a Homily for Easter 4B
Text: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. What a great line. The good shepherd. Not at all like the badones, the ones that run away. Or don’t know anything about their sheep. A good shepherd. One that protects the flock. It is a message that speaks even to those of us that know nothing about tending sheep. We hear it and we say, “good on you!”
And yet, few of us really know anything about sheep herding. It really is not an image that is for us. Shepherds aren’t our thing. The image of Jesus as a shepherd, in some ways is fossilized. Cast in stone. Or set in stained-glass.
Throughout all of the gospels Jesus speaks again and again about being a shepherd. And when he does, he is all kinds of different types of shepherds. He is all over the place. He has different values and a different purpose with his flock. It is hard to get a bead on where he is going with it.
laying it down
Curious to me is what this morning’s analogy is trying to say. He describes the good shepherd as
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The good one sacrifices himself? Is that it? Or is it sets aside his life? He then contrasts that with the hired hand who
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
Now I’m confused. If the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, how is that any different than running away in the long run? Won’t the same thing result? The wolf comes in, gets the shepherd, then the sheep still run away.
And further, Jesus begins by saying “I am the good shepherd.” So we know that he is talking about himself. So what happens to the disciples when Jesus is killed? They run away.
and then its gone
This gospel pericope raises the question of what to make when an organization becomes leaderless. What happened to Christianity when Jesus was no longer physically there to lead them? Let’s take a short stroll through our early history.
Those disciples became the apostles and over the next few decades led a movement of followers on the power of their affiliation with Jesus. They did not have uniform beliefs or understanding of Jesus’s nature. They each brought their own experience to their community. As first-hand followers began to die in the middle of the first century, those proto-Christians had to change the way authority was understood for the community. It couldn’t be based in first-hand experience with the earthly Jesus any longer because those people were disappearing. Followers had to believe the word of those new leaders who had received the Good News from an apostle. And then those who received it from the one who received it from the person who received it from Jesus. Then the next generation out had to receive it fourth hand, then fifth, and so on.
Do you recognize this scenario from the gospel pericopes for the last two weeks? Jesus’s return involves passing on the Good News and then Christ reveals himself to them. That was last week. The week before that we had John’s story of Jesus revealing himself to all but Thomas and inviting Thomas to receive the Good News from the others. So we are clearly part of a movement of storytellers.
And yet, the leaderless institution scares us. We want one person in charge. We want one person to tell the stories. We want one Lord to lead us. And when the leader is gone, what do we do? Runaway and hide?
Ah! But there is a difference! With the good shepherd, the sheep aren’t scattered. And they aren’t entirely on their own, either.
Jesus isn’t speaking about a leaderless group, but a group whose leader has laid down his life and hasn’t run away. Here, we might explore what Jesus is trying to say in “lay down his life.” It does mean death and sacrifice. It means the good shepherd puts himself in danger. But it may also mean, as we heard a similar phrasing in lent, that he “dies to himself.” In laying down his life, perhaps he is giving up his selfishness, his self-preservation and self-direction. Perhaps he is saying that for the good shepherd, it isn’t all about the good shepherd. Unlike the hired hand, who does it for the money and what he gets out of it.
This pericope ends with this repetitive description of what it means and doesn’t mean for the good shepherd to lay down his life, to sacrifice himself. It clearly means something to us about death and about rebirth. It is a reflection of Easter and of Jesus’s personal sacrifice. That Jesus will sacrifice himself for us.
But he is also concerned with the group. As the fall-out from the hired hand is disunity, the good shepherd is about bringing unity: bringing all together, as the shepherd of one flock. The good shepherd’s leadership and sacrifice bring unity to the flock.
And this is good for the leaderless institution because it isn’t about the leader. The leader has built up the community. This is proven by the disciples, who do run away from the Romans in the short time after Jesus’s arrest and execution, but they don’t scatter. They get together, cowering, locked in a room. They maintain their unity, even in the leader’s demise.
in blessed community
This holds the key for us. This act of self-giving that Jesus describes, to unify, is our most powerful emotion: love. The very act of loving someone else. And selfless love unifies us.
That love of Jesus bound the disciples and held them together long after Jesus was gone. In his famous description of love, Paul says that love
“It does not insist on its own way” (1Cor 13:5b)
That even love itself isn’t rude or demanding, but patient and kind. Love wants us near and wants to be wanted. Love wants us together and we are nothing when we are apart.
Jesus shows us what love looks like: it is about freely giving of ourselves to others. And its power comes in how it unifies us. How it takes us out of our selfish habits and reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Love that makes no group truly leaderless and no church without hope. For us, His love is everything.