“I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” St. John 10:14-15
“It may well be the only tattoo that pays for itself” read the boldly colored sign. Last Sunday my family and I were down in North Carolina for my college reunion. We met up with some friends for lunch at Bull City Burger and Brew, one of Durham’s many new hipster eateries. The poster on the bathroom wall was advertising the restaurant’s latest marketing campaign, a partnership with a neighboring tattoo parlor. A Bull City Burger logo tattooed on your body (in one of the authorized forms, measuring at least three inches in diameter) would get you a 25% discount on all burger orders, for the rest of your life. A new frontier in advertising, perhaps—certainly more staying power than a Facebook ad. I walked out of the bathroom, scanning the biceps of my fellow patrons, to see if any had decided to take the plunge.
Of course, when you begin looking around at any establishment that serves a mostly younger crowd, you will see plenty of tattoos. The most recent stats I discovered indicate that 21% of American adult admit to having a tattoo and the totals for people my age, in their thirties, go up to 38%, nearly 2 in 5. Tattoo parlors show more growth than nearly any other kind of retail establishment. Long gone are the days when only bikers and sailors got inked, and increasing numbers of women, professionals and celebrities have gone under the needle in recent years.
One of my best friends, a priest, got a tattoo a few months ago, Saint Benedict’s raven on his forearm. I was talking with him about it. It was a bit hard for me to get my head around his decision, being rather skittish about needles and uncertain about anything on my skin that lasts forever. But my friend was sure it was the right decision. He had chosen the symbol carefully, and it was a way of marking a new phase in his life in a way he would never forget. My friend had enjoyed talking with the tattoo artist as well over the several hours it took to etch it into his skin. The artist talked about how there’s a story behind every job, something deeply felt and spiritual. People get tattoos to show what means the most to them, and they are a way to belong to something deeper and more significant. “You’re a little bit like a priest, you know,” my friend joked with the tattoo artist. “You might be right about that,” he replied.
There’s something in all that about a need to belong, a need to be claimed by something bigger and more significant than yourself. My generation is notoriously skittish about institutions and commitments. We put off marriage, ridicule authority figures and hesitate to join organizations, the church included. And yet, unlike any generation in recent memory, it seems right to us to mark our bodies with these indelible symbols: the flag, the name of our beloved, an ancient Chinese character or a Celtic knot, maybe even the Cross. At the deepest level, I don’t think we believe that rather foolish story about being a self-made man, a woman of our own mind any more than any generation before really has. We just want to belong, to know a kind of commitment that will not be broken.
When I was doing one-on-one visits in the prison a few months ago, one of the inmates told me that when he gets out, the first thing he will do is go and get a tattoo of the Cross on his arm. He’s met Jesus behind bars, and he’s found Jesus more steadfast and reliable than anyone else who has ever been in his life. He finds great joy in his faith and in being part of His Body, the Church. You should see how they make their communions in the jail—such reverence and attention. They put most of us to shame. He wants a tattoo of the Cross to show the world that he has been claimed by Jesus Christ. And when he first started tell me, I was going to suggest that maybe a nice cross on a necklace might be a better idea, but I stopped myself—or maybe the Holy Spirit stopped me, and let him go on and nodded my approval.
Because why not get a tattoo of the Cross? What better sign of belonging, of unbreakable commitment, of profound love could there be? I read somewhere recently that Egyptian Christians have begun tattooing their children with a cross on the forearm. These are dangerous days there with radical Islam rising in power. The temptations to renounce Christ may be strong there in the uncertain days ahead. “The people of the cross”—that’s what the ISIS terrorists called the Libyan martyrs. Why not put it out there for all to see: marked as Christ’s own forever.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus tells his disciples. “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd marks out his own, like a rancher brands his cattle. And this is the sign of belonging to Him, the sign of the price He has paid for us—the Holy Cross.
“His Name shall be written on their foreheads.” That’s how Saint John described the company of the saints in heaven. His Name—the sign of His possession, the mark of His saving work. His name was written upon us in Baptism, when the priest took the holy chrism and marked His sign on our foreheads. The hymn puts it this way:
Each newborn servant of the crucified
Bears on the brow the seal of Him who died.
He is the Good Shepherd because He leads us in the right paths, and He is the good shepherd because He feeds us with wholesome food. He is the good Shepherd because He protects us from danger and stands by us in the darkest days. But there are others who also can care for us in those ways. What is distinctive about Jesus our Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for us. This is the price He has paid. This is how far He will go, even to the Cross for us. As Saint Paul told the elders at Ephesus, He has “purchased the flock with His own blood.” And this is a price He pays freely. “I lay it down of my own accord,” He tells His disciples. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Our Epistle lesson makes explicit what lies behind those words, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” The sign of the Cross endures forever because nothing in life or death is stronger than the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Cross shows what has been done for us. It reveals the grace that has delivered us from sin and death, made us free in the beloved. And it also marks out the path we must follow behind our faithful Shepherd. “He laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We must love, “not in word and speech, but in truth and action.” John speaks of the person in need, the one who lacks the help we can provide. How can we refuse him our help when we have been helped so completely, loved when we were so unworthy? Christ has made us part of His flock so that we may be shepherds for others—so that we may guide them when perplexed and feed them when hungry, and stand by them in the valley of the shadow of death.
This is the call of the Stephen Ministers, who will talk about their work among the distressed during coffee hour today. And it’s part of the ministry of hospitality we will plan about tomorrow, and the work we are doing together this month at the Lord’s Table and at the Jail. It’s what we do as parents and employers, teachers, coaches and Scout Leaders, fireman and police officers: laying down our lives, giving freely because we have freely received. We have been marked. His sign, His Name, is etched on our brows. It’s the only tattoo that truly lasts forever.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
 “One in Five Adults Now Has a Tattoo.” Harris Interactive. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/970/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx. 23 Feb 2012.
 John 10:14-15.
 Rev. 22:4.
 Hymn 473, “Lift High the Cross” (1982 Hymnal).
 Acts 20:28.
 John 10:18.
 I John 3:16.
 I John 3:16.
 I John 3:18.