Sermon for April 25, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
John 10:11-18

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No 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. I have received this command from my Father.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

This day in Eastertide is Good Shepherd Sunday. Hence the inclusion in today’s readings the beloved Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters….” And on this wonderful psalm goes.

It does sound wonderful, doesn’t it? To lie down in green pastures. Picture that in your mind’s eye, occasions when perhaps you have laid yourself down in a meadow on a bright, sunny, warm day genuinely to relax and to be at peace.

The language sounds so gentle. The image so compelling. To lay oneself down for a nap or a good night’s rest after a long, hard day.

But lying down has other not so pleasant connotations. As when our beloved ones are laid to rest after death. Or in my Pittsburgh days where and when cremation was not common and visitation in funeral homes was the norm to view someone “laid out” in the coffin. Enquiring about which funeral home to visit, members routinely asked me, “Pastor, where is he or she laid out?”

Another unpleasant connotation is when something or someone is laid off or laid aside, laid down to be forgotten.

Or take the bedtime prayer that I grew up with – and maybe you did, too: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Wow. What an early childhood lesson in mortality to pray that prayer every night…. When my niece and nephew were young, my brother and sister-in-law changed the “if I should die before I wake” part to this: “guide me through the starry night, and wake me when the sun shines bright.” That’s much more palatable to our sensibilities.

But in a culture that routinely avoids the subject of death, maybe childhood lessons in our mortality are not such a bad thing (but maybe not in a child’s prayer every night just before bed).

Night prayer – or Compline – in the monastery is, in fact, a daily reminder of death, memento mori, the Latin phrase meaning “remember that you die.” That’s what’s behind the opening phrase of Night Prayer – “Almighty God grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.” The Book of Common Prayer phrases the opening perhaps more starkly in this way: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

Thus, some musings on the various meanings, positive and negative, of lying down….

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, in addition to Psalm 23, we also have the reading from John’s Gospel where the gospel writer reports Jesus saying this: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The phrase “lays down the life” appears five times in this brief passage, clearly an important phrase to convey the meaning of what a Good Shepherd is.

Laying down the life, of course, is a reference to Jesus’ death.

In ancient Palestine, the model or ideal or true shepherds would risk their lives for the sheep. A good shepherd would literally lie down at the gate of the sheepfold to guard against wild animals and thieves from entering to injure, kill, or steal the sheep. In short, being a responsible shepherd was a dangerous job in ancient times. A good shepherd, in contrast to the hired hand, is willing to put their well-being at risk for the sake of the well-being of the sheep.

So, the image in today’s passage of Jesus lying down the life for the sheep points to Jesus being lifted up on the tree of the cross to die there – an ultimate laying down the life for one’s friends.

But even for an image of death, laying down the life seems comparatively gentle and peaceful.

Moreover, the biblical Greek word has many senses in addition to laying down: to place, set, put, bend down, kneel, to set forth (as in serving dinner), to establish, commit, ordain. All of these senses are inviting in their own ways and may less threateningly draw our gaze to the realities of mortality.

Peaceful death is a very holy reality indeed, much in contrast to the convulsions of violent death. As a son and as a pastor, I’ve had occasion to witness peaceful death. Thanks be to God, I have thus far been spared seeing violent death first-hand, though images of violent death abound on videos as we have been seeing of late.

Jesus’ death on the cross was indeed violent, but the gospel writer John tends to take the edge off, using euphemistic language like laying down the life and being lifted up and even glorified in death.

The truth is that Christ does in fact make our death holy and less to be feared.

There is a prayer, a collect, for Compline that I find compelling. Here’s the beginning phrase of this prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, at the sad hour of Compline you rested in the sepulcher, and thereby sanctified the grave to be a bed of hope for your people….”

Jesus sanctifying the grave to be a bed of hope. This is truly a grounding reality that makes our final resting places less terrifying.

For here’s the good news in Christ: the laying down of life also involves a getting up in new life, a move from the horizontal to the upright. As John reports Jesus as having said: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to 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.” (John 10:17-18a)

Taking up life again, of course, is a reference to Jesus’ glorification in the resurrection.

Death is generally anything but benign. But in Christ, in that Christ has lain down in the grave and has gotten up again, this truly takes away the sting of our death and helps diminish our fear death.

Or as the Thomas Ken hymn text reads in a contemporary English translation, set as it is to the beloved tune of Tallis’ Canon, “Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the awesome day.”

Baptism is our connection to and grounding in the realities of Christ’s death and resurrection that transcend and relativize the claims of death, eradicating death’s ultimacy, robbing death of its final word.

Thus, Martin Luther, on those days when he was most terrified reportedly would remind himself of the objective claims of God’s victory in Christ, saying to himself, “I am baptized.”

Then there is also the Eucharist – and we’ll get there again soon, I pray! – through which we incorporate into our very, dying bodies, the eternal living presence of Christ, made known in the breaking of bread, a foretaste of the feast to come which knows no ending.

These are the fundamental, bedrock realities of the Christian faith, Christ’s death and resurrection, sacramentally constituted by water, bread, wine, word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

These realties are what free us from the terror and grip of death such that where Christ has led the way, we follow. Thus, we can and we do “walk through the valley of the shadow of death… and fear no evil” as we proclaim, “for you are with me [Lord, our shepherd], your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (cf. Psalm 23:4).

Hence also the teaching about discipleship that appears in today’s second reading from 1 John: “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another…. Little children, let us love, not in word and speech, but in truth and action.”

The powerful name of Jesus and our abiding in Christ the vine, we who are the branches, pave the way for our response to the world in laying down our lives for contemporary friends.

We don’t always know what motivates self-sacrifice. Sometimes it’s altruism. Sometimes it’s necessity. Or some combination. But we see examples every day of people risking their lives and sometimes laying down their lives for others:

firefighters, police officers, military personnel, other first responders, those in the many careers in medicine on the frontlines of the pandemic, personal care givers, those who work in jobs that keep us fed during the pandemic, and on and on.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I assisted at the funeral of a firefighter who lost his life in his response to the collapse of the Twin Towers who was a member of one of our Lutheran congregations in New York.

The preacher that day conveyed the image of the firefighter and other first responders as the ones who rush into danger precisely when others are fleeing that same danger. It was a powerful and searing image that conveys the reality in contemporary terms of laying one’s life down for others, even others we do not know at all.

It may be that Christian faith inspired some of these acts of self-sacrifice, of laying down the life for others.

In any case, may the Good Shepherd, Jesus the Christ, inspire our acts of love, not just in word or speech, but in truth and action (cf. 1 John 3:18) for the sake of the world and its life.

For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • What gracious words of divine promise help reduce your fear of death?
  • Recall occasions when you have witnessed self-sacrificial love, of laying down the life, metaphorically or literally, in your life or the lives of others. What motivated these loving actions?