The Gospel passage this Sunday is very familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus makes the beautiful and comforting announcement to his disciples. “I am the good shepherd.”
This image of the shepherd instantly evokes the selfless commitment the shepherd must have for the sheep. He has to stay with them at all times, even throughout the night, to protect them from wild animals. He must keep a watchful eye on them to prevent any of them from separating from the flock. Should one wander away, he’ll go in search of that sheep until he finds it, and brings it back to the safety of the flock. The shepherd has to keep the sheep moving from one fresh pasture to another. He has to find water for them. The shepherd is their guardian and provider. The sheep are totally dependent on him.
It’s interesting the way Jesus phrases this statement about himself. He doesn’t say, “I am A good shepherd.” He labels himself as THE good shepherd. Why? Because he “lays down his life for the sheep.” He doesn’t say that he’s WILLING to lay down his life for the sheep. No, he’s quite clear about it. He LAYS down his life for the sheep.
Jesus is telling his disciples, and through them, he’s telling us, that he’s totally committed to keeping us safe, to feeding us, to laying down his life for us. What a wonderful teaching this is! He’s reassuring each of us that God loves us unconditionally. The ultimate proof of that love is that God sent him, his Son, to be THE good shepherd.
But this teaching, so wonderful and comforting as it is, also brings up a serious question. If God is so lovingly committed to our welfare, why do so many of us continue to suffer? Why are so many of us without food or water? Why are so many of us prey to the beasts of this world? Why are so many of us lost without home or security?
These questions focus a serious challenge embedded in Jesus’ teaching. He’s assuring us that God truly does love us unconditionally, and that nothing can ever prevent God from loving each and every one of us. Jesus, THE good shepherd is always ready and willing to give his all for each of us. But he can only shepherd us if we allow him to, if we submit ourselves to him. We have to believe that God is Love and desires only the very best for us. When we rail against Love by engaging in violence 2 against one another we pull away from THE shepherd. When we insult Love by destroying the wonderful gift of creation, we set ourselves at odds with Love. When we allow, or sometimes even foster, vast masses of our population to starve, or to live in brutal poverty, we aggressively block Love’s power.
Jesus continues his teaching. “I know mine and mine know me.” For Jesus to shepherd, we have to be in harmony with him. We can’t fight against him. If anything, we’re invited to become like him. We’re so privileged to see in Jesus, God, who is Love, who gives himself without restraint, and is ready and willing to lay down his life for each and every one of us without discrimination.
By telling us that he’s THE good shepherd, Jesus is inviting us to submit our lives to him – to hold nothing back. He’s asking us to reject the leadership of a world that “has no concern for the sheep.” Jesus is inviting us to wrap ourselves in the mantle of Love, to give of ourselves even as he gives of himself. He’s asking us to follow him, to trust him, and him alone, so that “there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
We’re celebrating the fourth Sunday of Easter. We’re contemplating Jesus, THE good shepherd. I invite you to lift up a prayer as you process to the altar to receive Holy Communion today.
Lord Jesus, THE good shepherd,
I give you my heart, my life, my all.
I want to follow you without any hesitation or resistance.
I want to empty myself for you,
as you emptied yourself for me.
Place your heart within me,
that I may become Love.
And so it is.