HOMILY: The Good Shepherd, by James Boyd White

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door,
but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice;
and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him,
for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him,
for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
All who ever came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not hear them.  I am the door.
If anyone enters by me, he will be saved,
and will go in and out and find pasture.
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
(John 10:1-10)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always
acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer

In the passage from John, Jesus uses the image of shepherd and sheepfold to describe himself and his relation to his followers.  This is certainly a familiar way to talk, but I think there is something a bit strange here as well.

What most strikes me as odd is Jesus’s central statement that as the good shepherd he will lay down his life for his sheep.

Of course I know that this is meant as an image of selfless love, and that he is really talking about his crucifixion for our sake.  But I cannot help thinking, perhaps in too literal-minded a way, about the sheep.  What happens to them when the shepherd dies?  What kind of shepherd is Jesus actually proposing to be?

The problem is that if a real shepherd dies, his sheep will be without any protection, utterly exposed to the thieves and bandits and wolves of which Jesus speaks.  I think that if we were to go to shepherding school we would be told that it is much better that one or two sheep should be killed than that the shepherd himself should die, leaving them all at the mercy of the enemy.  That seems obvious.

The question all this presents – “What will happen to the sheep when the shepherd has died for them?” – is a real one not only for the sheep, as I imagine them, but for the disciples too, though they do not quite know it yet.  What are they to do when Jesus has died?  This prospect must be frightening to them.  It is a question for us too, as his disciples two thousands years later.

Where does his death leave us, as the sheep for whom he has died?  Who is to care for us?  Where is our shepherd, our sheepfold?

Of course we know that Jesus comes back on Easter, and in this way demonstrates his victory over death, a victory on which we have built our church and our lives.  But we should still ask what this victory means.

It does not mean that Jesus will remain on Earth to the end, protecting his sheep.  We know that he will leave his disciples when he ascends to heaven, and that he will leave us too.  Nor does it mean that we shall be spared the experience of death.  We shall suffer pain, and loss, sometimes beyond our capacity to endure it.  We shall in the usual sense die.

Jesus’s death for us does mean, as we are told by him and by others, that we shall have an eternal life after death.  But this is a most difficult idea to grasp.  In some way it is deeply mysterious, beyond our present knowledge.

This makes me want to ask: Is there another sense in which Jesus achieves a victory over death, one that we can experience directly and immediately?

So let us think for a minute about death.  We know that we shall die, as all organic creatures do; but we also know that this kind of death is an inherent part of the life we have been given.  Death is not in itself an evil.  It is a necessity; in real sense it is also a good thing, necessary to the continuation of life itself.

For life as we know it involves a process of constant renewal, the making of new life.  Of this process death is an essential part.  We must die to make room for others, as our earlier selves must die to make room for the growth of our present selves.  When I watched my daughter being born, years ago, turning from blue to pink as she drew her first breath, I suddenly thought of my mother, who had died fifteen years earlier.  I realized that I could now see her death in an entirely new light: not just as a painful and enduring loss, which is surely was, but as making possible this new and wonderful life before me and the love this life called forth.

So what is the evil of death?  From what do we so deeply want to be saved?

Part of it – a big part – is that it so often comes at the wrong time and in the wrong way to the wrong people.  If a very old and frail person dies painlessly in his or her sleep, we think that not an evil but a blessing.  We would presumably think that in our own case.

What is evil is that death comes with suffering; that it comes to children; that it comes to us when we are not ready for it.  “Not today,” we say, “not this way”; but it happens – in car crashes, or by disease, or by violence.  Death is often random and unfair, untimely and pointless.

Of course it would be terrible to have to say goodbye to life, and to the people we love, before our time, but I wonder if the very worst thing about death is not anything I have mentioned but something else: the way it works away at our minds, like a kind cancer, claiming that our life has no meaning.  Death can strike any of us at random, without justice or sense.  It can fall upon the wholly innocent.  Any one of us can be killed in an auto crash, or contract terminal cancer, or lose our bodily control or our very minds.  When any of those things happens, there is a voice in us that says, “See: What did I tell you?  Life has no meaning after all.  It is just growing and breeding and dying, in an endless and meaningless cycle.  There is no good, no evil; nothing really matters.  The story of life is the momentary survival of the strongest and the luckiest.  But death rules in the end.”

This is the devil speaking; and what makes his voice echo so loudly in our minds is our own fear that it is true.  It is an expression of the great principle of No Meaning.  It is true that when death comes to us we may discover that nothing upon which we have founded our lives has after all any real value: certainly not money, or power, or reputation, or prestige.  All these fade into nothing, and death’s cry of “No Meaning” resonates through our being.   We seem to have nothing with which to face the facts of suffering and death and their claim of meaninglessness.

This is the point at which Jesus speaks to us.  He tells us that if we live in the light of his love, we shall have abundant life – true life, not the kind of death-in-life that we and others have so often experienced.  Our every act of love, given or received, our every moment of selfless concern for another, is a participation in divine love, in a life that can never end.  Every day lived in love with others, every gesture of love, has a significance that can never die.  We know this because we know that when we face death we shall never find ourselves saying that the love we gave or received or shared was meaningless.  As Jesus teaches us, love is the ground of meaning and of life.  It is the only ground.

In our Gospel passage Jesus uses the image of the shepherd to tell us something about the kind of love he offers us and how it has such power.

First, he tells us that, as our shepherd, he knows us all by name.  He knows each of us.  He is the shepherd, he knows us all by name.  He knows each of us.  He is the shepherd not just of a flock, but of each sheep in the flock.  This is new.  The God of the Old Testament was mainly the God of a nation, a whole people.  Our God, Jesus is saying, is not the God of a nation, but a God for every single person.  To him every one of us is real.  We exist for him as individual persons, every one of us.  We can pray to him in our own names.

For Jesus each human soul is of infinite value.  He will never sacrifice one of us for the supposed good of the whole – as Caiaphas will recommend that Jesus himself be sacrificed for the good of the people (John 11:50).  The only sacrifice that Jesus recognizes is the one he himself will make, on behalf of all of us, the sacrifice that will end all sacrifices.

This image of total giving is not what one would learn in shepherding school.  It is not what we would call cost justified.  It is certainly not an image of life as survival of the fittest.  But what Jesus says and does, here and elsewhere, is never meant to be cost justified.  He transforms the image of the shepherd, indeed any image of human life, to mark out wholly new possibilities, not dreamt of in our philosophy.

He also tells us that his sheep know his voice.  I think this is true of sheep.  They do not see well, but can hear each other’s cries and the calls of the shepherd.  For them the shepherd is his voice.  Think of our own experience: we have not seen Jesus, but we have all heard him.  We have heard his Word, as we did when we heard the Gospel read this morning in this very church, and it is his words we are thinking about right now.  We are hearing Jesus’s voice, hearing his voice that does not die, and he is telling us that he knows us by name and loves each of us with an unbounded love.

When our shepherd dies for us he does not leave us abandoned or orphaned, but returns to us, remains with us.

Finally, Jesus says that the good shepherd leads his sheep to the sheepfold.  Where is our sheepfold?  The sheepfold to which Jesus leads us is right here, in this church – in other churches, in any community of Christian faith: in the love and care and respect we have for each other, and for the world.  It is here that we can most completely face the true conditions of our lives, including the uncertainty, pain, death, and grief that are an inherent part of our life.

Here our deaths are recognized and mourned; here our baptisms take place, honoring the births that our deaths make possible; here our weddings happen, too, the weddings that lead to new life; and here we participate in the Eucharist, which binds it all together.

Here death is in a most direct and immediate sense faced and conquered.  For here we are shown that we do not need to be afraid of death; we need not fear its claim that life has no meaning.


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