During Lent, when we encountered the “in-your-face” Jesus, the one who purposefully caused disruption in the temple, the one who vehemently pushed back against practices of social injustice, the one who chose always to be politically incorrect, the one who touched the untouchables, who deliberately crossed over social boundaries and made a point of speaking this truth to those in power, and not necessarily speaking that truth in love, I longed for Jesus the Good Shepherd. I yearned to hear his comforting words, to imagine his warm embrace, his gentle guiding, his caring touch. Our lessons today, of course, on this 4th Sunday of Easter which is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, lull us into this place of encountering the softer, sweeter Jesus, who seems to be willing to give all of himself, even his very own life, for each of us, the sheep of his flock, while seemingly asking nothing in return. What can be better than this – being in a relationship that offers us unconditional love, complete safety, guidance and strength, when it appears all we need to do is to show up, gather around Jesus’ feet and follow his lead. Something tells me it’s not quite as easy as that.
Nearly every day for three years, an image of a sheep gathering around Jesus’ feet was my visual focal point, for the chapel of seminary was called the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Each time I walked through the doors, I saw the statue of this merry little sheep. Each time I came forward to receive the Eucharist, my eyes were drawn to the tilt of the little sheep’s head, looking upward, adoringly at Jesus. Each time I paused and genuflected as I entered the pew where I regularly sat each morning for prayer, that sheep was waiting for me, speaking to me, calling me into a similar stance toward Jesus- one of adoration, delight, and a sense of “I’d follow you anywhere.” It was as though that image had become my touchstone, that which grounded, calmed, led, and guided me through all joys and challenges of academic work and living closely in community with my friends and professors. When we reflect upon the texts we heard this morning, we too may feel our hearts are lifted, our anxieties calmed, our sense of singleness of purpose renewed as we welcome the “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” into our hearts and lives again. This is the Jesus we have been waiting for.
But then, in this same statue, the focal point of the Chapel at General Theological Seminary, there was another sheep. This one smaller, lovingly gathered in Jesus’ arms, so that the sheep’s ear is pressed up closely to Jesus’ chest, presumably able to hear the heartbeat of the one who carries him in unconditional love. This image draws to mind the beloved disciple in the gospel of John, the one who at their final meal together is reclining on Jesus, with his ear pressed against Jesus’ chest, presumably able to hear the heartbeat of the one who carries him, holds him, in unconditional love. And we begin to understand the intimacy of Jesus’ unconditional love for us, for the little lamb he held against his chest, for his beloved disciples, for us, and for all humanity. And somehow this intimacy and profusion of unconditional love begins to call a different and deeper response from us, not just the “merrily frolicking alongside Jesus” response as we head to still waters, but “the listening to Jesus that absorbs our whole being” response, the “aligning our heartbeat to the heartbeat of Jesus” response, the “moving with the pulse of God’s love through the world” response. Something now is required of us that is challenging. As Jesus was and is willing to lay his life down for us, so must we be willing to lay our life down, as we know it now, for Jesus, for we are being invited into a mutual relationship with the divine, where we move as Jesus moved through this world, where we love as Jesus loved in this world, where our heart beats for justice in this world as Jesus’ did. This is what the incarnation is really all about. Not just God showing up in human form, but God’s love shaping and changing us, so that we can move as Jesus moved and loved through this world.
This seems impossible most times. Yet Easter tells us it is possible and is accessible to us through the movement of the Holy Spirit. We know this is true only because there are moments of unconditional love which we experience with one another. Times when a couple gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes and pledge their love and devotion to one another for a lifetime. Times when we hold our newborn and instinctively draw that infant to our chest, so that sweet new one can hear our heartbeat again he or she had become so accustomed to. Times when someone says something or does something or gives us something that tells us they know exactly who we are. Times when we tenderly caress the hand of the one we’ve spent a lifetime with as she transitions into life eternal. These are moments of unconditional love, when we open ourselves unreservedly to another, when we pledge that this person means everything to us. These are sacred, intimate, vulnerable moments, when we touch into eternity in our lifetime. These are not moments we can make happen. We can only humbly accept them when they are offered to us. These are from and of God and are a gift – but what’s interesting is that that mutuality of love, that knowing and being known by another is what Jesus is really talking about in his claim to be the good shepherd. He’s not just talking about his love for us or our love for him –but our love with and for one another – our unconditional love for all of the sheep of this one flock.
Inherent in Jesus’ “I am” statements in the gospel of John is the articulation that whatever Jesus says he is, God is also. That’s fairly easy to understand. Their natures are the same. Jesus is here to manifest the character and love of God. AND whatever Jesus says that he is, implicit in that statement is Jesus’ hope and directive to us to be the same. When we hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd”, we may translate that to say, “May that be for you as well. As my father and I am, may you also be the Good Shepherd to the sheep in my flock”. Suddenly, Jesus’ “I am” statements are a bit challenging for us. They aren’t just about Jesus. They are about us as well.
Another visual that has planted itself deeply in my heart is near the Sea of Galilee, a place which is memorialized as the Church of the Primacy of Peter, a place that marks the spot where Jesus showed up, post-resurrection, on the beach, cooking breakfast and advising his disciples where to drop the fishing nets for optimal catch, and who was recognized by Peter. In their ensuing conversation, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter replies that he does and by the third time being asked is almost getting irritated at Jesus’ continued interrogation. But then Jesus says something profound which forever shapes the mission of the church – Jesus says, “If you love me, then feed my sheep”. Suddenly we have become the shepherds. We have become the ones charged to provide comfort, safety, guidance, strength, and unconditional love to one another – to every sheep of the fold – which means everyone on this planet. Jesus has called us each to hear the heartbeat of God, to move with the pulse of God’s love through our lives, to pick up the smaller lambs, the ones who can’t keep up, the ones who are injured or go astray and draw them back into the flock, into our arms of protection. “Do you love me?”, Jesus asks. If our answer is yes, then we are to “feed his sheep”.
As the unconditional love flows from God to Jesus, then from Jesus to Peter and his disciples and then to us, so does God’s mission – to be the gatherer of the lost sheep, the protector of the weak, the defender against all dangers. This metal statue on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is stunning in its simplicity and moving in its message. Peter is kneeling before Jesus. Jesus’ outstretched hand is blessing him. Forgiving him of his betrayal and then calling him forth into something incredibly difficult – reconciling Peter not just to Jesus, that would be too easy, but reconciling Peter with the need to feed God’s sheep.
Sometimes that’s hard for us. Sometimes we feel we can only be brought to safety when we keep away from others or “certain” others. We can feel the need to separate or segregate ourselves from some people to protect what we have. Yet Easter assures us the risk can be taken and actually authorizes and empowers us to do that. Jesus says there is one flock and that all within that flock are known by him, which means there are no strangers to Jesus in that flock and therefore there should be no strangers to us. Jesus is doing the work of bringing them into the flock—those who have never come within or those who have been pushed away by those who haven’t grasped the meaning of the message of Jesus, that “Feed my sheep” means all sheep. Our work is to be ready to welcome them. All of them, into our hearts, into our lives.
On that beach along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, the resurrected Jesus shared a Eucharistic meal with his disciples, gathering, strengthening, and redirecting them around a clear purpose of being the shepherds out in the world. We come today too to that same Eucharistic meal, gathering strength to be the shepherds in the world. Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” Then feed my sheep.