Easter 4B – April 26, 2015
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, PA
The Rev. Maurice C Frontz III STS
It seems that every Christian of a certain generation
used to memorize the 23rd Psalm.
Whenever I read it in a nursing home,
I would always use the King James translation,
rather than the newer ones we use in worship,
because it was sure that half of the group
would be reciting it with me,
some who hardly knew where they were
and almost never spoke
praying it reverently with eyes closed,
transported back to who knows when.
The imagery is perhaps unmatched in the psalms.
It is a feast for the senses.
It is a sunlit place, this pasture,
the blue sky, the white clouds, the green grass,
the quiet murmur of the brook,
the darkness of the valley,
the scented olive oil,
the rich wine of the table.
It was perhaps so popular
because it is so personal.
The rest, the comfort, the peace.
And all of this is for ‘me.’
In the midst of an uncertain and confusing
and, frankly, a dangerous world,
a world of war and work and worry,
there is a resting place for me,
a quiet place,
a place that is safe and secure
from death and evil and all that harms.
And it is God himself
who brings me there and keeps me there.
I am able to trust in the God
who is depicted in this psalm,
who relates to me as a shepherd does to the sheep,
who has sworn to protect me.
The Gospel of John shows us a Jesus
who speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.
Who knows whether or not it was this psalm
Jesus had in mind
when he took this title for himself?
But in Jesus’ image,
it is not the delights of the pasture which predominate.
Rather, it is the unity of the flock
and the cost of that unity,
for the good shepherd lays down his life
so that the flock may not be scattered,
so that the individual sheep may not be picked off one by one.
As Jesus tells his own story,
the story of his death and resurrection,
we may see in our mind’s eye
the shepherd interposing his own body
between the predators and the prey,
striking and being struck.
Even as the last predator is felled by his staff,
he sinks to the ground,
overcome by his wounds.
Having laid down his life for the sheep,
he has shown himself the only one worthy to shepherd the sheep.
And he rises to take up his rod and staff again
so that his sheep may always rest securely;
to bring even more sheep to the sheepfold,
so that his flock may be multiplied.
It is a kind of parable,
a way into our understanding
of what the man who is God
does for his people,
what Jesus does for his Church,
and indeed what we, as the people of his Church,
are called to do for each other.
For sheep and shepherd is only one metaphor
for the relationship of Jesus and Church.
King and servants; teacher and students;
mother hen and young chicks,
master and stewards,
all are ways that the Scripture or Jesus himself
testifies to our relationship.
We run the risk of becoming too comfortable
with the image of sheep and shepherd alone.
God’s protection, yes; God’s guidance, yes; God’s trustworthiness, yes.
But sheep have no responsibilities
other than to graze and grow wool and bleat occasionally.
Jesus’ people, however, are called to a life of responsibility.
True, sheep are not called to be like the shepherd,
but students are to be like the teacher,
and stewards are to preserve and improve the master’s property.
When John writes his letter,
he does not tell his hearers simply,
‘Jesus laid down his life for us,’
he goes on to say,
‘We ought also to lay down our lives for one another.’
When we hear ‘lay down our life,’
we are quick to think of those Christians like St Stephen,
who were killed for their witness to the faith,
and of those around the world today
who are experiencing persecution,
sometimes at the cost of their lives.
Because we are not in their situation,
we might think that the call to lay down our lives for one another
only applies to certain Christians,
and that the rest of us may admire their martyrdom from afar.
But while John would not dishonor this kind of martyrdom,
he has in mind something far more difficult for us.
‘How does the love of God abide in those who have the goods of the world
and yet refuse help?
Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’
To lay down our lives is one thing,
but to be responsible with our checkbook?
To live simply that others may simply live?
This is made so much harder in our country, in our culture,
by the fact that the lines between luxury and necessity
have become so blurred as to be almost completely indistinguishable.
While we should not anguish over whether we are living simply enough,
(for of course, we are not saved by our works)
we ought to keep hearing the call to love in truth and action,
for we are saved to bear good fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that God may be honored.
This kind of laying down our lives
may be more threatening to us than the actual prospect of dying for the faith,
because it is possible.
We do not need to imagine a faraway fantasy of laying down our lives,
the concrete opportunity is right in front of us,
to love our neighbor as Jesus loved us.
If the command last week was to bear witness,
then the command this week is to lay down our lives,
in the way we give and live each day.
Let us not water down this command of our Lord Jesus,
let us not regard it as a burden which oppresses us
but as a blessed opportunity
which gives us a way to honor the one
which gives us a way to honor the one
who laid down his life for us on the cross.
And so life with Jesus
is even more exciting than depicted by Psalm 23.
It is still life with an overflowing table,
with green pastures,
and pleasant pathways,
with the rod and staff of protection and favor,
but because the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd,
and know the character of the shepherd,
they become like the shepherd,
they are led into paths of righteousness,
and they will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.