“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:27) This morning’s Gospel puts before us the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd — curious since in this Eastertide we are still celebrating his Resurrection. Of course, Easter is intimately connected with the events of Good Friday, and so, my mind goes to what Jesus had said of himself in taking this image to himself: “I am the Good Shepherd: the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) Here I am reminded that root of the most commonly used word for ‘shepherd’ is the same as the word for ‘best friend.’ So the Church, then, in choosing this Gospel for today, is inviting us to look again at Easter in terms of ourselves as a flock being led by our Good Shepherd, our best friend: Jesus has laid down his life for us … that we may have life; he is our best friend. (John 3:16; 6:33, 51) The Easter event points us to life — not so much to Jesus being alive, but to ourselves having life in him … even amid the gloom of all that threatens and overshadows us, a message that we need more than ever in today’s world. (C.f.: Luke 24:13ff.) As the Psalm puts it: ‘ The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:1-4) At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the Resurrected Jesus says to us: “Know that I am with you always; yes to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20) The message of the Resurrection is that the Good Shepherd, our best friend, has not abandoned his sheep and nor will he ever. (C.f.: John 10:12) Especially as the storm clouds gather (c.f.: Genesis 9:12-16), the Resurrection calls us ‘to cling to our original confidence [in him] firm to the end,’ when first we came to know Jesus as our friend. (Hebrews 3:14. C.f.: Isaiah 50:10; John 16:33; Matthew 26:50; Luke 22:48)
However, as Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep (which he did so unselfishly for us) is not the point that Jesus wants to stress in adopting this image. Rather, it is listening: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” (John 10:16, 27) It is about going where he leads: “The sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. When he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” (John 10:2-5) We are to hear his voice and follow him. (C.f.: John 12:47; 14:23; Psalm 95:8) And the kernel of what he says to us is given us next week: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34. C.f.: Matthew 22:39-40) The Greek word for ‘love’ is agape, which is made up of two words: ‘Ago’ which means “to lead like a shepherd,” and ‘pao’ meaning “to rest.” His love is the Shepherd he leaves us to lead us to that place of true rest in his heart. (C.f.: John 13:25) In following him, in following where love leads us, we are to love as he loves (John 14:21) … which brings us back to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. For, as Jesus puts it: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) — this is how much we are to love one another, for he has loved us this much; there is and can be no holding back! (C.f.: John 12:24-26)
Following him on this path is risky business. For we know what love might call us to do. In reaching out to us, Jesus sat down with sinners. (Mark 2:16) Of those who sat down at table with him, one would betray him, one would deny him and the rest would run away, and he ended up dead. (John 13:21ff; 18:15ff; Mark 14:50-52) In our loving as he loved us, we are called to do the same … and we may end up just as dead: “Love your enemies,” says Jesus. “What reward do you deserve if you only love the loveable? Don’t even the tax collectors do that?” (Matthew 5:46) We are called to love, as Jesus did, those who will betray us, those who will deny us and those who will desert us — and in our relationships, have we not done as much to one another? We are called to love those as unlovable as ourselves! (Mark 12:31) This is the example that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has set before us. (John 13:15) (Maybe this is why we call God: “Our Father.” (Matthew 6:9) For who but a parent would love the unlovable?) In our loving we will get hurt, perhaps even killed: none of this is any reason not to love; we are called to love anyway. For love is the way to live and the way to life: “Happiness will be yours, if you behave accordingly,” says Jesus. (John 13:17) This is the message of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Jesus loved greatly, and it killed him. But in his Resurrection he reassures to us: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28) Or, as he put it on his last night with us as he went to lay down his life for us: “In the world you will have trouble. But be brave: I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) He knows how hard it is to love (Luke 23:34), yet he calls us to love anyway. So he says to us: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) The Resurrection calls us to go on believing in him, that we might go on with him, even though in our loving, in our doing as he did, we may get hurt. Belief in him and knowing where he is should and will arm us with a confidence that will help us to do as he did (c.f.: 2 Kings 2:1-18; John 13:35), to love as he loved, a confidence that gently assures us, “Don’t worry; it won’t kill you!"