The Good Shepherd
I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because 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. I have received this command from my Father.” John 10:11-18
We read and listen to the Gospel story to know with our minds and to respond with our hearts to the mystery of God; to the mystery of the human person; and to the mystery of Jesus, who is the key to unlocking both who God is and who we are.
And as we move toward a deeper understanding and a more complete response to the mystery of Jesus, what Jesus says about Himself, how he describes Himself, are most crucial.
John, the evangelist, puts seven I Am declarations into the mouth of Jesus. With these John begs us to sit up and take notice of the faith of the first believers and to believe as they believed.
Today’s gospel, is a response to the Judeans who had gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, the Messiah, tell us plainly. Tell us who you are?”
In response Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”.
What do we make of this I Am declaration? Is this merely a quaint metaphor that can produce rich, endearing and enduring, visual images? We lose a great deal if we reduce it to this. To the Judeans this announcement was a bold, provocative, and even dangerously blasphemous affirmation.
When Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd” the Judeans could not have helped but call to mind, a passage from the Prophet Ezechiel, in which God declares, “I Myself will be their Shepherd”.
When Jesus used the picture of the shepherd and the sheep. He used a metaphor with a rich history that was deeply woven into the thoughts and the language of His people. Again and again in the Hebrew scriptures God is pictured as the Shepherd of His people.
The much-loved 23rd Psalm begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
In Psalm 79 it is written, “We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give you thanks forever.” Psalm 80 addresses God, “Listen, O Shepherd of Israel.” The allusion is strengthened in Psalm 95, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
For the prophet Isaiah, God is the gentle and loving Shepherd: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, He will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.”
Lastly, in the Book of the prophet Ezechiel we are told that the Messiah, will be the Shepherd of the people: “I will set over them one shepherd and he shall feed them.”
The Judeans asked Jesus, “Tell us plainly.” And so, when Jesus responded to them by saying, “I am the Good Shepherd”, He was plainly saying something very clear and very defining about Himself. He was saying that He is the Messiah, that He is God, and that God desires a very special relationship with each of us as individuals and all of us as a community.
We can take this picture of the Good Shepherd and run with it in any number of directions. We can highlight any of the many facets that reflect the nature of a shepherd, the nature of sheep, and the nature of that relationship that seems to adhere between shepherd and sheep.
I would like us to focus for a moment on what I believe is the most awesome and most compelling truth embodied in this metaphor of the Good Shepherd. It is about the relationship. A relationship that presents as thoroughly and completely committed.
When Jesus identifies himself as the Shepherd, He is expressing His desire to live in a committed relationship with us. He is not a hired hand who cares not for the sheep and runs off when the going gets rough or even in the face of a deadly threat like the approach of a wolf.
We once placed a great premium on committed relationships, as opposed to the casual relationships that seem to be the fare of the present time. But deep down we know that life does not work, that life is chaos, without commitment. A family does not work without commitment. A faith community like our own does not work without commitment. And UIDN has been thriving because of the commitment of its volunteers.
To prevent our finding any escape clause in the relationship being offered, Jesus goes on to say that the Good Shepherd is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Yes, it is all about a laying down one’s life kind of love.
If each of us, for a moment, would identify someone for whom we would give our life, then we have the capacity to grasp with our minds and to hold in our hearts the contours of this extraordinarily intimate and secure bond that God sees fit to propose and engage with us.
Listen again to what Jesus says about the relationship to which He binds Himself. “My sheep belong to me. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life, they shall never perish, no one shall snatch them away.”
Though I don’t know the way, and though I do know that the way is treacherous, I, nevertheless, also know that I am safe and utterly secure.
What are the possibilities in terms of our response to God’s proposal? We can run for the hills, we can play games, we can stay in the game only as long as it suits us, or we can allow ourselves to be continually inspired and formed by the example set by other sheep in the flock who have gone before us. Those sheep who serve as icons of genuine and even radical commitment and its possibilities for altering the course of human lives, human relationships, and even the course of human history. Those who have embraced the divine commitment as the model for their own commitment.
By our baptism we belong to and come from a family that numbers among its members countless women and men who have responded and are responding to God with commitment in kind. In the Book of Revelations we read, “Who are these clothe in white robes, and whence have they come? These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
These are our brothers and sisters, who have shared and do share the life of faith with us. Will we allow ourselves the gift of realizing our connection with these people. They give us a rich legacy and a challenging heritage. They provide us a standard to which we are all being given the grace to rise.
Into the façade of most cathedrals are sculpted images of those faithful sheep who have led the way. I believe that each of us has the capacity to love enough to give our life.
We have been created with that possibility of living into a laying down of one’s life way of loving. We can love the Shepherd as the Good Shepherd loves us. I believe that the flock is at its best, and each of us is at our best, when we allow ourselves to pasture and to feed upon such a reciprocal relationship with Him who is the Good Shepherd. And we can indeed love the other sheep as the Shepherd loves us and them. This is to have life and to have it to the full.
Is not deepening our commitment is so terribly urgent? Not only to our families, but to our neighbors and to the very earth that is our only home.
Are we not as a society being asked in this hour and at this juncture in history, to commit ourselves to radical systemic change in the nature of policing? If this does not happen, if this commitment is not made and kept, the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color will remain fractured and deadly. Even as George Floyd’s murder was been adjudicated, incidents of murderous policing were being reported in other locations. The much need change will not happen unless each and every member of this society embraces this as a personal commitment and a laying down one’s life kind of loving, as well.
Are we not as a global community being asked to commit ourselves to environmental justice? On Earth Day during this past week, the president gracefully demonstrated leadership on this issue and owned our commitment as a nation to be the change we seek. The earth is in grave jeopardy because of our historical reliance on carbon fuels. Time is running out.
Several weeks ago, I read an article in the Guardian that predicted dire consequences for human reproduction if we do not take plastic out of the equation of our lives. It seems that at this point we have all ingested sufficient plastic to alter our body chemistry in a most disturbing and dramatic fashion. Science reports that human reproductive assets have been so seriously compromised, that within forty years the human race will have rendered itself infertile. The children of our grandchildren will not be able to have children.
As we wrestle with the consequences of the imperfect ways in which we engage our commitments, we can own our capacity to always deepen our commitments and enlarge the way we love. As we embrace ever more deeply, a laying down one’s life kind of loving, we can draw strength and hope in our being held, thru it all, in the arms of the Good Shepherd.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
April 25, 2021