Fourth Sunday of Easter

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 22 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 4:5-12; Ps 23; 1 Jn 3:16-24; Jn 10:11-18

“The good shepherd”, like “the good thief” and “the good Samaritan”, is meant to be a challenging term, meant to sound a bit startling, though it’s hard for us to grasp that now. Shepherds had a complicated status in first century Palestine. They were regarded with a fair bit of suspicion—they lived out on the edge of society, they were dirty and solitary, uneducated, hardened; in general, it was assumed that they were at least semi-criminal, not above a bit of break-and-enter if the opportunity presented itself. Yet at the same time they carried powerful cultural symbolism. King David had come from those fields, where he too had tended sheep. The psalms and the prophets had spoken of political leaders as shepherds, good and bad, but also, and with striking tenderness, of God as a shepherd, as one who feeds and cradles the lambs. Meanwhile, the urban elites of the Greco-Roman world had a developed and nostalgic image of the shepherd as a sort of exemplar of down-to-earth rural virtue.

Not even the most positive and nurturing use of shepherd imagery, however, had ever, at any point, suggested that part of the job of the shepherd was to die. This is not a normal part of the job of shepherding—there would be no rational sense in an actual shepherd allowing himself to be killed by a predatory animal or by a thief, since this would simply leave the whole flock defenceless, and in any case, however much a shepherd might care about the sheep, there is really no situation in which this would extend to the point of complete self-sacrifice. In fact, the eventual point of the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is that it is the sheep who are going to die, slaughtered as sacrifice or as food, or both.

The good shepherd, then, as Jesus presents it, is the one who violates all social conventions, and indeed common sense; the shepherd who identifies entirely with the flock, the shepherd who becomes the lamb for the slaughter, who becomes food and sacrifice. The image is turned inside out, and made into something new.

That this is something entirely deliberate and voluntary is expressed in the somewhat uncommon phrase, “I lay down my life … 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.” And the first epistle of John picks up on this phrase, and asks us actively to identify ourselves with the shepherd who identifies himself with us, specifically by sharing in this act of laying down our lives.

We need to understand what that phrase means, and what it implies, if we are to avoid misusing it. First of all—as the gospel makes clear—to lay down your life must be an act of free will; and we cannot give our lives unless we have our lives to give. For people and communities who have been marginalized, who have not been allowed to be full selves or to have the fullness of life—queer people, people of colour, people with disabilities, many women—the first step in self-giving is to reclaim the self, to become one’s own self truly. Too often, the church has demanded a kind of self-giving which refuses this; but God does not desire the offering of a warped and damaged life, does not ask that those who are struggling under the weight of oppression simply accept this as their duty. Understanding that none of us are ever whole enough to offer our full selves, understanding that we all halt and fail and fall short, are all unavoidably damaged, still we must know are not called to frustrate human potential in the name of God. No one must take our lives from us, nor may we allow our lives to be taken; we must lay them down by our own deliberate choice.

But we are called to lay down our lives—and that is real and hard and unavoidable. And both this week and next week, I’m going to look at some of the ways in which the first epistle of John tries to talk about what that means, in the lives of those who, then and now, try to live out that identification with the shepherd who becomes the lamb.

And the first thing it means to the writer of the epistle—means so clearly he treats the connection as self-evident—is the just sharing of resources, and especially sharing with those who are vulnerable and in need. It is not, in the first instance, about the dramatic acts of martyrdom, though that may come in some rare circumstances; tather, it is life laid down, not in a single decisive moment, but in the way a whole life is lived over time, in thousands of small decisions and recognitions. And loving God is not about fancy talk or deep feelings, not about making converts, not even about worship or prayer, but about feeding people who are hungry, using whatever of this world’s goods we may have for the good of others. It is about seeing the job and getting it done.

And here the writer takes a perhaps unexpected but, I think, very important turn—he releases us from our feelings about getting the job done. From our feelings that we are inadequate, or impossibly flawed, or too full of wrong to do right. We may have all these feelings, and more; we may judge ourselves by all kinds of harsh internal and external standards. And this not at all unconnected to the first point, for if you are trying, with any seriousness at all, to love in truth and action, you are going to come up against your own limitations very often, and very hard. You will never be able to do as much as it seems you should, and what you do, you will never do properly. We get tired, we are impatient, we are confused and small; and when it is a calling of love, it is hard to watch ourselves, again and again, fall short. We hurt for this—and our own hearts condemn us. Our hearts may betray and punish us daily.

But God is greater than our hearts. Turn, love, do the job—and release it. Know that you are one of the beloved little children. Know that all your fumbling little attempts to do good are the love of God working in you, healing you too, saving you too, along with all the rest of the broken beloved world, whether or not you feel like that’s true, whether or not you even really believe it. And this too is part of laying down our lives—laying down the expectation that our work will feel good, that we will have clear results or clear satisfactions. We must lay that down, too, into the hands of God, and rest only in the knowledge of that presence.

And lay down, as well, that persistent human wish to be the only ones in possession of that presence. “I have other sheep,” says Jesus, “that do not belong to this fold.” In its first context, this probably referred to the Gentiles, whose incorporation into the body of the early church was difficult and traumatic enough that it is nearly the entire theme of the book of Acts. But each of us now hears it from our own position, and each of us must think of those we imagine are outside, are too different, impossible, other; and realize that they too, in some great mystery, are sheep of the same shepherd. I don’t think this is a call to make everyone just like us, or even to make everyone Christians as we understand that word right now—the church has done great damage by understanding it that way. The incorporation of the Gentiles changed the early church profoundly, changed the assumptions of the first disciples about what their calling meant; and the astonishing mystery of our shared humanity is in any case probably too great to be captured in one human institution.

Rather, this sentence means that we must never suppose that anyone is outside the care of the shepherd who is the lamb—and so, if we are to lay down our lives in identification with that shepherd, there can be no one who falls outside our own duty of care. There is no one we are not called to try to love. Sheep of the shepherd, made shepherds ourselves, called like Peter to feed the lambs, we go into those rough fields, and lay our lives at the feet of the God who comes to us in neighbour and stranger.