Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday); 25 April 2021; Easter 4B (RCL); Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18.
Good Shepherd Sunday conjures images of Jesus with a lamb across his shoulders (this was in fact one of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in the Roman Catacombs). The trouble with this image is that we, the sheep, remain passive. The language in today’s readings suggests that we should be anything but passive.
To begin with, I think the translation “to lay down one’s life for” is not faithful to the Greek. The Greek is τίθειν τὴν ψυχήν ὑπέρ, tihein ten psychen hyper — literally, to place one’s soul over, or on account of. A friend who is a scholar of classical Greek (rather than Koine) suggests that this image comes from military poetry. When a soldier wanted to know if he could trust his comrade, he handed him his sword, and exposed his neck. He placed his soul in the care of his friend. We might better translate then as, “to entrust one’s life to.”
The Good Shepherd entrusts his life to the sheep. This makes more sense of the first two verses of the reading from 1 John: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in someone who sees a brother or sister in need and does not help? The helping the one in need seems a non sequitur to laying down one’s life. But if we translate as, “We know love by this that he entrusted his life to us and we ought to entrust our lives to one another,” then helping the one in need makes perfect sense. Helping the one in need is just a mode of entrusting one another with our lives.
It also makes sense that the Good Shepherd entrusts his life to the sheep in the context of John’s Gospel. In the Easter Evening appearance, Jesus sends the disciples just as the Father has sent him, and breathes his spirit into the disciples and charges them with forgiving or retaining sins, just what John the Baptist said was the mark of the Lamb of God. We are to continue the life of the Good Shepherd; he has entrusted that life to us.
And Jesus will command us to love one another just as he has loved us, and go on to say that no one has greater love than to entrust one’s life to one’s friends. That is the life we are to live in community, trusting one another with our very lives. And isn’t that the way things are anyway? None of us lives without the rest of us. Our individualistic culture wants to blind us to that fact, making us think that life is a matter of the rights that belong to me, rather than a matter of the good we all contribute to one another and to the whole.
If Jesus lives the divine life as the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate, then by entrusting that life to us, Jesus invites us to share in that life. Our worship, our offering of our lives and all that sustains them (the whole created order) to God, and God’s blessing of all that we offer, encompasses our lives in the divine life. To the extent that we entrust our lives to God and one another, we share that life — God entrusts the divine life to us, to live fully or not as we choose.
The Christian life is the process of learning ever more clearly to see this life of mutual trust.