Laying Down Our Lives

The text of the sermon, based on John 10.11-18 and referencing 1 John 3.16-24, videotaped and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021.

“I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”

A flock grazes on verdant pasture. Nearby, a vigilant and valiant shepherd stands ready to lay down life for the living, breathing, four-legged woolly collection of the family’s wealth.

Traditionally and theologically, Jesus is the…our good shepherd, who, in his crucifixion, laid down his life for us, his sheep.

Yet, in our post-modern era, existentially, this is a problematic image. For there are many who would resist being compared to sheep. And who would reject the idea of needing to be saved; particularly from an original sin that they cannot comprehend having originated! (Not too long ago, during a Bible study on the Genesis creation-story, one of the participants vigorously objected: “I wasn’t there at the beginning! Whatever happened in the Garden of Eden was not my fault!”)

Moreover, in the ever-evolving landscape of American religion, the numbers continue to grow of those who, for myriad reasons – loss of belief or lack of faith, trust in science and rational thought, mistrust of the institutional church, disgust at supposedly godly people doing really ungodly things – consider themselves “nones”,[1] having no religious affiliation, or “dones”,[2] once identifying with the church, but no longer.

Nevertheless, as we continue our exploration of the meaning of the resurrection…

I digress. There is a reason why the Easter season or Eastertide or the Great Fifty Days, running from Easter Day to the Day of Pentecost, is so (fifty days!) long. For our contemplation of the sense and substance of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the heart of our faith, without which there is no Christianity, cannot be relegated annually to Easter Day alone. Therefore, historically, we are granted this elongated period to examine the myriad, illimitable facets of what it means that Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Now, back to the flock! Sheep symbolize an indispensable, undeniable aspect of our humanness. We need care. At our best, we can’t do “it” (however defined) all. All of us, all of the time, need help. And at our brightest, we don’t know it all and can’t have all, at times, any answers. Sometimes our only certainty is ambiguity.

This truth of our humanness bids we listen again to Jesus: “I am the good shepherd…”

Jesus’ self-description also describes us. We are his sheep; a word in the English language for which there is no singular form. We belong to him and to one another and not to ourselves. Therefore, our identity is not in our separateness, but rather in our belonging to a flock.

And this is purest paradox: Our life in community – each of us surrounded by others, sharing with one another, reflecting back to one another how we are viewed, revealing who we are – defines for each of us our individuality. As I’ve said before: It always takes we to make me! It always takes us to make each of us!

And thank goodness, thank God, Jesus, our good shepherd defines the community: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold and I must bring them also.”

For we, given our individual, personal perspectives, preferences, and prejudices would be tempted and succumb to the temptation to make our chosen company a society of our peers. Folks who think and feel and act as we do. Jesus calls as his flock all whom he sees and knows and loves, all for whom he gave his life.

And all so that we will know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.[3]

I close with a bit of personal contemporary social commentary and life-application.

The circumstances and events of this life often call me to contemplate our historic social-ills of racism and sexism. These powerful prejudices, like a wolf that snatches and scatters the sheep, have hurt and continue to hurt the flock of our human family. Many have been the historical counter movements in response from the Civil Rights Movement and all that preceded it to Black Lives Matter and all that will follow, and from Women’s Suffrage Movement and all that preceded it to #MeToo and all that will follow.

As a Christian, this I believe, this I know

If, when I incarnate – embrace in what I believe and embody in what I do – putting into practice my faith that Jesus is my good shepherd, that I belong to him, that I belong to you, that you belong to me, therefore, that we always and in all ways are equal, then I cannot, I will not treat you in any way other than with dignity. The dignity that sounds the death knell of racism and sexism.

Jesus, our good shepherd, lays down his life for us. We know love by this. As Jesus laid down his life for us, we are to lay down our lives for all.

© 2021 PRA

Illustration: The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur), James Tissot (1836-1902)


[1] General Social Survey data, released in Spring 2019, indicated that Americans, sometimes referred to as “nones”, who answered the question, “What is your religious tradition?” saying, “No religion”, represent approximately 23.1% of the population (up from 21.6% in 2016).

[2] Sometimes referred to as ex-members or de-churched.

[3] 1 John 3.16 (my emphasis)

3 thoughts on “Laying Down Our Lives

  1. Paul,
    I read this a few times since yesterday and have been letting it sit on my heart… I don’t mind being a sheep at all, being in community with many others is my thing. The one new thing I took away was that the community “we” make me “me”. I don’t think I really had thought about that before.

    Here’s my favorite and aha part of the sermon “If, when I incarnate – embrace in what I believe and embody in what I do – putting into practice my faith that Jesus is my good shepherd, that I belong to him, that I belong to you, that you belong to me, therefore, that we always and in all ways are equal, then I cannot, I will not treat you in any way other than with dignity. The dignity that sounds the death knell of racism and sexism.”

    So my question is, when we seem to take 5 steps back (police killings, racism and sexism) and only one or two steps forward…how do we embody and embrace the quote I framed above every day we have have dates, times and places where people have not even attempted to treat us with dignity?

    This was a very thought-provoking sermon!! Appreciate it and YOU!
    Love

    Like

  2. “So my question is, when we seem to take 5 steps back (police killings, racism and sexism) and only one or two steps forward…how do we embody and embrace the quote I framed above every day we have have dates, times and places where people have not even attempted to treat us with dignity?”

    Good question!

    Speaking always and only for myself (and I cannot pinpoint in terms of when I came to this, except to say that, at some point, I came to this self-understanding), the specifics of “dates, times, and places where people have not even attempted to treat us with dignity” fall into that category or under that heading of life’s circumstances (along with natural calamities, generational poverty, hunger, homelessness, human-made disasters, etc.) that are beyond my command or control. In this light, aye, shadow, I am left either to wring my hands, saying, “What can I do?” (often answering myself, saying, “Nothing!”) or strive again to do what I can with what I have. And doing what I can is to labor to embrace and embody what I perceive is the gospel-call to be and to do love and justice (which include dignity) toward all.

    Moreover, in this figurative and literal “thankless task,” I perceive the heart of what it may and can mean to continue to follow Jesus, who, as the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Station Collect expresses it, “went not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified” (BCP, page 272). To wit, how can I conceive of following Jesus without comprehending that his call to me is a dreadful one? To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When Jesus calls us, he bids we come and die.” Thus, the next line of the PS Station Collect: “…(may) we, walking in the way of the cross…find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

    Now, am I always wanting and willing to lay my life down for others, especially those who do not honor my dignity? No! However, again, speaking always and only for myself, am I always aware that this is my call from Jesus? Yes.

    Love you

    Like

  3. Thank you so much for this Paul. It makes total sense. Laying down my life does sound really scary and maybe even a little crazy, especially when it’s someone who has been disrespectful or hateful towards us. But YES I get that it’s still our call from Jesus.

    Love you back.

    Like

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