I’m no shepherd, so I don’t know how difficult that life actually is. But I can certainly grasp the kind of conflict and sacrifice Jesus is alluding to. Imagine with me, for a moment. In the darkness of night, a hired hand stands near the flock. One lonely torch gives off just enough light to see the sleeping sheep. Suddenly, a twig breaks, leaves rustle, and a deep, guttural growl emanates from the darkness. Stricken with fear, the hired hand catches just a fleeting glimpse of the glowing eyes of the wolf. Caring more for himself, he drops everything and runs, as fast as he can, to escape his fate. But Jesus offers something else. The Good Shepherd, the faithful caretaker, stands between the wolf and his prey, shepherd’s crook in hand, and fights tooth and nail with the wolf…fights even to the death to keep the sheep safe, to give them safe travel. And the image that remained with me was the shepherd, who looks a lot like what I imagine Jesus looked like, struggling, wrestling, fighting with a wolf…fighting with the conviction that the ones he loves are worth dying for. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
So many of the stories that I love, even stories that shape our culture’s collective understanding of what’s heroic, often portray the hero’s struggle as a struggle for justice…for what is right…for what is good, and virtuous. We can’t easily forget that famous tagline of Superman: “The never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.” Heroes are often portrayed as struggling and fighting on behalf of a grand cosmic principle. But here, in Jesus’ metaphor, the struggle is not about truth or justice. It’s not a battle of ‘might makes right.’ It’s not about an idea, as beautiful as the ideas of freedom and justice can be. The struggle, the sacrifice of the Good Shepherd doesn’t have an idea or a truth at its center. Right in the center of this conflict is the conviction that, no matter how broken, or stubborn, or sinful we may be, the Good Shepherd is overcome by a most passionate love for the human race, a love that knows no boundaries, a love that doesn’t run dry, a love that leads even to the Shepherd’s death.
Life after the Resurrection, then, is ultimately not about our inner struggle, or our efforts to make good on God’s promise of new life. It’s not about showing to God, or to the world, or to our neighbors in the pews, how holy we have become through pious works of mercy and spirituality. It’s about knowing at the depths of who we are that we are loved beyond anything that we can imagine. That we are called beautiful, holy, perfect, wonderful, beloved. It’s about recognizing that the mighty work of God on the Cross and through the bursting forth of life from the Tomb…recognizing that all of this was not just to show the power of God, but to offer a final declaration of God’s love to the whole human race. The battle has been won. The victor, Christ the Crucified yet Risen One. And we are those who enjoy the spoils of this struggle: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” So forget Superman. I'll take Jesus any day.
*A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on April 26th, 2015. The primary text was John 10:11-18.