A Homily for the Fifth Wednesday in Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.
When we think of tonight’s Gospel text, we only hear five words: “I am the Good Shepherd.” It’s such a familiar text, connected with so many rich symbols, memorialized in stained glass and paintings. 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.
While we tend to reduce shepherds 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. They had to be willing and able to pick up and carry the sheep when they were injured. Shepherding was hard, dangerous work, not the stuff of elementary school Nativity plays.
The Lord is our Shepherd, says the Psalmist. 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. Of a Lord who loves us so fiercely that he would dive head-first into waters to rescue us from drowning, would walk into a briar patch to save us, who would fight off thieves and wolves to redeem us. 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? As we will read on Maundy Thursday, we love one another – even to the point of laying down our lives.
And suddenly the comfort is gone.
“Lay down our lives” – that’s not exactly resting in green pastures or walking beside still waters.
It’s, at the very least, self-defeating. What’s the point in Christ saving our lives if we’re asked to give them up? If the story ends here, if everything culminates in bloodshed, what Good News is there in any of this? 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.
It’s not a natural action. There’s a reason the Church has set aside forty days of fasting and prayer to prepare for Baptism and new life through Christ. It’s why, every year, we wander into the Lenten wilderness and prepare to renew our baptismal covenant at Easter. We are constantly learning to be more like Christ, always being reformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, always being made new.
Our Triune God is with us, shepherding us into new life, and making us the people we were made to be.
And when it gets to be overwhelming, when the wolves and lions begin prowling, we know our Good Shepherd has already laid down his life for us – and taken it up again. Because Christ lives, we know that we have nothing to fear. The Good Shepherd will lead us safely through all dangers.
Let us go on, then, guided by the Good Shepherd, even unto Jerusalem and the Cross.