Love Letters from John: The Good Shepherd
When I first started preaching here and there when I was in college, I would take a look at the texts from the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings for the Christian year, and try to find the common thread between the texts, try to find a way to make them go together. Each week there are four suggested scriptures – An Old Testament reading, or a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. But eventually, as I gained more experience in preaching, I realized that it was certainly easier, and often more effective and meaningful, to focus in on a single text. After all, there is certainly enough in most individual passages to make an entire sermon or two. But occasionally, still, the texts for the day go so perfectly together that I feel like we’re missing out if we don’t look at how the texts play off of one another, how they complement each other and point to one another, deepening the message that we can take with us.
Today is such a day. First, the Psalm schedule for today is the 23rd Psalm, the most beloved. We don’t regularly use the Psalm reading in our worship, so let’s join in reading or reciting it together: (recite on screen.) The 23rd Psalm is a comforting psalm – we are protected, safe, loved. From the psalm, we move to our gospel lesson, picking up our theme of God as Shepherd, as we hear Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus talks about the special connection the Shepherd has with the sheep. Unlike a hired hand, Jesus argues, who won’t risk his life for the flock when push comes to shove, the Good Shepherd risks all to protect what is his. He speaks of knowing the sheep, and the sheep knowing him, recognizing the voice of the one who loves them. How far will this Good Shepherd go? Jesus tells us he will lay down his life for his sheep. In our epistle lesson, John picks up the theme of laying down. Only this time, this John is talking about us laying down our lives for one another. He writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
From these powerful scriptures, intertwined, some clear messages emerge. Jesus promises that he is our shepherd, looking out for us at all costs. And in First John we are called to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Simple. We can all agree to that, right? We all know that love is not just about words, right? You can’t act anyway you want toward someone, and just add an “I love you,” to things, and expect the person to be convinced of your feelings. Love requires action.
But our scripture texts want to push us farther. Love requires action, agreed. But what kind of action? What kind of action does the kind of love John describes require of us? As always, our best place to start is with Jesus. We know what love in action means for him: “I am the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” Jesus says. He continues to repeat this three more times in this passage: “I lay down my life for my sheep. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life,’ and “I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down.” How does Jesus put his love for us, his flock, into action? He lays down his life for us. We can’t miss that fact. Love, for Jesus, requires the sacrificial action of giving up his life. We’re not so far out from Holy Week that we don’t remember what love in action looks like for Jesus.
But what about for us? What kind of action is required of us? For John the epistle-writer, the logical answer is clear. He begins today’s passage, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” That seems to me pretty simple and straight-forward. And frightening. Really? Us too? We’re supposed to love by giving up our lives? Just the thought makes us want to shut down and write off this text as “asking too much” or “not meant to be taken literally.” But I think it’s worth our digging deeper. What would it really mean for us to love, in action, by giving up our lives?
I’ve twice had the opportunity to hear Rev. Eric Law speak, most recently at a District Day of Learning here in the Palisades District. He talked to us about what he called the “Cycle of Gospel Living.” He proposed that the entry point into the cycle of gospel living for the powerless, for the oppressed, is through focusing on the empty tomb of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus. But, he said, the entry for the powerful in the cycle is in the act of giving up power and choosing the cross, focusing on Jesus’ giving up of his life on the cross. We talked about how difficult it is for the powerful to give up power. And isn’t this true? All of us have different kinds of power, and I have yet to find many who want to give up the power they have, including myself. We’d theoretically like others to have power, but not if we have to give our power up for them to get it. Do we feel the same way about love? Do we in theory like the idea of everyone being loved by their neighbors, but suddenly feel differently if we have to give away our love, our life, to make it happen?
Too often, we know all the right words about love, but have no actions to support our claims. We know who God wants us to love. We’re supposed to love God and love our neighbors. And we know who are neighbor is – we listened to those stories from Jesus too – everyone is our neighbor! But how are we loving God? How are we loving all those neighbors? All that ‘everyone’? Words aren’t enough. As John says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister an in need and yet refuses help?” It is one thing to say that we love our brothers and sisters and therefore treat them kindly and help them when they are in need. But it is quite another thing to ask the question from the other direction: based on the actions I take, and the deeds I do, and the things I share, who do my actions say that I love? Looking at it this way, what does my life and my work tell others about who I love? Very often, the only person our actions suggest we love is our own selves, or maybe our immediate family. We care about protecting ourselves and a small group of people and making sure our needs are met. Beyond that, if our actions do show how we love others, which others do our actions speak to? Who do your actions say that you love?
Jesus tries to teach us a different way of living and loving. “I lay down my life,” he repeats, but continues on to say, ‘in order to take it up again . . . I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.” His teaching is so opposite from what we’re used to. We are used to holding onto things so tightly. It is so hard for us to let go. But our lives will be most full, most full of love, when we are most willing to give love away. We empty ourselves to be filled. We give to receive. We lay down to take up. We set down power to gain power. We lay down our lives, in order to take them up. How will you love? How have you been loved? “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech”, not in sentiments we don’t really mean, not in holding on to all that is ours, not in fear of what we have to lose. Let us love in truth and action. Let us love as we have first been loved.