TWO family groups square up to one another in Acts. One is a blood family. Based on kinship, sharing a similar outlook, it is unsympathetic towards those it judges. The other group has a kinship of shared obedience to Jesus.
Treating people favourably or unfavourably, depending on whether you see them as like yourself, is understandable. But, by reacting to external identity, we fail to see the whole person. It becomes harder to give outsiders the benefit of the doubt. Peter’s words of judgement — “There is no other name . . . by which we must be saved” — do not encourage the high-priestly family to try. The healing at the Beautiful Gate is given for a sign, but the members of the family cannot gain access to such salvation because they do not think they need it.
The epistle goes further than the “children” of last week’s readings. This time, it has a diminutive form: “little children”. Like bach in Welsh, or the “-lein(e)” ending in in German, it can instantly set an affectionate tone. But diminutives can also be patronising, literally “belittling” a person. In conversation with family or friends, context and intention are everything.
The epistoler is not dictating from on high to “little” people at the bottom. He speaks from their midst, understanding that they need reassurance, that their confidence falters without support. He shows that not everyone is called to the same kind of imitation of Christ. He laid down his life for us, but we may be called to different kinds of sacrifice.
Meanwhile, we are not to fear the fact that God sees everything, because “God is greater than our hearts.” His “seeing everything” turns out to be the very thing that sets our forgiveness in motion, because he understands us, in every particle of our being.
The faith community of John the epistoler is a united group; not so for the writer of Psalm 23. He describes a personal, one-to-one relationship with his God who shepherds him. But shepherds do not usually have only one sheep. Sheep are not solitary creatures: to thrive, they need to be with other sheep. It is a sign that we can be authentic followers of our threefold God both in our individual identities and as members of the body of Christ.
The idea of God as a shepherd, and his people as a flock, is familiar from the Hebrew Bible. John the Evangelist highlights a fresh aspect of it, though, with this — the fourth of his “I am” sayings. As well as the shepherd, other characters (the flock, the hired hand, the wolf) appear, playing different parts.
The flock is the object of his care, whether this Good Shepherd is identical with God, or identifiable with him in some less straightforward way (“I and the Father are one”, John 10.30). The hired hand is a poor substitute Good Shepherd, working for wages, not fulfilling an obligation out of love. The wolf could stand for Satan, or for one of the historical enemies of the faith.
As so often, familiarity blinds us to the freshness of the message. Jesus tells us that the relationship between us (both individual and group) and him is a reflection of that between him and God. To see the relationship between God and human beings either in terms of kinship or through similarity of nature is truly extraordinary. No wonder the first Christians were bowled over by the outpouring of the Spirit (1 John 3.24) and the “newness of life” (Romans 6.4) that came to them through faith in Christ.
The image of the Good Shepherd was one of the earliest expressions of Christianity in art. That was because anyone could look at it and see an image of nurture, care, and goodness, regardless of whether they recognised its secret meaning for people of faith. Also, a shepherd makes for a more appealing picture than a stone rejected by builders, or a cornerstone. It looks as if our God has a human face, to help us relate to him simply and naturally.
But it would be more accurate to say that we have a divine face to help us feel at home with God. Whichever way round we put it, it is because, through Christ, we are God’s kin that we are drawn to him. It is also the reason that we have an innate capacity to grasp some tiny fraction of the divine mind.