The Laid Down Life
Fourth Sunday of Easter
3 May 2009
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, which means that in churches across the country and around the world, congregants are reciting Psalm 23, just as we did, and hearing Jesus say again, as we did, “I am the Good Shepherd.” In some of the places where these passages are being read, on the hills of Palestine, or Scotland, or Australia, or in the rural pockets of our own country, listeners will not have to be told very much about what sheep are like, and what it means for sheep to have a good shepherd. They will know, because the pastoral life is their life.
But in pulpits across America, many pastors are having to explain a little more, because most of us don’t have regular contact with sheep. And I can bet that many pastors this morning are saying something like this. Sheep are dumb. Sheep are smelly. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep are helpless and weak. And of course the analogy is that this is who we are: dumb, stubborn, helpless, weak. “All we like sheep have gone astray.”
But I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to say anything bad about sheep. I’m a knitter. I love sheep. They provide for me the most basic thing I need for my craft. I work with wool every day. I go to fiber fairs and sheep festivals. Sheep are like some sort of icon for knitters. I have very romantic notions about sheep.
The people of Jesus’ day, with more livestock experience than I have, probably did not share my romanticism about sheep, but they were wistful for a certain kind of shepherd. They remembered good King David, who had tended sheep as a boy and then became God’s shepherd of the people as king. They remembered Ezekiel’s prophecy, a promise that came during the long stretch of devastation following the collapse of the Temple. According to Ezekiel, a Shepherd would come to care for them, and it would be no mere human, capable of corruption and susceptible to self-interest. This time the Shepherd would be God: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…. I will rescue them… I will feed them… I will make them lie down… I will seek them, and bring then back, and strengthen them.” (34:11-16) This was undeniably good news for people in distress and despair. The people who clung to this promise knew Psalm 23 as intimately as we do, and loved it as deeply: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. They knew their weakness and their need, and they sought One who would tend them.
And then Jesus comes along and says to them, “I am the good shepherd.” And what he offers is what they’ve been looking for, what we are looking for, too. With great tenderness, he speaks of how intimately he cares for his sheep. Just as Ezekiel promised, this shepherd will care for a scattered people, nurturing them, soothing them, and strengthening them.
But Jesus takes the image further than Ezekiel’s prophecy, declaring, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I know people who tend sheep. They love them, they care for them, but die for them? We move now beyond metaphor, and into new reality. One has come who will lay down his life for us. And not just for us – “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he says. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The shepherd who comes for us, comes for all, and will tend any who listen for his voice.
And then Jesus sets aside talk of sheep and shepherds and speaks directly of what he has come to do. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus is no victim. Not a victim of an angry God, nor a victim of an angry mob. What he did on the cross did not look like power. It looked like defeat. But in John, Jesus is so clear about who has the power. “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down.”
In the early 1300s, a Florentine artist by the name of Pacino di Bonaguida painted an image of the crucifixion that is unlike any other I have seen. It is intended as theological interpretation, not as historical depiction. In it, Jesus climbs a ladder to the cross. The mood of the scene is calm, in contrast to more typical paintings of the Passion. Mary, John, the soldiers, all stand back, passive, watching, letting Jesus do what he has come to do. One onlooker holds a hammer up to Jesus, while another holds a basket of nails. As Jesus makes his vigorous ascent, it is clear that he is making a willing and active sacrifice. He comes to the cross as One with all power, willingly laid down, to be picked up again later in a new way. He is the agent, not the soldiers, or the politicians, or the religious leaders, or us. He gives himself, pours himself out, lays himself down, for our sakes. He throws his life over us like a canopy.
This is not what a shepherd does for sheep. When a pack of wolves threatens a flock of sheep, real shepherds do not throw themselves to the wolves. But the Good Shepherd, facing the wolves of our sin, and our despair, our death, and the darkness of powers and principalities, the Good Shepherd in all power lays down his own life for us and then picks it up again, and picks us up with it.
By his power, and not our own, we belong to him now. We are his sheep, his flock. To be his sheep is to be led to life. To be safe, sheltered. It is to be known by him, and to follow. It is to trust the sound of his voice, and to trust the voice of God that speaks through him. To belong to him does not mean we have all the right answers, or feel all the right ways, or do all the right things. To belong to him means we listen for him, we trust him, we are in relationship with him.
So many voices clamor for our attention. So many voices beckon, and shock, and tempt, and question, and assault. We live in a world that has gone nearly hysterical with anxiety over the economy and swine flu and whatever the disaster of the day is. Some people react with violence, others react with fear, others do whatever they can to close themselves off, to cocoon away from the chaos. We come together to seek another way, and to seek it together, not as a collection of individuals, but as a flock – his flock. We come together to help each other listen, and trust, and follow.
What are you here for, if not that? What are you here for, if not to listen for that voice – the voice of love? [What are you here for, if not to seek that face?] What are you here for, if not to follow him? to have a relationship with him? What are you here for? What are you listening for? What are you looking for?
He is looking for us. Like a shepherd searching for scattered sheep, he seeks us, and calls us. He set this table for us, a reminder that we still need the sustenance and care he offers, the fellowship he makes possible. Most of all we need him, even when we don’t realize it. He laid down his life for us. He prepares a table for us. He makes a way for us. He pours himself out for us, and for all.