“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 but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth.”
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd – the true, perfect, ideal Shepherd – and says, no less than three times, that the Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
This, says the Epistle writer, is what it means to love and love is what the the followers of Christ are called to –a love that reveals the unity between the shepherd and the sheep.
So what might it mean for us to lay down our lives for one another, for Jesus’ sheep?
There have been times and there are now places where this commandment can be frighteningly literal – places where people’s lives are in real danger and where saving someone – or even just speaking up for someone – may well require dying in the process.
In the courtyard behind the Cathedral stands the bust of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved thousands of Jews from death in Nazi concentration camps and ultimately lost his own life in mysterious circumstances at the hands of the communists after the war.
Hundreds of doctors and nurses in Sierra Leon, Liberia, Nigeria died of Ebola contracted while caring for the sick during the last outbreak.
Just yesterday, Sadeem Mehmud, a Pakistani feminist and free speech activist was murdered immediately following an event on behalf of “disappeared” activists from a separatist region of Pakistan.
And then there are countless stories of ordinary people in ordinary times who die in the process of saving others from drowning or car accidents or fires, people who do not count the costs to themselves before taking action on behalf of someone else.
Are we really required to take on this kind of risk? To make ourselves so literally vulnerable? Is this really what laying down our lives means?
I’m afraid it is.
I’m afraid we really are called to love with that kind of total commitment, that kind of selflessness, that kind of passion. We really are called to follow the Good Shepherd and lay down our life for his sheep.
And the fact that most of us here today will likely not be asked to do so in such a dramatic, life-ending way, does not change the call.
Jesus was the Good Shepherd for his whole life, not only its end. He lay down his life in choosing to take up God’s mission to proclaim the Kingdom and to bring healing and reconciliation to those most in need of the good news.
Jesus lay down his life by submitting to temptation in the desert;
by giving up having a place to lay his head;
by siding with outcasts and sinners;
by giving himself to the crowds in need of healing and forgiveness and teaching.
Jesus lay down his life by rejecting a life of self-interest in favour of a life of self-giving. And then, after years of such a life, he finally lay down his life in death on the cross.
“We know love by this,that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
In what ways can we lay down our lives; our egos, our self-interest; for one another? In what ways can we make other people’s needs the heart of our decisions rather than our own convenience or comfort or desire? In what ways can we make God’s mission rather than our own goals the centre of our being?
Overwhelming as those questions may be, we know the answers to them. Consume fewer of the world’s resources. Be generous with our talents and our treasures in contributing to the well-being of our communities, both locally and globally. Speak out against injustice even when it is awkward to do so. Listen carefully to those who would speak to us. Practice compassion and consideration for those around us. Proclaim the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth. “
We know how to lay down our lives – it’s just a matter of doing it, day by day, month by month, year by year. Slowly and steadily coming to embody the love of the Good Shepherd for his sheep in a life lived not for ourselves but for others and, in so doing, preparing ourselves to lay it down finally should that particular call come.
And if that makes the Christian life sound like rather hard work…well, that’s because it often is. Even Jesus didn’t find it easy.
The good news of the Kingdom, of Resurrection, of God’s deep and perfect faithfulness is not that life is easy. It’s that life matters. It’s that you and I, every one of us, every one of God’s creations, matters. That we are beloved. And neither death nor sin can diminish that.
“I am the good shepherd”, says Jesus. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”.
This is more than simply a poetic phrase. Jesus is making a theological statement that he makes time and time again – in knowing and being known by Jesus, we are caught up in the relationship between Jesus and the Father, caught up in that perfect love which is at the source of all creation, caught up in that love which led Jesus to lay down his life for his sheep.
And so we love not because we should or because we won’t be loved otherwise. We love because Jesus loves; because God loves. We love because we are loved.
And remembering that may actually be the hardest thing of all – when the world seems lost, when we feel like failures, when hope seems like wishful thinking we need help trusting that we are, deeply and truly, loved.
So we love to remind ourselves that we are loved and to reveal to others that they, too are loved. Our love is a proclamation that we and all creation belongs to God and so we are free to be bold in the face of death, being in the care of the Good Shepherd.
“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 but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth.”
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