26 April 2015
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Easter 4B (RCL)
1 John 3:16-24
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We all know this phrase, and it certainly fits with the pastoral image of the Good Shepherd. In Greek, however, it is not clear what the phrase actually means. The Greek is “ten psychen autou tithesin uper” the sheep. He “places his soul over (or on behalf of)” the sheep. I once asked a Greek preceptor what this phrase meant (he was familiar with classical Greek, not New Testament), and he said it came from military poetry, and described the act of one soldier entrusting his weapon to another, as a sign that he trusted his comrade with his life. John uses this phrase many times, and always in connection with the kind of love Jesus bears towards us, and the kind of love we ought to bear for one another. The meaning changes dramatically if we translate, “The Good Shepherd entrusts his life to the sheep.”
In Chapter 15 (v. 12), Jesus says, “No greater love has anyone than this, than to entrust one’s life to one’s friends.” Jesus commands us to love one another as he has done. I’m not sure John would have Jesus commanding us to die for one another. In my mind, the idiom of entrusting one’s life to one’s friends fits with John’s understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as glorification. The crucifixion then for John is Jesus’ way of entrusting his life into the care of the community. We are where Jesus is now in the world. We are journeying toward his God and our God. And we are to love one another in such a way that we entrust our lives to each other. That wonderful confusion between Jesus and the Father and the community (I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and I am in you and you are in me) begins to make sense; each has entrusted self to the other.
This trust also gives us a way of discerning the “other sheep” Jesus speaks of. Wherever we encounter communities centered around mutual trust, we encounter other sheep whom Jesus will gather into the fold. The mission of the Church in the world is more about recognizing where such communities already exist than creating them where they are not.
John, of course, is referring to Ezekiel 34 and 35 in this discourse about the Good Shepherd. The kings of Israel who used the kingship for their own ends are not the good shepherd. So God will replace them and shepherd them directly. Again, this shepherding will be characterized by trust. If we are living the life of the Church, we will be in each others’ business, and letting others be in ours. It is a very counter-cultural way to live.