The Good Shepherd. That’s such a classic image, isn’t it? We have the Good shepherd in our lives. And because Jesus is the good shepherd we know that he would lay down his life for us. That he HAS laid down his life for us. Jesus will care for all of our hurts, all of our troubles, because he is a good shepherd, not just a hired hand.
After all, the sheep are not simply the Shepherd’s livelihood or responsibility. They are “his own”—like his own flesh and blood. “I know my own and my own know me.” Unlike the corporate CEO, who sees the flock in terms of profits and expenses, the Shepherd cares deeply for the sheep. They are worth his life to him. We are not just a responsibility to Christ. We are his. While this is not the promise of a pain-free life, it is a powerful assurance that we count. We are not alone. Amid so much that is impersonal and profit-driven in the world, we have a God who sees, notices, and cares. God is with us. God will not turn from us.
We know that God loved us because of what Christ has done for us. God’s love came to us before we had done anything to deserve it. This is joyous, wonderful news. Knowing that no matter how far we stray, Christ will come looking for us. No matter what trouble we get into, Jesus will be there for us through it. We should rejoice and find comfort in it. We don’t need to do anything to gain God’s love, because God already loves us!
Now, by calling ourselves Christians we agree to follow Christ. Do do as he did. How can we claim genuine faith without authenticating action, asks John in the first lesson? Words lead to deeds: “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” We cannot believe in Jesus without believing in love, and we cannot have love without action. Because God loved us, we are supposed to help those in need. Because God loved us. Not in order to get God to love us. That’s already happened, remember.
So we too are called to live lives of love and caring that stand in contradiction to all that debases and diminishes human life. We are, after all, not “our own” we are Christ’s.We are called to live as Christ in the world. We are not only sheep; we are also called to act as the risen Shepherd in the world. Jesus makes it clear as he draws near the cross that his motivation is love. He is choosing to make this sacrifice. He is choosing to be faithful to what God has put before him.
In the first letter of John we are challenged to love in that same manner. If he loved us enough to lay down his life for us, we should be willing to lay down our life for each other. But that sounds crazy in actual practice… doesn’t it? There is a tale that in the first century a man came to Tertullian, a father in the early church. And in trying to justify some compromises the man had felt he had to make, commented, “I have to live, don’t I?” to which Tertullian is reported to have said, “Do you?” The challenge is to focus away from self and to others, to ask where our real values are: Is what matters only survival? Or does the way we live matter more? Are there some things worth giving up our lives for? Can we love one another that much?
Jesus says yes. And turns, giving up his life for all of us. The shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, proving that we are truly his own. Alright, so we know that we have love by laying down our lives for another. But honestly… how often do we come across the situation where we lay down our lives for one another these days? Sure, we hear stories in the news of people who run into burning buildings or jump after drowning victims or foil robberies, but those aren’t the norm. Most of the time, that just isn’t what we are asked to do. Most of us will never be in a position to do such things.
However, the call to risk, to sacrifice, is more than with just our deaths. We can sacrifice not only with our life but with the years and days that make up our lives. Have you ever seen the famous drawing called The Praying Hands by German artist Albrecht Durer? There is a legend behind the painting that tells of two struggling artists. One is a musician whose goal in life was to play and compose music to the glory of God. Durer, the other of the two, was a painter and engraver. They had flipped a coin to decide who would go on to become an artist and who would work in the goldmines to support them financially. Albrecht won the coin toss, and so he went on to Italy to work on his art, while his anonymous friend or brother worked in the mines. One day when Albrecht came back to his hometown he saw the gnarled, work-ruined hands of the man, too hardened to return to his career in music. The legend is that those hands have become the model for the famous praying hands. Whether or not the story is true, it is an example of the love John talks about here. The actions of a good shepherd. Laying down one’s life is not always a matter of life or death, but at a time of postponing or canceling dreams and plans so that another might fulfill their dreams or plans.
We are called to such stories. And perhaps a bit intimidated by them. We aren’t sure if we are capable of such dramatic sacrifices. But these sacrifices exist on the small scale too. Every day there are small quiet sacrifices of love. A teacher takes money out of his or her own pocket to buy teaching resources that enhance her students’ learning. A neighbor delivers a casserole to a sick friend. A politician takes an unpopular and principled stand to see that benefits to the poor are not cut, even if it costs him or her votes. Maybe it’s as simple as taking time from a busy schedule to listen, maybe even give a hug, to someone who is feeling down and unlovely or unlovable.
Dave Simmons tells a story about his eight year old daughter making such a sacrifice. He came upon a petting zoo while out with her and her younger brother. Thinking to give them a chance to play while he shopped, he gave them each a quarter and headed off. He relates what happens next. “A few minutes later, I turned around and saw Helen walking along behind me. I was shocked to see she preferred the hardware department to the petting zoo. Recognizing my error, I bent down and asked her what was wrong.
She looked up at me with those giant limpid brown eyes and said sadly, ‘Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave Brandon my quarter.’ Then she said the most beautiful thing I ever heard. She repeated the family motto. The family motto is ‘Love is Action!’
She had given Brandon her quarter, and no one loves cuddly furry creatures more than Helen. She had watched Sandy take my steak and say, ‘Love is Action!’ She had watched both of us do and say ‘Love is Action!’ for years around the house and Kings Arrow Ranch. She had heard and seen ‘Love is Action,’ and now she had incorporated it into her little lifestyle. It had become part of her.”
Even small sacrifices reveal immense love and caring. While they do not cost us our lives, they reveal the true depths of the love Jesus calls us towards.
Yes, but.. what about people we don’t like? What about those we don’t want to love? Surely Jesus didn’t want us to love them too.. Well, Frederick Buechner once said that “[Jesus] is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them . . . This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it does not have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for people’s well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.” We still make the sacrifices even when there isn’t like, because Jesus
calls us to love.
That’s the kind of love to which we are called. Love that isn’t just for the good or the kind, but love for the saint and sinner alike. The mean and the caring. Jesus life, death, and resurrection have had many levels of theological interpretation wrapped around them over the years. All deep, logically developed, formulations aside, the simplest interpretation is that he came to show us what love is, and the power of love, seen in acts of self-giving, sometimes heroic and extreme, sometimes quiet and every day. And all of them for those who don’t deserve the immensity of such love. Jesus, the Logos, the Word of God, translated God’s speeches of love and grace into incarnate action, and he calls us now to do the same. It is never easy, but it always brings life. He is the Good shepherd and we are to follow him.
How will you show your love in truth and action?