Would You Let Us Play In Your Imagination This Week?
Do you know how Jesus was most commonly depicted in early Christian art? You might guess that it’s Jesus being born—a painting or a carving of Jesus in the manger. But it’s not that. You might guess that it’s Jesus dying on the cross—but it’s not that either (in fact, the earliest surviving depiction of Jesus on the cross doesn’t appear until 400 years after Jesus’ death). You might expect it to be some kind of a depiction of the resurrection—but it’s not that either.
The most common early Christian depiction of Jesus is the one that we’ll read in worship this Sunday, from John 10:11-18: the image of Jesus as the good shepherd. One example is on the right; it comes from the mid-200s, and is found in the catacombs of Rome where Christians were buried.
There might be a couple of reasons for that the Good Shepherd imagery is so popular. One reason might be that a picture of a shepherd was not an exclusively Christian image, like a cross or empty tomb would have been. In the first centuries of the church, most people in society were not Christians. If a non-believer walked by a Christian’s tomb and saw a carving of a shepherd with his sheep, the might think that it’s just a scene of agriculture. Or they might have even thought that it was a pagan symbol, because it was very common in Greek religion to see the god Hermes carrying a ram. But to a Christian, who was in on the imagery and knew the symbolism of John, that image would be recognized as Jesus the Good Shepherd. In the early years when Christians wanted to keep a low profile in a society that was sometimes hostile to them, a symbol of a shepherd was safe was a fairly safe one to display publicly.
But I suspect that another big reason that this image appears most frequently is that this image captured the imagination of the first Christians. Many more people lived in the countryside in the early church; in our world the majority of people live in cities, but then the vast majority of people lived in the countryside. And in the ancient world, even the people who did live in cities were much more connected to agriculture than many of us are today. For those people, the idea of a kind shepherd, who lovingly carried his sheep on a back through all the dangers of the world—that was an image that made sense to people. The idea of being that sheep, and being carried through danger safely, that was appealing. This picture captured the Christian imagination, and this image of the Good Shepherd was the one that shaped the first few hundred years of the church.
This Sunday, we’ll explore what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. But as we approach worship this weekend, I wonder: what image most captures your imagination right now? What mental picture is it that helps to shape your life of faith? If you’re not sure, take a read through John 10:11-18…and then join us in worship, to see if we can inspire you to live into your sheep-hood in the care of the Good Shepherd!