The fourth Sunday in Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” There’s always a reading from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. It tends to conjure heartwarming images of Jesus with a shepherd’s crook holding a little lamb in his arms.
But Jesus isn’t giving us a heartwarming image here—he’s sketching a ludicrous picture. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Really? Is that what a good shepherd is supposed to do? Lay down your life? For sheep?
Sure, good shepherds don’t run away when wolves attack. They stick around to protect their investment. Yes, it might get them killed. There are always occupational hazards. But that’s not because they choose to die. They most definitely do not choose to “lay down” their own lives for the sake of the sheep’s lives. Sheep’s lives are expendable. Good shepherds want to make sure THEY get to eat the sheep—or else sell them or shear them—instead of letting the wolves eat them. That’s the most you can expect of a good shepherd. It’s just good business.
So what should we call a shepherd who values the lives of each of his sheep more than his own life? That’s definitely not good business. It’s ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is a shepherd who thinks that the most effective way to deal with wolves is to let them kill him.
Jesus is once again overturning our ideas about how life works, not just overturning our ideas about shepherds and sheep. He’s overturning ideas about him, about God, about us.
He’s overturning ideas about him: The way John tells it, from the very beginning, Jesus is not just a religious or political leader but the creative, divine Word made flesh. Whenever Jesus says “I am” in this Gospel, John wants us to think of Moses’ God, whose very name is “I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus is saying, “I am who God is, fleshed out in human terms.” “I am the bread of life, the living bread” (6:35, 51). “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26). “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6).”I am the true grapevine” (15:1, 5). “I am the sheep gate” (10:7, 9). “I am the good shepherd, the dying, rising shepherd” (10:11, 14).
In all these “I am” sayings, Jesus is saying, “I’m who John will call the Word made flesh; I’m what later generations will call God from God, Light from Light. I’m all that, fleshed out in human terms.” Jesus is way more than a shepherd, even a good one. Jesus is way more than anybody bargained for. He lives so generously that not even killing him can get rid of him.
He’s also overturning ideas about God: When the shepherd lays down life itself to enliven the sheep, God lays down life itself to enliven this ludicrous shepherd with these outrageously valued sheep. God is our shepherd, says Psalm 23. God is our ludicrous shepherd, says Jesus. We’ve always had trouble with that picture. A lot of people prefer a God who kills for us to a God who dies and rises with us. What good is a shepherd who lets the wolves kill him? What good is a God who dies with us, instead of killing for us, or if not killing, at least kicking a few behinds for us? How many people instead turn to a God they hope will push things around for them? Most people. Us, much of the time. What use is this dying God? What use is this God’s rising if it doesn’t keep us from dying? God is supposed to prevent bad things from happening, not suffer the bad things with us. That’s not the God we bargained for. But this is the God we meet in Jesus.
Not least, Jesus is overturning ideas about us: We so-called sheep are not ordinary sheep. We’re not just followers. When we follow the one who lays down life itself to enliven each of us, we actually lead in the way Jesus led, the way he now leads, the way God leads. Jesus the shepherd got killed, God the shepherd got killed, not because of an occupational hazard, but because he had already given his life before the killers took it. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” Jesus laid down his life freely every day, and by doing that lived beyond death every day, long before the cross took his life, long before he shook up his followers by showing up afterwards.
When we follow him, we lead. “We know love by this,” says John’s first letter, “that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16). This isn’t just dying for one another, it’s sharing life in and through one another, giving our very selves to one another, becoming greater selves than we could have been if we had held back. When we give ourselves to one another, every day, we can’t be robbed of anything, not even life. We’re not doormats. We’re tapping into the very power of God, not the power to push things around, but the power to enliven all that seems dead.
Yes, people have twisted this idea—the power of self-giving love—to lord it over others. Kings styled themselves as good shepherds and expected their subjects to be unquestioning sheep. Masters told slaves that they were their providers and benefactors and that they should be grateful for their ramshackle slave quarters. Bosses expected the same sacrifices from underpaid employees. Husbands played the same games with wives.
But people bought into arrangements like this only as long as they were convinced that their self-styled shepherd was sacrificing just as much as they were. Sometimes that may have been true. Sometimes, maybe, everybody gave of themselves to serve a common vision. But we don’t automatically assume that anymore, especially when the self-styled shepherds don’t look that self-giving. That’s when the rest of us so-called sheep begin to realize that we’re also shepherds, empowered by the very power of God to dismantle every arrangement where some give practically everything so that others can only pretend to be that devoted.
If someone quotes, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another,” we’re right to ask just how they’re doing that themselves before unthinkingly submitting to the arrangement they’re trying to sell us. If someone tries to tell us that our “law and order” system is just fine the way it is, we are right to ask how that can be true when our own Bishop can fear for her life because of an expired license plate.
We’re not so easily taken in anymore, I believe, because over the years we’ve kept rediscovering that the power of self-giving love is a power none of us can tame. It overturns all our ideas about shepherds and sheep, about leaders and followers, about God, about what happens when God’s very life is fleshed out among us in a man who gets himself killed. Self-giving love looks ludicrous. But it stands undefeated. That’s what we keep rediscovering.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Really? Yes, really. Ludicrously, but really. And so is God. And so too are we, those outrageously valued sheep. We all live by the power of self-giving love. Wake up to what he’s saying, rediscover its untamable power, and who knows what might happen next?