The news from across the world continues to horrify us. Just this week, ISIS executed thirty more Coptic Christians, for no reason other than that they were Christian, and probably because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was travelling to Egypt, where he would meet with the Coptic pope and participate in memorial services for the 21 Coptic Christians executed by ISIS in January. Last month, Islamic extremists attacked a university in Kenya and killed hundreds of Christians. The death toll rises and as it does, extremist rhetoric in the US is reaching a fever pitch as well.
This unimaginable violence against Christians is occurring as a backdrop to our own culture wars, where debates and conflicts over religious freedom and human rights erupt as politicians, pundits, and media celebrities seek to gain influence, power, and wealth by fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. The juxtaposition of those images—Coptic martyrs kneeling with ISIS fighters holding swords at their throats over against interviews with conservative Christians in America crying fear of persecution for refusing to bake wedding cakes are so extreme that many of us feel we’ve come unmoored; we don’t know where we’re headed as individual Christians or as Christian communities. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to believe, or how we are supposed to behave.
All this comes at a time when the world, or most of it, commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, a horror that cast its long shadows even here at Grace, where we welcomed refugee families of Armenian Christians in the 1910s and 1920s, a legacy that is commemorated in one of the stained glass windows to my right.
I’m also deeply concerned about the violence taking place here in Madison. Earlier this week, I listened as the captain of the central district of Madison’s PD talked about incidents that took place in bars and student residences downtown, as altercations that began with words quickly escalated to stabbings and shootings thanks to the prevalence of weapons in our society. Our world, our society, our city seem to be spiraling out of control into violent chaos.
All this may want us to appeal to the image of the Good Shepherd, to rest in the certainty that God cares for us, cradles us in the arms of God’s love and mercy, protecting us from all evil, leading us beside the still waters and green pastures, and keeping all of the concerns and fears of the world far away.
The image of the Good Shepherd appeals deeply to us, tugs at our heartstrings, tying into notions of God’s loving care for us. It is also very nostalgic, evoking for us ideas of a simpler, less complicated world and time, either individually, when a loving parent protected us from harm, or an earlier era in human history, when life was simpler and less dangerous.
But the emotional appeal of the Good Shepherd conceals the violence and conflict in the gospel reading itself. The discourse on the Good Shepherd occurs at a time in the gospel when conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is ratcheting up. In chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, and that entire chapter is given over to conflict over Jesus’ authority to do such miracles, and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. In the next chapter, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, which seems to precipitate the plot to kill Jesus.
So Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd come in the context of intensifying conflict and danger. And as even a cursory reading of today’s text reveals, conflict, violence, and danger permeate Jesus’ words. We may overlook that in the powerful emotional appeal of the good shepherd, but after identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus immediately states that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
The strangeness of that statement probably doesn’t occur to us, but reflect on it for a moment. What shepherd would do such a thing? What shepherd would sacrifice his life for the life of the flock under his care? Would you? Oh sure, you might put your life on the line to save your family, we might put our lives on the line to protect our deepest held beliefs, or our country. But would you really sacrifice your life to protect a flock of sheep?
Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between himself and his opponents. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who knows his sheep by name, and whose sheep know him. His relationship with the sheep is intense, personal, connected. In contrast, the hired hand works only for pay, does what he does for personal gain. I wouldn’t go further than that and suggest that Jesus is saying something about his opponents in the religious establishment here.
Instead, I think what’s important here is the quality of the relationship between sheep and shepherd that Jesus is describing. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. In a few chapters, at the Last Supper, Jesus will say something similar—No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
At the Last Supper, in several different ways, Jesus emphasizes his love for his disciples, his friends, and the importance of their love for one another. Here, he’s saying much the same thing, using slightly different imagery. The love the good shepherd has for his sheep, the depth of the relationship between good shepherd and sheep is comparable to the relationship between Jesus and his Father—I know my Father and my Father knows me just as I know my sheep and my sheep know my name. His willingness to lay down his life for them, for us, grows out of his love for us, which grows out of his love for God and God’s love for him.
Jesus’ voice and words call us into relationship of that quality, draws us into deep relationship with him and with God, relationship that is modeled on the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It’s almost incomprehensible, the depth and expanse of that relationship—a relationship that is symbolized by the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. In the laying down of that life, we experience and know God’s love, a love we are called to model for others.
But I wouldn’t take that too far, either. I was reminded this week of the pernicious effects of misdirected attempts to force the laying down of one’s life. I came down for breakfast one morning and found Corrie fighting back tears. I asked her what was wrong. She explained that she had just read the Pulitzer Prize winning series from the Charleston SC Post and Courier on domestic violence in that state. It’s a chilling examination of the ways culture, politics, misogyny, and Christianity combine to put women in danger from their husbands and partners. Pastors admitted openly to telling abused women to submit to their husbands, or holding joint counseling sessions with couples in abusive relationships that led only to more abuse. More than ten years ago, Corrie had organized a symposium on domestic violence and Christianity at the college where she taught. It’s outrageous that all these years later, nothing seems to have changed. Lest we congratulate ourselves in Wisconsin on our superiority, I need hardly remind you of the news stories here of horrific domestic violence.
I’ll just point out what ought to be obvious. Jesus’ words about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, or one’s sheep are an expression of a deep, intimate relationship of love and knowledge. They are not telling us what to do or how to behave. They are not telling us what to do if we are abused or attacked. Get help! Seek protection.
The violence and chaos of our world cannot be avoided by appeals to the saccharine piety of an image of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. We can’t fathom the faith or experience of someone who has been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ; most of us, thank God, can’t fathom what it must be like to beaten by someone who claims to love us.
But we can bear witness. We can bear witness to a Christ who invites us into and models life-giving, loving relationship. We can, in our relationships at home, at work, and especially in our congregation, seek to embody life-giving, loving relationships. And we can call for justice in our community and in our world, justice that embodies such love.