Principle Lesson (Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B): John 10:11-18
Marie had died suddenly. She was young, with a husband and two middling children. Her mother, Marguerite, worked for the church and school as a custodian and housekeeper. My friend Fr. Brian persuaded Marguerite to take some time off and stay home with her family. “Don’t worry about your job,” Fr. Brian said. “Everything will be okay.” The next day Fr. Brian saw one of Betty, one of the sacristans, sweeping and mopping the Church. The next day, he saw BIll cleaning out the trash. And a few days later, he discovered that one of the teachers was staying after school to sweep out the classrooms, and another was cleaning the bathrooms. She didn’t want to be paid; they were doing this for Marguerite and her daughter. They were laying down their lives so that Marguerite might have some time for tears, memories, rest, and prayers. It was a gift of love.
So often, when we think about love, we embrace a Hallmark notion – sweet words and saccharin feelings. Now, there is nothing wrong with those things; they are a legitimate expression of love for others. We all want to be reminded that we matter and that we are loved – especially when we have apparently not mattered and love hasn’t been shown! We want to feel tenderness and be acknowledged as beloved. Nevertheless, at some point, love becomes tangible, revealed not only by words and feelings but by actions. In Marguerite’s case, love was found in a broom, a bucket, and rubber gloves from a community that had compassion. “Little children,” John writes in his first letter, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
This is the Easter story! “We know love by this,” John tells us, “that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). In laying down his life Jesus chooses us. God’s love for humanity became tangible in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, while Jesus was the victim of Roman imperial power and oppression, Jesus was not an unwilling victim. Jesus willingly accepted death at the hands of the empire, a choice freely made, because – indeed! – he loved us to the end! This is what makes Jesus the good shepherd.
Jesus was also one prepared to be seen caring about the untouchables in his society, the lepers, the tax-collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman, and in the expression of his compassion, that he understood healing was more than healing the body is clear from a number of his interactions.
For those first Century listeners, the image Jesus uses would have had far more impact. Sheep have a notoriously poor vision which is why of course they simply follow the sheep ahead of them. Without the advantage of sheepdogs, the shepherd would need to be so familiar to the sheep that they would follow where he led, otherwise they would most certainly starve for the grass was sparse.
The Judean central plateau stretches from Hebron to Bethel – something like 35 miles long and in most places about 15 miles across. This area was not lush grass – more like stubble on the low hills and without a shepherd keeping a constant watch the sheep would wander far and wide with disastrous consequences.
While there were no farm fences, if you walked across this area, every so often you might come across a sheepfold built for communal use, a roughly circular stone wall with a gap to let in the sheep for the night. To stop the sheep wandering out, the shepherd would simply lie across the gap – becoming the gate. If the shepherd was any good the sheep would know his voice, which would be very handy if more than one shepherd had two or more flocks in the enclosure.
In the morning, the shepherd would call and those sheep who knew his voice would respond and follow him back to the hills where the pastures lay. Gentle he most certainly was not. Enemies of his sheep might well include wild dogs, hyenas, wolves, and in Jesus’ day, even the occasional lion. There were also rogues prepared to use force to steal sheep. Food could be scarce.
The good shepherd then had to be prepared to put his life on the line to protect his sheep. Literally, when danger came there would presumably be the choice either to beat a strategic retreat or to stay to fight off those who would steal his sheep. Whether they be robbers or wild animals, the real question would be whether the shepherd would stand his ground.
That Jesus would be numbered amongst the good in terms of personal bravery would certainly follow from the gospel accounts. One who was prepared to speak up against powerful authority figures, one who cleared the Temple, one who faced an angry crowd in Judea who made to stone Jesus – then a short time later one who returned to that same unfriendly Judea, does not suggest a timid leader. That Jesus set his face to Jerusalem knowing that death was likely to be his lot suggests one prepared to sacrifice his own life rather than his principles.
So much for the straightforward part of Jesus’ intended image. What is less straightforward is when we transfer the image to the present. Very clearly Jesus is no longer physically present, no matter where you are on the theological spectrum when it comes to the resurrection. When people are in danger, Jesus does not appear from the nearest phone box as a transformed Clark Kent or come swooping down on an elastic thread like Spider-Man. So if he is really a protective shepherd we might well ask what Jesus means for us today when he is recorded as claiming to be the good shepherd for those who follow.
We can get something of a clue from what happened in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Last week it was Thomas, disappointed and extremely doubtful about stories of the resurrection. Yet it was that same Thomas who found his faith sufficiently strengthened that he went off in his turn to be a shepherd to the people in South India. Paul came later to his faith, initially one who was suspicious of Christianity and prepared to persecute Christians. By his own account, something happened to Paul, transforming him into someone prepared to shepherd the young Church. Through his teachings, his actions, and his letters, many had their faith strengthened.
When we hear the shepherd’s voice, will we follow from the sheepfold? Will we lay down our lives in love – “in truth and in action” for the world? As a response to the recent verdict in Minnesota and to the ongoing sin of racism and racial violence, Bishop Brewer has written a pastoral letter. Part of that letter reads,
“My heart breaks for people who live with such indifference. How can our hearts be so cold? When we carry such indifference or fear of people who are different from us, we do not look like the Kingdom of God, we look like the world. God’s world and God’s Kingdom are so much bigger than what we know. By comparison to such fear and indifference, the Kingdom of God is a breath of fresh air—casting out our fears, opening our eyes to the beauty, and sensitizing our hearts to the point of almost breaking them to the horrors we experience in our world. In the Kingdom of God, there is far more mercy, far more tenderness, far more encouragement, far more diversity, far more joy, and far more generosity than most of us have ever known.”
Whenever we lay down our life for another we proclaim that resurrection is not just an event in the past. It is a present reality, not just a historical remembrance. Laying down our life makes Jesus’ resurrection tangible and real. The only reason we can ever lay down our life for another is because Jesus first laid down his life for us. The shepherd never takes his sheep somewhere he is unwilling to go. He never asks of his sheep something he is himself unwilling to give. Every time we lay down our life in love for another we remember Jesus’ death and proclaim his resurrection even as we await the day of his coming.
The opportunities for a laying down life kind of love are everywhere. You don’t have to go far. They are the family and friends we see every day. They are the people of this parish and of this town. They are the strangers who pass through our lives. They are the anonymous ones talked about as issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education. The opportunities for laying down life love are not just circumstances. They are people, human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
We need only be present, open our eyes, listen, and pay attention to know how and where love asks us to lay down our life for another. A laying down life kind of love means we will have to change our usual routines. It is no longer business as usual. The life and well-being of “the other” now set our agenda, guide our decisions, and determine our actions. That sounds a lot like how the good shepherd lived and died.
Laying down our life is not, however, the end of life. It wasn’t for Jesus, nor will it be for us. It is, rather, the beginning of a new life, a more authentic life, a life that looks a lot like Jesus’ life. It is the life in and by which we hear the voice of the good shepherd call our name and we follow where he leads. Call it what you want, Easter, resurrection, the good shepherd; it’s all the same, a laying down life kind of love.