Fourth Sunday of Easter - April 25, 2021
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Acts 4:5-12 + Psalm 23 + 1 John 3:16-24 + John 10:11-18
Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! I speak to you today in the Name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The image has become as saccharine as it is predictable. A gentle Jesus donned in draping white robes, clutching a hooked wooden staff as he cuddles a tiny lamb in his arms; or having slung the wooly little beast around the nape of his neck, carries it to apparent safety.
Behold: “The Good Shepherd:” A time-honored and ubiquitous image of Jesus as the one who cares tenderly for his little flock. It is this image we meet again today in John’s gospel, although its origins go back centuries before Christ.
To be sure, in a predominantly pastoral environment, the sages and prophets of ancient Israel could hardly help themselves. References to God as “The Good Shepherd” seeking the lost and tending to the flock that is Israel, abound throughout the Old Testament. Who among us has not heard Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want….” Or again, drawing on the same pastoral image, the prophet Ezekiel [chap. 34] perhaps more than any other, becomes the source of inspiration for Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel. The striking similarities between today’s gospel and Ezekiel’s prophecy some 600 years earlier is worthy of reflection:
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.... (Ezekiel 34)
Even long after Israel became a more agricultural society, when YHWH was imaged as “planter of seeds” and “pruner of vines” – the rugged romanticism of God as the “Good Shepherd” persisted – right up to the time of Christ, when his disciples identified him as the very One in whom God searches and finds, heals and binds. Indeed, Israel’s greatest leaders, prophets, and kings: Abraham, Moses, Miriam, even King David were all drawn from the company of shepherds. And thus, “shepherd” became a figurative term for the rulers of God’s people – a reference that was not uncommon in the broader ancient Near East. Thus, corrupt, despotic kings were likewise denounced as “wicked shepherds” as we see in this dire warning issued against them by the prophet Jeremiah 23:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.
And for the record, when a prophet says on behalf of God, “I will ATTEND to you for your evil doings” that’s like your mother saying, “wait till your father gets home.” So, you NEVER want to hear that…NOTHING good can ever come of that…!
So, there is no doubt as to the origins or provenance of Jesus’ self-identification as the Good Shepherd here in John 10. It comes from a long history of Israel seeing in their God “The Good Shepherd” – the One who was not like those corrupt kings and rulers who do not have Israel’s best interest at heart. Thus, Jesus’ self-identification as the “good shepherd” would have touched deeply resonant cords with his first disciples and those to whom he preached in Galilee. “I belong to you and you belong to me,” he wants tells them. “The good shepherd knows his flock and the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd.”
Here he promises an intimacy with his disciples not found among the many corrupt rulers and leaders throughout Israel’s history. Yet despite the familiar territory of shepherding as a metaphor for leadership, Jesus adds a unique and unprecedented feature to the manner of his shepherding: That is, his willingness to die for his sheep. This idea has virtually no precedent in the history of ancient Israel. Yet, in the gospel passage we heard today, Jesus reiterates this no less than five times between verses 11 and 18.
Perhaps it is no surprise that John picks up on this particular feature of Jesus’ mission, since throughout the New Testament Johannine literature we see a close association of Jesus with the sacrificial lamb whose blood liberated Israel from death at the time of the great Exodus from Egypt.“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Proclaims John the Baptist in John 1:29. Or again, in the Book of Revelation (5:6), also closely associated with the Johannine community of this gospel, we read: Then I saw…a Lamb standing as if it had been slain….
Still, for Jesus to insist that he was a “good shepherd” precisely because he would lay down his life for his sheep, could only have been bewildering to his listeners. A dead shepherd, after all, is no good to anyone. How can a dead shepherd tend to his flock? How can he protect them? Seek the lost? Bind their wounds?
And by the reaction of the crowds, John reports in no uncertain terms the kind of bewilderment Jesus instilled in his listeners. We read in verses 19ff:
These words caused fresh division among the Jews. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is raving mad. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Why then would Jesus manifestly introduce and repeat this aspect of “laying down his life for his sheep”? In my many years of ministry here, many of you have grappled with this same question: “Why the Cross?” or “Why did Jesus have to die?” And “What does this tell us about the God of Christianity?” It is here that Jesus himself, responds to this question in unexpected and surprising ways. First, Jesus reveals that the intimacy between himself and his flock is an outpouring or consequence of Jesus’ intimacy with his Abba. He says this:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep. (Jn. 10:15)
Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” precisely and insofar as he is one with the God of Israel. The two do not function independently or as an angry Father-God demanding the blood sacrifice of a human person. The two are intimately one, as Jesus will reiterate over and over in John’s gospel: to know me is to know my Abba. It is precisely into this relationship of divine intimacy that Jesus raises us, envelops us, incorporates us. And it is within this context of divine intimacy that Jesus offers his bewildering reflection on the meaning and purpose of his death:
I lay down my life in order to [ ἵνα ] take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. (Jn. 10:17, 18)
Two immediate comments: The phrase “in order to” is the translation of a single but very clear word in Greek: ἵνα [hina]. Indeed, best translated as “in order to” or perhaps “so that” – in Greek it clearly and emphatically expresses causality and dependency. Thus, in Greek we have a bewildering teaching indeed. It might read awkwardly but bluntly as follows: The reason I lay down my life is precisely so that I might take it up again.
This entire section of John, which begins in chapter 7 and ends here with this teaching of Jesus in chapter 10, revolves around the Jewish feast of Shelters. A High Holy day that commemorates the intimate presence of God with Israel during the Exodus at the time of the Parting of the Sea and in the pillar of fire that accompanied them in the wilderness.
It is here in John 7 that this section opens as follows:
Jesus traveled round Galilee though he could not travel around Judaea, because the Judeans were seeking to kill him. (Jn. 7:1)
This teaching of Jesus at the end of Chapter 10 is his response. “It is not I who will be passively killed, rather it is I who actively, willingly, lay down my life for me sheep.” As Moses Shepherded the People Israel at the time of the first Passover from slavery to freedom, so Jesus will shepherd his flock in this new Passover from death into new life. The cause and effect is thus not, “I will rise because I die” but rather, “I will die in order that [ἵνα] I may rise.” It is the resurrection that necessitates his death. Not the other way around. Or perhaps more succinctly: Jesus’ death and resurrection are thus not so much two subsequent events, but two aspects of one event. In his classic commentary on John’s gospel, the great Johannine Scholar, Raymond Brown, observed rightly that: “In New Testament thought, the resurrection is not a circumstance that follows the death of Jesus, but [is rather] the essential completion of the death of Jesus.”
Brown goes on to specify more clearly, “In [John’s gospel] the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension [of Christ] constitute the one, indissoluble salvific action of [Christ’s] return to the Father.”
That’s a lot of words. So, allow me then to put it in more straight forward terms. When asked the question: “Why did Jesus have to die? Or more specifically, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? The answer, according to Christ in the gospel today, is not ultimately to be found this side of the cross in history. Rather, the answer to the question, is that he had to die precisely in order to be raised again. Or put more bluntly still: the purpose of his death IS resurrection.
Jesus returns to this idea metaphorically in John 12:24, which expresses the same cause-and-effect relationship in even more simple terms:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Thus, asking why Jesus had to die is a lot like asking, “Why does a farmer have to plant a seed in the ground?” The answer is simple: The farmer must plant a seed in the ground IN ORDER THAT [ἵνα] “it may spring up again and bear much fruit”
While this section of the gospel begins with an assertion that the Judeans were trying to kill Jesus for his divisive, indeed “blasphemous,” teachings, this section ends with a clear attestation: no one ‘takes’ his life from him, rather he ‘lays it down willingly.’ And he does so for the very purposes of taking it up again in fullness and abundance. Counter-intuitively: The very reason for his death IS resurrection.
Indeed, here Christ not only shows us but accompanies us like the Pillar of Fire in the first Exodus – Christ accompanies us along the very way to freedom, new life, and abundance:
“I have come...” he says in verse 10 of this same discourse, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10)
Counter-intuitively: A full life, an abundant life, a plentiful life is the very outcome of a life we willingly lay down for the sake of another, a life given over to God, abandoned to God in every moment. Perhaps then, the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 [vs. 4] offers more than just a saccharine image of Jesus with cuddly lambs held close to his chest. Perhaps when understood in light of the dirt and muck of history, the horror of crucifixion, and our propensity to kill our prophets for the crime of scandalizing us with the truth about ourselves, our society, our world….
Perhaps the realization that the death of Jesus is not willed by an angry, wrathful God seeking a human sacrifice for the expiation of sin, but rather is born of an unparalleled intimacy between Christ and his Abba – an intimacy into which we are drawn up and forever enfolded…
Perhaps the quintessential image of the Good Shepherd we reflect upon in Psalm 23 will speak anew its hidden truths precisely in and through the Good Shepherd who precedes us not only in the finality of death, but in all the little deaths that we must embrace along the way, if only as invitations to live more fully still.
Yea! Though I walk through
Valley of the Shadow of death
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff—
they comfort me.
May then, the Good Shepherd accompany you – indeed comfort you – in all of your dying and rising, that you may indeed have life – and have it to the full.
+ The Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.