On Tuesday, I had the honor of presiding at a funeral for a hospice patient. He died in December, and due to COVID restrictions, the family decided to wait until this past week for his funeral. This is becoming the new normal, and it is delaying or extending people’s grief. But we all must do what we must do these days.
Last Sunday, after I spent a little time with you, my family gathered at a beautiful spot for the internment of our parents. My mother died in 2018, and my father died the following year, but it was not until Sunday last that we put them in their final resting place.
Like many folks, I tuned in last Saturday to watch the funeral of His Royal Highness Prince Philip. It was a wonderful tribute to an amazing character, and it reminded me again of the pageantry that is England.
I share these experiences with you to illustrate that it does not matter if you are a Prince or a Plumber; in the end, we all go out the same way and with the same prayers. At all three services, the 23rd Psalm was used:
“The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want….” You know the rest. This Psalm brings me much joy and much comfort.
Today, on the Church calendar, it is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and this Sunday gets that name from the Gospel reading from St. John that we just heard. Jesus says to those listening, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Sheepherding is an incredibly difficult, lonely, and boring business, which is more so during the time of Jesus. Shepherds would stand for hours upon hours in the same place, watching their sheep. If the heard was large enough, hired hands would be brought on to help but, since they did not have a vested interest in the heard, maybe they did not pay as close attention to the job.
The Shepherd has one job, keep the flock safe. There are many predators of sheep, and it is Shepherd’s job to keep those predators away, to not put the sheep into situations where the predators can get at them, and make sure they have adequate food and water. If all of this is provided, the sheep take care of themselves. Sheep are not the brightest animals that God ever created, but for the Shepherd, they are his life.
When Jesus spoke to the crowds, he always used images that they would understand. The people in the audience were fisherman, shepherds, and tradespeople. When Jesus spoke, he wanted them to understand what he was saying. They did not always get it, but they would have understood the images he was using.
In the Gospel, Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. He says that the hired hand does not care about the sheep the same way the Shepherd does and that when he sees danger coming, he runs off. On the other hand, when the Shepherd sees trouble coming, he must place himself between the sheep and that danger.
One of the more complex theological concepts I struggle with is the atonement, the idea that Jesus had to die as repayment for our sins and the sins of those who came before us. I struggle with this because, in my mind, this does not jive well with the image of God being love. As a parent, I cannot understand how anyone would intentionally cause harm to their child, and God is no different. My theology teaches me that the so-called “repayment” for our sins was not the cross but the cradle, that the long since the strained relationship between God and humanity was restored not with the death of Jesus but with the birth of Jesus.
So, what’s the deal with Jesus dying then? I’m glad you asked.
Looking through Scripture and following in the steps of Jesus, we are witnesses to acts of love. Jesus heals out of love. Jesus feeds people out of love. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead out of love. Jesus taught us to love, love God, and love others. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, was God’s love for creation. Jesus came not to die in some grizzly death but to show us a new way to live. Jesus came to show us the way of love.
Jesus willingly went to the cross as the ultimate expression of love. Jesus went to the cross because he is the Good Shepherd that is protecting the sheep from danger and that danger is not loving. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the flock, and love is protecting us from danger.
Friends, the message of Easter is not death and life; the message of Easter is love! The love that Jesus showed by willing going to his own death, he did not have to, but he went to show us what love can do. Jesus stretched out his arms on the hardwood of the cross not to repay some debt but to show us the way of love. God is not the God of smiting and retribution causing hurricanes and tornadoes to wipe people out, God is the God that created everything out of love, and the greatest expression of that love is that the Shepherd is willing to lay down his life.
As we continue in this service and as we continue with our week, let us look for ways that we can be love to those around us.