The Fourth Sunday of Easter
E. Bevan Stanley
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16-24
From the Epistle: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
This is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Gospel, we hear Jesus declare that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Many find this a beautiful and comforting idea. I find this passage confusing and disturbing.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The good shepherd does not run away in the face of a threat to the flock. That is better than running away. But what good does it do the sheep if the shepherd dies? Then the sheep have no one to protect them from the wolf. I don’t want a shepherd who will lay down his life; I want one who will fight the wolf.
Reading the next verse clarifies that Jesus is focusing on the love the shepherd has for the sheep that the hired hand does not. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. It appears that Jesus is really talking about the intimate relationship between him and his followers and how that mirrors the intimacy he shares with God the Father. That sounds a lot better.
But then he returns to the theme of laying down his life for the sheep:
And I lay down my life for the sheep. . . For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” This makes it sound like the father loves Jesus not because he lays down his life for the sheep, but because he lays it down so that he can take it up again. So why lay it down in the first place?
And then there is unflattering idea that we are the sheep. Sheep are stupid and smelly. To be a sheep is to not take any initiative oneself. It is to be meek and helpless. I remember years ago in another parish we had a seminarian giving a children’s homily about the Good Shepherd. She took the children over to the stained-glass window depicting the Good Shepherd and was explaining that we are the sheep. One four-year-old exploded in indignation, declaring quite loudly, “I am not a sheep; I’m a person.” At which point the seminarian pivoted and took the kids to look at another window showing Jesus with the children. I remember that when I was a teenager, the imagery of the followers of Jesus being sheep was one of the main reasons I had no interest in Christianity.
Let’s take a break from my issues and look at the beloved 23rd Psalm. It is a lovely picture of how God takes care of us. Even in valley of the shadow of death we fear no evil. We can trust God no matter how dark or difficult our lives become.
The image of the shepherd in Israelite and Jewish tradition is long and complicated. Abel is the first shepherd and is murdered by his crop-planting brother. The patriarchs are nomadic sheep and cattle herders, and it was held to be an honorable way of life though at odds with settled agriculture. By the time of David, shepherding was left to the youngest son. It was less prestigious than other activities and professions. Nevertheless, the prophets will use the figure of the shepherd as a metaphor for the kings and other leaders of the Israelites. In Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus the shepherds are definitely low class men working in a smelly, lowly job.
It has often been noted that the way shepherding is done is very different in the eastern Mediterranean and the British isles. In Scotland and Wales, sheep are driven from behind often with help of dogs nipping at their heels. The sheep are managed by fear. In Galilee and Judea, the shepherd led the sheep and the sheep followed the voice of one they knew and trusted. This is the idea that Jesus is drawing on when he says in today’s reading, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” In another place, Jesus says that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice. Our relationship to Jesus is one of trust, intimacy, and relationship, just as is Jesus’ relationship to his divine father.
This brings us to the second reading today from the letter of John. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. The point is not whether dying is an effective way to keep wolves away. The point is that real love is willing to die for the beloved. This is the kind of love Jesus has for us, and it is the kind of love that we are to have for one another.
All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. The Greek word for “abide” is meno. It means to live, abide, stay, remain. At the beginning to the Gospel of John, when John the Baptist points out Jesus as the Lamb of God (not the Shepherd, by the way), two of John’s disciple go after Jesus. When Jesus asks what they want, they ask, “Where are you staying—abiding?” Then it says they stayed or abided with Jesus. When we abide with Jesus, we love as he loves. When we love as Jesus loves, then we abide in God.
When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, he is not talking about wildlife control. He is talking about love. He is talking about love that has no limits. He is talking about love that is so strong that it does not fear death. He is talking about love that is so strong that it defeats death and returns to life. He is talking about love that will transform everyone of us into a superhero. He talking about love that will make us like God.
When we love the way our Shepherd loves, we won’t fear any crummy old wolves.