The shepherd and the sheep are old images. When was the last time you saw a real sheep and it wasn’t on TV and it wasn’t in a petting zoo? Our lives aren’t guided today by shepherds, but by Siri, Alexa, and our navigation systems. And yet here we are, in the year 2018, celebrating another Good Shepherd Sunday. And yet, our funeral liturgies and rituals are more often than not, accompanied by Psalm 23. Sometimes images and metaphors, no matter how old, continue to bring us new life.
Jesus, the good shepherd, is one of those images. What most immediately comes to mind for me, when I think of a shepherd, is one who guides—who leads her sheep to green pastures and still waters like in the 23rd Psalm. But in John, the good shepherd does much more than leading and guiding. Jesus, the good shepherd, is the one who knows his sheep and lays down his life for his sheep. We hear this last task of the good shepherd, laying down her life, five times in just seven verses. For this shepherd, a life willing to be laid down—sacrificed—is a fundamental trait.
There have been countless people throughout the centuries who have modeled this kind of self-sacrificing leadership. The list of Christian martyrs is long. But even in the news we hear stories of sacrifice, often in the midst of catastrophe—whether it’s administering CPR to someone while their plane is in a tailspin or making sure a door is closed and locked to deter an active shooter. And we witness advocates and protestors in countries around the world willing to lay down their life for a righteous or just cause—basic human rights, peace, care of the earth, equality.
What would you be willing to die for in today’s world? And how does your life of faith intersect with those convictions that you would die for?
Don’t worry, not every one of us is called to stand in front of tanks or go on hunger strikes, in fact very few of us are. The author of First John reminds us that there are many different ways for one to lay down their life for another, including extending help, as much as you are able, when another is in need. And at the heart of what we do for others—whatever that looks like—is love. And not just any love—God’s love shown to us through Jesus, the good shepherd, the one who laid down his life for the world.
Already four weeks removed from Easter, the resurrection light can start losing some of its sparkle. Yet just as the risen Christ appeared to Thomas and to the disciples gathered around a meal of broiled fish, the risen Christ appears to us as the good shepherd, the one who knows us and love us like a shepherd does her flock. The risen Christ is the good shepherd whose goodness and mercy pursues us. The risen Christ is the good shepherd who knows us inside and out, who walks with us through green pastures and dark valleys. The risen Christ is the good shepherd whose love transforms us into sheep who love, not in word or speech, but in faith and action.
Sheep are always part of a flock. Even the ones who wander or are misled and misguided, are sought out by the shepherd and brought back to the fold. In the same way, we are part of a community. Faith active in love doesn’t happen in isolation. Discipleship happens in community. Our lives of faith are developed, nurtured, grown and strengthened with a faith community. When siblings in Christ are lost or wandering, isolated or ignorant, or trapped in darkness, Jesus seeks and finds them, bringing them back into the beloved community. As a community, as that flock of the good shepherd, we gather to eat and drink together. We gather to help one another and share God’s peace. We gather to be nourished and led out into the world strengthened by the life and love of the risen Christ.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Joined to the risen life of Christ in baptism, our lives are shaped by generosity and sacrifice. Our lives become mirrors reflected the love that has first been shown to us. This Easter season, the risen Christ keeps showing up, giving us new life. Today, that new life lies in the reminder that laying down one’s life isn’t something to be feared, but an act that defies death. Today, that new life lies in the promise that, washed in the waters of baptism, we already live and breathe as the resurrected body of Christ for the world.