Our Gospel and our Psalm use the metaphor of a shepherd to reflect God’s love for us. In the gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And in Psalm 23, we are told we need not fear death and evil, for the Good Shepherd is with us offering us comfort and mercy.
The images of a God as our shepherd leading us, his sheep, through a valley to green pastures is one that offers comfort and hope even when we read and hear daily about a global pandemic, injustice, violence and death. When facing evil, we want a shepherd looking out for us. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for us.
This is a comforting message, that God is looking out for us. We are the beneficiaries of God’s love and grace. In the first letter of John, we are told that Jesus did lay down his life for us, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” John goes on to tell us, to love, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” By loving in truth and action, he says, we can be assured that “we are from the truth.”
John also uses the word truth throughout his gospel, speaking of grace and truth, and the Spirit of truth. Jesus even says to Pilot, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Here, in the first letter of John, he writes, “the Spirit IS the truth.”
The word truth is used to describe one of the natures of God; “God is truth,” John is telling us. And to live in the truth is to live as a disciple of Christ – not in words, but in action.
In the book of Acts, the story of the resurrection is new and fresh for the Apostles. But this letter from John, biblical scholar William Barclay points out, was written to people who had not yet been born when Jesus was crucified. So, like us, their experience of the resurrection came from their experience of ordinary people who were Christians and through whom the Spirit of God – the truth of God’s love for us, was revealed.
Barclay also suggests that at that time some Christians no longer wanted to be “saints” in the church – “saints,” as the term was used in the early chapter. To be a saint meant to live a holy life; but not holy as we might define it today. The word hagios, translated as holy, can as be translated as different. He writes:
The Temple was hagios because it was different from other buildings; the Sabbath was hagios because it was different from other days; the Jewish nation was hagios because it was different from other nations; and Christians were called to be hagios because they were called to be different from other men and women.
I really like this translation. We are called to be different.
The word holy has, for us, taken on a meaning that exceeds our nature and abilitiy. We all sin and have fallen short of being the person we believe God calls us to be. But, we can all be different. To be different, to live differently from others, is not easy. It requires us to focus our attention on our corporate responsibility, rather than our individual rights and freedom. As Americans, we tend to think of our rights as being synonymous with individual rights. Yet, as Christians we are called to put the good of our community, our nation, AND our world first.
Jesus came to teach us to live differently – to live our lives focusing on doing our part to bring about God’s kingdom – here and now. In 1st John, we read “[Jesus] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” In God’s kingdom we look out for one another, we are willing to lay down our lives for one another. A holy life, therefore, is a sacrificial life. It is not about “me,” it is about “we.”
Seen in this light, what Jesus says in the gospel is even more revealing, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus does not lay down his life for the people of Israel alone, he lays down his life for people of every tribe and every nation so that there will be one flock. Thus, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reminds us that our neighbors, for whom we ought to be willing to lay down our lives, include every human being.
Jesus continually challenges the people and us gathered to understand the laws of Moses differently. He teaches us to expand our understanding of neighbor and he teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us and others.
The comfort we find in the scriptures is one of knowing we are never alone in our struggles. The challenge is to live differently. Few of us want to be different, really. We want to “fit in,” to “blend in.” This is one of the reasons church is so important for us. We can gather with others who seek to be different from society focus on consumerism and individualism and be a part of a movement that seeks to love one another other.
As individuals, we can make a difference in the community but together we can do so much more. And, as we grow in faith AND action, others will notice and may be drawn to God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, where people do love and support one another, may seem like a far off vision – but it begins in our community of faith as we seek to be different, to live differently.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for the gift of St. Paul’s. We pray that you will fill its members with your Spirit that we might live differently in your kingdom, carrying your love forth into this community that all may come to know the power of your love. We pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.