In case you couldn’t tell, it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Today’s Scripture readings are chock full of references to shepherds and sheep, and sacrificial love… and salvation. Today’s Gospel story follows on the heels of another from John’s narrative… one about Jesus healing a blind man at the Pool of Siloam on the Sabbath. You remember… the man had been blind from birth and the question was asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus answered them, “Neither sinned… this man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then, splish-splash, Jesus healed him (John 9:1-3). So… someone was born blind… so he could be healed. That’s a lot to think about.
Of course, the Jewish religious leaders of the time weren’t all that keen on Jesus’ miracle-working. To their minds, he was horning in on their territory… seducing their followers… leading them away from time-honored traditions like the Law and the Temple, down a slippery slope to God knows where. And, of course, God knew where. God sent Jesus to take charge of his flock and lead them to a better place than the one they had made for themselves, through green pastures, beside still waters, where he could revive their souls, keep them safe and provide abundantly for them (Psalm 23). And neither did Jesus cut the priests and Pharisees any slack. He called them out as thieves and bandits and charlatans—false shepherds—who came only to kill and destroy (John 10:7-10). Ouch! It was almost as if he was trying to get the Jewish religious establishment angry enough to come after him. And of course, they did. We’ve just finished our annual commemoration of Holy Week and the Passion story… and we know how it all worked out on the morning of the third day. It was almost as if Jesus knew that he had to lay down his life…in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, the same as with the blind man at the Pool of Siloam. He laid down his life… so that he might take it up again. What do you think? And what might this imply about the nature of our role as Christ followers?
On Maundy Thursday, we read of the “New Commandment” Jesus gave his disciples: that they were to love one another. “Just as I have loved you—you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In today’s Epistle reading from 1st John (3:16-24), we are reminded of what it means to love like Jesus. We think we know a lot about love, don’t we? The love of a parent for a child… the love between spouses… love of kith and kin… love of country… even love of life. And yet, these are all really just human constructs of love, aren’t they? Based, in some cases, on instinct… or on custom… or on what makes us feel good in the moment. And I’m not saying these sorts of loves are bad… far from it. I believe we were created human so that we could learn—and revel—in what it means to be in relationship with one another as family, fellow citizens and beloved children of God. But the author of 1st John writes that, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v. 3:16).
Have you ever seen a brother or a sister in need and failed to reach out to them and help? Maybe you’re busy… maybe you figure that they got themselves into this mess, and they need to get themselves out of it. Maybe you tell yourself that any help you provide will only backfire and end up being bad for them. Maybe you rationalize that too much help simply breeds dependence. And maybe you’re right, but aren’t you kind of setting yourself up as judge and jury and paragon of virtue all rolled into one? You know better. You know you do, and that’s why your conscience probably gnaws at you a little bit when you’ve done something you shouldn’t ought to have done, or not done something when you should have. It happens to all of us from time to time… that’s what the author of 1st John means when he writes, “our hearts condemn us.” And we aren’t even being asked to “lay down our lives…” not in the physical sense at any rate. God forbid.
But Father Kemper, Father Kemper, we’re still saved, right? Yes, we are. But simply recognizing the fact that we sometimes fall short—and feeling bad about it—is not the full extent of what God asks of us. We must love, in the language of 1st John, in truth and action, daily recommitting ourselves to obey the commandments of God in Christ and abiding in him by doing that which pleases him (vv. 21-24). And it is pleasing to him when we give up our own human preconceptions of a life well-lived and allow the Good Shepherd to lead us to a better place than the one we have made for ourselves. We must be willing to lay down our earthly lives, loves, fortunes and temporal joys—all of these wonderful gifts we’ve been given by our Creator—in order that God’s works might be revealed in us. We are all called to learn from Jesus how to love, in truth and action, and then to continue his ministry in the world, tending to the sick and imprisoned in body mind and spirit, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and spreading the Good News of salvation to a world in need of hope. In other words, we are called first to be sheep and then to be shepherds, willing to lay down our lives… and take them up again… for the glory of God and the coming Kingdom.
It’s a tall order, but it’s the only path to salvation and eternal life that I know of. I wonder if that’s what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of bringing others of his sheep into the fold so that there could be “one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16)… and when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and, at the Last Supper, “Drink . . . all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for [you and for] many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). This “one flock” thing isn’t ex-clusive. It’s inclusive. Everyone is invited to the table. But the banquet won’t begin until we learn to love one another, and to practice that love, drawing the circle wider until all of God’s children are united into one, almighty flock… so that the Good Shepherd can lead us to a better place than the one we have made for ourselves.
And that’s where you and I come in. We’ll never be able to fix all that ails this world… that’s way over our heads. But we sure as heck need to be working on fixing what ails our own selves… by learning to love like Jesus, taking up his cross and laying down our lives so that we can take them up again to the Glory of God and in service to this old world. That’s what it means to be Christ-followers, and it’s through our faithfulness to this calling that God is going to bring about the New Jerusalem.
Let us pray…
Gracious God, you sent Jesus to be our Good Shepherd, to show us the way to your Kingdom, the truth of your love and promise of life everlasting. Through your blessed Son, lead us from the place we have made for ourselves—this old world—to a better place… the place you want us to be. Help us do the hard work of laying down our earthly longings for a greater purpose: which is helping to unite, through love and service, by faith and example, all of your sheep into one almighty flock, under one Almighty Shepherd. In His name we pray. Amen.