Easter IV, 2018

Every year on the fourth Sunday in Easter season we hear readings about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. 

You may remember it from last year and it will happen again in 2019.  Shepherds and sheep were a crucially important part of life in the ancient Middle East.  Sheep were well adapted to the climate and terrain, and they provided essential materials to sustain human communities, such as meat, milk (which could also be made into cheese) and wool for clothing, which was especially helpful on chilly nights.  However, being somewhat dimwitted and having no features like horns or fangs for fighting and defense, sheep needed guardians, protectors, shepherds.  Because if sheep disappeared; if they were completely wiped out by predators, life in the ancient world would change dramatically.  Shepherding was an essential role in the survival and well-being of ancient communities, and so it is not surprising that the bible contains over a hundred references to sheep and shepherding.

Shepherds were strong, constant, courageous, and dedicated workers who knew each sheep under their care individually.  So why, I ask myself, does this topic always occur during the Easter season?  What does the risen life have to do with the devoted and caring work of shepherds?  Well, if you ask the question that way, the answer is: not much, really.  However, if you listen carefully to the gospel I just read to you (John 10: 11-18) there is a line that provides a link, a point of connection to the passion narrative: Jesus says, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  As soon as we hear that line, we are instantly transported back to Calvary and cross, agony and death.  Of all the biblical references to shepherds in the bible, this is the only one in which the shepherd considers sacrificing his own life so that the sheep may live.

I wonder what it takes to do that?

We hear stories of soldiers on the battlefield taking enemy fire to save their brothers.  Or you may have heard the recent news story of a police officer who traded places with a hostage of a bank robbery and it cost him his life.  I tell myself that I would gladly – immediately – sacrifice my own life for one of my children. (Although I also pray regularly that neither of my children are ever in a position that their lives are threatened).

Now what these three examples have in common: the soldier, the police officer, the parent, is that they all have a deep, deep, all-encompassing love.  I’m not talking about romantic love, but rather a love that puts the welfare of the other above one’s own welfare.  They all possess a love greater than life itself and so one life is sacrificed in the service of love.

The gospel reading is very clear about who will NOT give their life for the sheep: the hired hand, the paid-by-the-hour shepherd who is just doing his job - watching sheep.  “They pay me to watch, not to die.”  The hired hand has no love for the sheep themselves.  When his shift is over, presumably, he goes home and doesn’t give the sheep another thought.

On the other hand, John tells us that Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.  Now there is another and more important aspect to this arrangement.  I’d be willing to bet that in those three examples I gave you: soldier, police, parent, the only thing in their minds was showing their love.  The soldier sees that his brothers are in danger so he steps into the line of fire and takes the bullets himself.  The police officer is not thinking, “Is this a situation where I might lose my life?”  No, all he thinks is that a young woman, a mother of two needs to survive so she can continue to raise her children.  And the parent will do anything, give anything, stop at nothing to preserve the life of a child.  Worries, concerns, or fears of losing one’s own life in the process never come up.  There is only love.  And when we show our love for another we may end up losing our life.

But its not suicide, in fact, if anything it’s the exact opposite of suicide.  The goal of suicide is to end one’s life.  The goal of love is to give everything to the beloved, even if that is the ultimate gift – one’s own life.

The paradox of love is that when we love someone we give everything we’ve got. We empty ourselves out.  It’s all gone.  We drain every last drop of who we are, and yet……we feel like we are the one’s who have received it everything.

When we love deeply we will lose our life.  We surrender it all to the beloved and on some occasions that might mean our physical death as well.

John’s gospel is not a training manual for beginning shepherds. Instead John uses the common and well-known profession of herding to illustrate what’s involved in the deepest expression of love.  Jesus said, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.  Now you love one another.”

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

- Rev. Michael Phillips, Vicar