This Sunday, informally touted as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” is a favorite of many churchgoers. The words of the 23rd Psalm remind us of the many times we have turned to God for comfort – whether at a loved one’s bedside, at a funeral, or in our own desperate prayers. Or maybe we associate the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with our gospel lesson today. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” As we hear Jesus declare how he lays down his life for his sheep, perhaps we imagine the various artistic depictions of Jesus – with a staff in his hand or with a lamb draped over his shoulders. Many churches love the image so much that they even use this image as their namesake – much like our partner in ministry, Good Shepherd Lutheran here in Plainview. Imagining our Lord as the Good Shepherd is one of the more comforting, assuring, life-giving experiences of our faith.
Despite the ways this Sunday is meant to be a Sunday of assurance and affirmation, I find myself a bit unsettled. Though our psalm and gospel lesson offer us comfort, our epistle lesson does not let us stay there long. After telling us that Jesus lays down his life for us, the very next line in the epistle reminds us that the Good Shepherd’s actions have consequences. “…and we ought to lay down our lives for one another,” says First John. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Instead of being comforting, these words have been discomforting me all week. Every sentence leaves me feeling more and more convicted. Yes, the Lord is your shepherd who lays down his life. Now go and do likewise. Yes, God’s love abides in you and blesses you with more goods than most of the world has. Now go and help your brother and sister in need – do not refuse to help anyone that you see. And certainly the Lord your shepherd is proud when you speak or sing about loving your neighbor. Now stop talking about love and go do loving things. Be love to your neighbor. If the gospel and psalm today are about comforting images of a loving Shepherd, our epistle lesson reminds us that our Good Shepherd loves us, but loves us so that we can similarly be a loving shepherd to others in the world.
In 2011, Egypt erupted in what we have now come to call the Arab Spring. Hundreds of people died and thousands were injured when protestors took to the streets to protest the corruption of President Mubarak’s regime. Though the protestors tried to be peaceful, calling for justice, freedom, and governmental reform, they were met with brute force. One of the most striking images to me from this time was a picture of Egyptian Christians, surrounding a group of fellow Muslim protestors as they prayed. As the Muslim protestors knelt down in prayer, the Christians protestors held hands, creating a human wall of protection around those in prayer.[i] When I saw that image four years ago, my immediate thought was, “That is what laying down one’s life looks like.” The Christian protestors knew how vulnerable their Muslim brothers and sisters would be if they knelt down in prayer in the public square. The brutal police force would take advantage of any vulnerability they could find. The Christians became like the Good Shepherd, risking their lives because they saw their neighbors in need. Their actions showed their love better than any words could have.
That is what love looks like. We can talk about love in sermons or in Sunday School. We can sing about love in our hymns and make speeches in the square. We can write an op-ed or a letter to our congressman expressing our concerns for our neighbors in need. But today, our epistle lesson does not let us rest there. Our epistle says that our love must be shown in truth and action. We must lay down our lives for one another like the Good Shepherd does.
That charge today may seem hard, or even impractical and imprudent. Many of us cannot even imagine an opportunity to lay down our lives for someone else. And yet, that is the instruction for us in our epistle – not just to talk about injustice, but to love so greatly, to care so deeply for other children of God that we are willing to put ourselves aside in love and care for the other. I do not know what that looks like for each one of us here. But here is what I can tell you. In 2011, those Christians in Egypt surrounded Muslims in prayer, willing to give their lives for their Muslim brothers and sisters. In 2013, two years later, Muslims in Pakistan returned the favor. When a Christian church in Peshawar was attacked, and over 100 Christians were killed, over 200 Muslims formed a human chain around the church to enable the Christians to celebrate Mass in a show of unity and love.[ii] Just two years later, in 2015, after terrorist attacks in Copenhagen, Muslims stood up for their Jewish brothers and sisters, forming a human ring around the perimeter of the synagogue to protect them while they prayed. The teenager who organized the ring called for 30 volunteers – and at least 630 showed up in an act of love and peace.[iii]
This is why Jesus laid down his life for us – to show us the life giving force of love. When the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, the disciples spread that love over the entire world. When we show love to others, that love keeps moving beyond us in ways that we will likely never know. That is the beauty of our God. God loved us so much that God sent God’s Son. God’s Son loved us so much that he laid down his life. And we love others because we have known the love of the Good Shepherd.[iv] The action of our love – not just the words and speeches – but the action of our love can transform the world. When we love in action and truth, we continue the work begun in the Good Shepherd – and we give others their own loving image to hold on to and to harness for change in the world. Amen.
[i] Daily Mail Reporter, “Images of solidarity as Christians join hands to protect Muslims as they pray during Cairo protests,” February 3, 2011, as found at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353330/Egypt-protests-Christians-join-hands-protect-Muslims-pray-Cairo-protests.html on April 24, 2015.
[ii] Aroosa Shaukat, “Pakistani Muslims Form Human Chain To Protect Christians During Mass,” October 8, 2013, as found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/muslims-form-human-chain-pakistan_n_4057381.html on April 24, 2015.
[iii] Hana Levi Julian, “Young Muslims to Protect Oslo Synagogue as Jews Pray in Norway,” February 18, 2015, as found at http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/young-muslims-organize-to-protect-oslo-synagogue-as-jews-pray-in-norway/2015/02/18/ on April 24, 2015.
[iv] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 442.