Free gift of love and life

Easter 4, 2009
John 10:11-18
Marian FreeSheep

In the name of God who gives his life in order that we might live. Amen.

John’s gospel is particularly dense. Each section contains multiple ideas and images many of which are interwoven throughout the gospel. This is true of this morning’s reading. At the beginning of the chapter, two images are introduced, that of the gate to the sheep fold and that of shepherd. The image of the gate is allegorized in verses 7-10 and here in verses 11-18, the image of the shepherd is elaborated. In its wider context, chapter 10 connects with the account of the healing of the blind man and leads into the report of the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees don’t understand what Jesus is saying and so indicate that they are the ones who are blind. The life which the results from self-giving death of the shepherd is powerfully illustrated in the raising of Lazarus. Chapter 10 also provides the bridge between the two feasts which John uses to give a chronological context for the reflection on the shepherd – the feast of the Tabernacles, which is the reason why Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the feast of the Dedication. Interestingly, as Guilding has pointed out, the readings for the Sabbath nearest to the feast of Dedication relate to the theme of sheep and shepherds .

Throughout the Old Testament the image of shepherd is used, as an image for God. As in the 23rd Psalm God, the shepherd is one who cares for and protects the people of Israel. At the same time, the patriarchs were all described as shepherds and over time the expression shepherd became a figurative term for all leaders. More often, though, the term is used negatively as an image for the leaders of Israel who are derelict in their duty. In Ezekiel God denounces the rulers who have not cared for their flock and impious kings are labeled as wicked shepherds. (1 Kings 22:17; Jer 10:21, 23:1-2). Because of the carelessness of the shepherds, the sheep are scattered.

When Jesus uses the image of the shepherd he is using language familiar to his hearers – the shepherd leads and cares. In these verses shepherd is interpreted twice – 11-13 claim the willingness of a model shepherd to die for the sheep and 14-16 expand on the intimate knowledge the model shepherd has of the sheep which is an elaboration of an earlier verse. The final two verses refer to the love the Father has for the son and the authority which the son has over his own life.

While the shepherd image is not new, the willingness of the shepherd to die is unique to John’s gospel as is the expression “to lay down one’s life which is rare in secular Greek and in the OT the shepherd cares for (or does not care for the sheep) but doesn’t lay down his life. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the shepherd seeks out the lost sheep and Jesus’ compassion is elicited by the crowd who are like sheep without a shepherd, but it is only John who suggests that the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep.

Not only does Jesus state that he, as the model shepherd chooses to lay down his life, he claims that he has the power over his life – he can lay it down and to take it up again. He will later reinforce this claim when he says that the ruler of this world has no power over him (14:30) and when Pilate claims to have the power to crucify him or release him, Jesus will inform Pilate that he has no power of him except what he have been given. Jesus is clear that the power or the choice to lay down his life belongs to him alone. Giving up his life is not something that is imposed on Jesus from without. It is not a demand that God makes of him or a matter of duty. Jesus chooses freely to give his for the life of those for whom he cares.

Love is the driving force behind this choice. Love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father and the love of both for the world. The command of verse 18 is the gift of love and of eternal life (12:50).

There are a multitude of themes running through these few verses – responsibility, knowledge, love, intimacy, authority, choice and the gift of self. In the larger context are the themes of bandits and wolves, the mistrust of the Pharisees, the union between the Father and the Son, and the life (in the present and for eternity) that Jesus gives.
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One thing is very clear – the author of John’s gospel understands Jesus’ death to be both a choice and a gift. Jesus loves us so completely that he is prepared to lay down his life. We do not find here the idea of sacrifice or redemption. Jesus’ death is not something that God demands as some sort of payment for debt, rather it is a gift freely given, an act of service, an act of love. The gift liberates us and frees us to live both in the present and in the future, because it demands nothing of us. Just as the sheep do nothing to earn the loyalty and love of the shepherd, so we have done and can do nothing to deserve Jesus’ gift of himself to us.

In our economy of exchange this is such a radical notion that it is difficult to grasp – nothing is for nothing. Surely God wants something in return. But love that is not freely given is not love at all, and life that is constrained by demand, is not a life that is fully lived.

God who created us loves us though we do nothing to warrant that love and God will stop at nothing to free us to live the life that God intended for us. God knows that the power of love is far greater than the power of censure, that the power of freedom will always overcome the power of constraint, that the power of good will always defeat the power of evil, and that ultimately the power of life will overturn the power of death.

Jesus the good shepherd will continue to love us into being and continue to give all of himself in the hope that we will be liberated through that love to live life to the full, and so attain with him to that life that never ends.

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