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”, having no religious affiliation, or “dones”, 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.
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)
 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).
 Sometimes referred to as ex-members or de-churched.
 1 John 3.16 (my emphasis)