The words of I John jump out for me: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” – now listen to the rest of the sentence – “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We hear the reverberations in the Gospel as well as the good Shepherd, or even better translated, the “noble” or “ideal” Shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep, indicating the pattern of life for all who would follow him.
Each time I stand in the Chapel of the Central America University in San Salvador, on the very spot where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, I cannot help but think of this Gospel passage of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. I am drawn deeply into a love willingly given. Even though it was an assassin’s bullet that killed the Archbishop, his life was an offering. He knew that the manner in which he lived his life in Christ would be costly.
He saw his brothers and sisters in need and did not close his heart against them. He loved not merely in word and speech, but in truth and action. It is that love, of the Noble Shepherd Christ as manifested in Oscar Romero, which continues to inspire people throughout the world. It is the same love that is called forth in God’s people and which we celebrate in these Great 50 days of Easter.
So what are the implications for this community here at the Church of the Messiah? Why do you exist? For what purpose are you here as a faith community?
Have you ever while driving around noticed various church signs, you know, the ones with messages on them? I’ve done a lot of driving around dioceses and come across many. One read: “Repent, now is the day of salvation.” Another: “Christ is your fire insurance,” I assume alluding to the threat of burning in hell. I don’t like those kind much. Down the road, from a different denomination: “Mother’s Day is coming. Virtues are learned at mother’s knee, vices at some other joint.” Clever perhaps, but less than stirring. I wonder, what does the world that knows little about Christianity, except for such signs, think about us?
One block down, another church sign: “Big garage sale next Saturday. Cheap prices, great deals!” And then, just down the road in the same town, another sign: “We’ve got room for you at our table. Hospitality practiced here. Everybody welcome.” Nice, the best of all of them. The trouble is it was a sign in front of a restaurant, not a church.
The Jesus we discover today is the one who knows his own and who know him. It is a statement of profound relational intimacy. This ideal Shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love and reach. He taught us that love trumps everything, even death. Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly rescuing people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous in his kingdom vision, where he was always expanding the borders, forever gathering together those the culture tried to separate, forget, dismiss or deem unworthy.
Does it ever strike you that much of our public discourse these days seems bent on limiting borders and trying to decide who we can keep out? We’ve even had laws proposed in our country where it would be an illegal act to give water or any kind of aid to an undocumented person – someone who, by the way, Jesus knows by name. I am very concerned, and I hope you are too, by rhetoric that seems to be increasing in volume that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay – language that diminishes us and makes us smaller. According to the “Southern Poverty Law Center,” general intolerance and even domestic hate groups have been significantly on the rise in this our beloved country.
Jesus, in his teaching about the Kingdom of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different than this. Christ the Shepherd teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is a Shepherd who not only desires that there be one flock that knows of the love of the Shepherd, he is willing to leave all of them just to find the one that is lost. It raises the question for us always to be considering – what kind of community are we building here as the Church of the Messiah and what kind of vision are we giving to this community, our neighborhood?
Today, with our confirmands, Audrey and Sadie, we again have the opportunity to reconnect to our baptismal reality in Christ, to “respect the dignity of every human being,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” According to Jesus we have a God who is a bit reckless and extravagant with his love. It makes us a bit nervous. It got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included whom we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have. I wonder. If we were more clear about this kind of dangerous Jesus, living on the edges, might we be a bit more attractive institution because we actually acted out of our espoused values as a people of the Christ, the noble/ideal Shepherd? That’s what folks in the 19-29 age range seem to be telling us!
Back to I John: The way we are assured of God’s love is that the Shepherd “has laid down his life for us.” The way the world knows of our love is when “we… lay down our lives for one another.” We are all called to serve “out there,” and they will know we are a people of our word when we exhibit in “truth and action” the costly, wild, reckless, self-abandoned love manifested in the noble Shepherd, Jesus. He gave of his substance. So we are called to do the same.