22 April 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Easter 4B (RCL)
1 John 3:16-24
John uses an interesting phrase in the Greek that we translate “lay down (his) life for.” The phrase is “tithein ten psychen hyper.” Translated literally, it would come out something like, “place his soul on account of.” I once asked a classical Greek scholar what the phrase meant. He suggested it meant something like, “entrust one’s life to.” It was used in military poetry, and describe what we might call a “trust fall.” A soldier unsheathed his sword and handed it to his comrade, and then exposed his neck. If his comrade didn’t lop off his head, then he could be trusted. One had entrusted one’s soul to one’s friend.
This is something very different from what we hear when we hear “lay down his life for his friends.” In the passage from the Gospel, Jesus says, “I set aside my soul so that I might take it up again.” He entrusts his life so that he might take it up again. Isn’t this true of all of us? We cannot live, except at the gift of others. We entrust our lives to others simply in order that we might live. We disguise that trust behind money, but without trust in the basic institutions of decency and honesty, we couldn’t live.
What is startling here, is that God in the Incarnate Jesus, entrusts God’s life to the sheep. In the final discourse, in Chapter 13, Jesus sets aside his garment, washes his disciples’ feet, and then takes it up again. The vocabulary is exactly the same. We only live by mutual trust and service.
Also startling here is Jesus’ claim to have other sheep who are not of this fold, whom he must call, so there will be one flock under one shepherd. We can tend to think of Church as a safe place, where we can always come. But we are mistaking the fold of the sheep for the destination. Jesus says that the shepherd comes to the fold and calls his sheep out, so that they may find pasture. Church is only where we come to rest, but if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to go out as well as come in. And we might well encounter that other flock outside the fold.
And recognition of them will come by listening, listening to the voice of the shepherd. We are often too prone to speak when encountering others, rather than listen. We think we have a corner on the truth, but if we are to hear the shepherd’s voice, we have to listen.