A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; St. John 10:11-18
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.
Throughout Scripture, shepherds lead Israel. Jacob and Moses both work as shepherds for their wives’ families, and David was a shepherd for his father before becoming king. In our Psalm today, it is the Lord who is our shepherd, tending to our care, providing for our every need, protecting us from dangers, toils, and snares. This motif has long been a central image of the Church. Our oldest depictions of Christ aren’t of our Savior suffering on the cross or rising from the tomb but carrying a sheep across his shoulders, with a shepherd’s crook in hand.
While we tend to reduce this image to idyllic pastoral scenes of fluffy white lambs and shepherds wearing clean robes while walking gently alongside the flock or lounging on a lush green hillside, the truth was certainly more rough-and-tumble. Not only did shepherds end up smelling like their flock, but they also had to be willing to fight off attackers: bandits and wild animals. Shepherding was hard, dangerous work, not the stuff of elementary school Nativity plays.
All too often, when we think of today’s Gospel text, we stop after the first four words: “I am the Good Shepherd.” But we must keep reading to really and truly understand what Christ is getting at. The Good Shepherd, Christ tells us, is the one who lays down his life for the sheep – a very real possibility for those charged with caring for such valuable commodities. Hired hands may turn and flee in the face of danger, but a good shepherd will risk it all to save the flock, even if it means doing battle with thieves and wrestling with wolves.
The Lord is our Shepherd. Christ is the Good Shepherd. These aren’t just cute metaphors but rather a radical claim about the depths of God’s love for humanity. It is comforting to know that the Lord is our Good Shepherd – one who knows us and will protect us from the snares of our enemies, laying down his life for the flock.
And how our we to live as members of this flock? The Epistle of from Saint John answers, echoing Christ’s words from the Last Supper which we read on Maundy Thursday, telling us that just as Christ has laid down his life for us, so “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
And suddenly the comfort is gone.
“Lay down our lives” – that’s not exactly resting in green pastures or walking beside still waters.
The very Lord, who in the next chapter of the Gospel will call Lazarus by name out of the tomb, who has just said that he will lay down his life for us, wants us to lay down our lives? The one leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, the one who came to bring abundant and everlasting life wants us to give up life?
It’s, at the very least, self-defeating. What’s the point of saving our lives if we’re asked to give them up?
Church history is full of stories of saints who laid down their lives: from Stephen, the deacon and martyr, to Paul and Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and Bishop Ignatius, Perpetua and Felicity, Agatha, and Sebastian. Some went stoically to their death, and others went rejoicing at the chance to give it all up for Christ. More recently, we remember modern martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maria Terwiel, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, recent saints who served the Kingdom of God for years in the face of constant peril before having their lives taken from them. To be sure, these heroes of the faith are inspiring examples of perseverance in the face of hardship, shining examples of our kindred in Christ who laid down their lives.
But what tragic tales! If the story ends here, if everything culminates in bloodshed, what’s the point? There’s plenty of violence in the world already without us intentionally seeking it out.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life. But the story does not end there.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life – in order to take it up again.
And if we lay down our lives, joining ourselves to Christ, then surely we will take up new life. Our faith is not a tragedy; rather, it’s the tale of how, by the grace of God, life triumphs over death.
In the waters of Baptism, we are put to death with Christ. We have laid down our lives already, dying to self and to sin, that we may rise into new life with Christ. At the Font, we lay down our lives that we might take up new life in Christ. In doing so, we are set free to give up this life for others because we know that the grave is not the end.
Living as the people of the Resurrection, living like the blessed martyrs of the past, does not mean that we go out actively seeking persecution. The Blessed Oscar Romero did not ask for death. Rather, taking up new life in Christ means that we will come into conflict with the power of Sin and Death in this world, those thieves and wolves who seek only to destroy, not seeking out such strife but boldly enduring in the faith when suffering arises. And like our Good Shepherd, confronting them will cost us. Like the blessed martyrs who have gone before us, dedication to the faith may mean facing prison time, beatings, or death.
I say this, realizing that in the 21st century United States, dying for the faith is unlikely. Even in smaller ways, though, we are being brought into times of trial. Even in less extreme situations, even in this country, even in this century, there are those who suffer for their faith.
In certain well-off neighborhoods and towns, churches suffer the scorn of their neighbors for daring to feed the poor and housing the homeless, to serve those deemed “undesirable” in our culture. Cities have passed ordinances banning the distribution of food to the homeless, and Christians have paid steep fines and done jail time for serving their brothers and sisters.
Lest we think of this as a problem “out there,” ask yourself: how do our neighbors really feel about what goes on here on Monday mornings? How do they view our guests? And if the City of Macon were to ban food pantries, would we still risk it to feed the hungry?
Despite the world’s resistance, we don’t condemn the oppressed to say in oppressive situations. Rather, we are called to suffer alongside them, using the gifts God has given us to serve the powerless. We are called to do these things – not that we may boast of our own good deeds but because the righteousness of God and faith of Christ are at work within us. As the baptismal liturgy says, we let our light shine before others that they might glorify our Heavenly Father.
All of this is not to deny the painful cost we may be asked to pay, nor can I deny the pain we will bear. Make no mistake: Laying down your reputation, your wallet, your pride, your life will hurt. It will bring us into contact with people we don’t like but are called to love. It will mean risking scorn and derision and possibly much worse. In a world marred by sin and hatred, living a life guided by God’s love means we will suffer, and suffering – even for a just cause – is still agonizing.
But we serve others, suffering for and with the oppressed, confident in the knowledge that not even Death is the end. It is our belief in the Resurrection that allows us to follow Christ; our trust that God will save us from the grave frees us from fear of the tomb. We are called to lay down our lives, not because suffering and death are good. On the contrary, they remain quite evil.
Rather, we are free to give up our lives because of the overwhelming goodness of the Resurrection. This present life is nothing compared to the glory of new life in Christ. Yes, we may be asked to lay down our lives for one another. But our Good Shepherd has already laid down his life for us – that he might take it up again. Because Christ lives, we know that we have nothing to fear. The Good Shepherd will lead us safely through all dangers.