“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him
because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this figure of speech with them,
but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:2-6)
Footsteps of Jesus
There is an old-timey Sunday School hymn called “Footsteps of Jesus,” that begins:
Sweetly, Lord, have we heard Thee calling, “Come, follow Me!”
And we see where Thy footprints falling, lead us to Thee.
Footprints of Jesus that make the pathway glow;
we will follow the steps of Jesus where’er they go.
— Mary Bridges Canedy Slade, 1826-1882
Subsequent verses send you seeking sheep in mountains, cold and dark, down to Siloam’s fountains to help the weak, into holy temples for preaching, out to the projects to serve the servants, and at last to the throne of heaven. I confess a fondness for the hymn, having sung it frequently when I grew up. Perhaps you know it also?
Aside from its premonitory post-atomic age imagery of glowing track marks, it remains mostly faithful to what Jesus was about: seeking, helping, and serving.
They did not understand
Jesus was a seeker, a helper, and server. But unlike the old gospel song, he really wasn’t into preaching in holy temples. Yes, he visited the temple as a boy. However, he was ultimately thrown out of the religious establishment. You might say he quit church. . . which was probably helpful all the way around, on account of his preference for speaking and provoking in riddles. “They did not understand what he was saying to them,” the Gospel reading admitted of Jesus’ own disciples.
Despite how easy “Footsteps of Jesus” makes it sound, following the Shepherd’s path has its moments of confusion. It goes up and down, backward and forward, and even seems at times to disappear entirely.
Perhaps one reason Jesus was not always understood was because to understand, one must first step outside of the rules of convention. Jesus asked for a new way of thinking. Like, say, to save your life, you must lose it; to be the greatest, you must become the least; and if someone slaps you on the cheek, offer him the other also. And then there’s the whole scandal of the resurrection, which turned the world upside down.
God is close by
Quaint old hymns may be sweet, and I wouldn’t throw the good ones out, but they have their limitations. For one thing, they don’t wander into mystery much. Consider instead the imagery of the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926:
They are like sheep, they are grazing.
I am the shepherd on the brow of the hill.
When evening draws them home
I follow after, the dark bridge thudding,
and the vapor rising from their backs
hides my own homecoming.
(from The Book of Hours, I/40; translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
A little obscure? Notice how the poet leaves the shepherd shrouded in a cloud of steam lofting up from the woolly sheep. Not everything is disclosed.
That’s how the disciples felt, and that’s the problem with mystery—it doesn’t want to be defined. But “the sheep hear his voice. He calls their names and leads them,” so let us follow without having to know all the answers. Even if it means just sticking to the things we do know: seeking, helping, and serving. That is faith. God is close by.
Painting: “The Good Shepherd,” Julien Dupre (French, 1851-1910)
Images of women agricultural workers became a popular subject in French painting of the mid-late 19th century. Julien Dupre drew on that popular theme and moved it to allegory, with the naming of a shepherdess as the “good shepherd.” Christ, the spiritual Good Shepherd, becomes a calming presence without being pictured, simply by the artist’s use of sheep, staff/rod, and one who tends the flock.
From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54256 [retrieved April 29, 2020].
Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2202377733/.