sake of others. Likewise, Jesus beckons us to stand and not run away.

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