I am the good shepherd – John 10: 1-15
“I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus says. Our Gospel reading today gives us that wonderful image of Jesus the good shepherd. It is one we have probably pictured before, and I wonder what images come to mind for each of you now? I expect if I were to ask you, if we were together, you would all say different things based on your knowledge and experience of shepherds and sheep. You might describe farmers who keep sheep in their fields, as shepherds. It might be the popular image of the man in a flat cap rounding up his sheep, with his sheepdogs, from programs like “One man and his dog”. It might be a picture of Jesus from a Sunday School book with his white woolly sheep standing around him in lush green pastures or even the image of a man carrying a lamb over his shoulders from a stained glass window in a church.
Lovely though they are, I wonder whether we get stuck with all that imagery of shepherds and sheep and fail to move on to think about the deeper meaning behind what Jesus is actually saying in the verses that follow. “I am the good shepherd” says Jesus “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep”. What does the life of the resurrected Jesus, who lay down his life for his sheep, that life of self-offering love, mean for us, here and now?
Thinking about this self-offering love on a human level may help. We often hear of the desperate plight of families battling with life limiting illnesses or life changing accidents. Or with children who have conditions that make normal life, let alone sleep, impossible. Having worked with patients with Dementia I have seen those wives or husbands devotedly coming in every day without fail, to sit with a husband or wife who no longer recognizes them, holding on to the person they know in their memory and their heart. In so many ways these families are laying down their lives for the ones they love. As we read or see more of each story, and follow the families through the difficulties, stresses and loss we see the cost of that self-giving love. As we become more aware of the cost, then the depth of love that holds those families together shines through.
Over the last few years I have been following the shepherd James Rebanks on Twitter. You may have read his book “A Shepherd’s Life” or seen him on the news. He is a shepherd in the Lake District with a flock of Herdwick sheep. He has got over 126 thousand followers on twitter sharing his brutally honest account of his day to day life on the fells with his sheep at lambing time. James tweets the highs and lows, the joys and the sadness, of his work from dawn till dusk doing the job he loves, and he knows he was born to do. What has struck me is how much he knows and loves those sheep. Working amongst them every day he knows each one well and this is shown by the way he cares for them. He knows them by their character, their markings and the way they behave. His life is hard, and he works for the reward of seeing his flock flourish. Here are a few of his tweets which show the depth of his emotion and his love for his sheep, each individual one.
“An experienced shepherd can see the signs in a young lamb that it might be champion. A sheep here is rarely just a sheep”.
“Really pleased to see that the daughter of my best tup (ram) who died a year ago is a really good mother. It matters a lot”
The next tweet was accompanied by a picture of twin lambs with their mother.
“The dark lamb here has just been killed by a fox….gutted. Saw it healthy an hour ago”
There will be a cost and depth to the love that each of us knows. Love we have both received and given ourselves – maybe simply in small acts of faithful love and friendship, in the bigger picture of our lives, because of the needs of another person. It is what shapes and moulds us. What is the most costly love you have received from others or the love that has cost you the most to give? I wonder what it felt like to receive, what it felt like to give.
With Jesus being the Good Shepherd, laying down his life takes us to a new understanding of the relationship of God with his people. Jesus comes to us bringing not just care and safety, but a costly self-offering love. He isn’t just there to guide and protect, but to live amongst and enter into the lives of those he cares for; facing the cost and fear and even death. Jesus offers all of himself. Unlike the hired hand, who has no commitment to or investment in the flock, who doesn’t care and runs away in the face of danger, Jesus has put everything into it. He has held nothing back. Jesus knows us by name in the times we are lost and frightened, in the challenges we face and the love and safety we need. He lays down his life for his sheep freely and willingly because it is in this love that he can express the love between him and God his father and enables us to enter into that relationship and receive that mutual love too.
It is often only when we are at our weakest that we learn what it means to receive. Perhaps when we are ill or recovering from an operation, or when events in life just overwhelm or upset us. We just cannot see a way to get through or in the face of loss when we feel absolutely helpless, we just have to give in and let others support and help us. In stopping and being open to what is there to receive, that love, support, care, a soothing word, a kind touch, rest, just being known, we can get a glimpse of a new life. Jesus has opened up his life and relationship with the father to make space for us, knowing us and loving us, through his resurrection, and as the good shepherd, he calls us to a place of safety, that place of new life.
Jesus lays down his life, alongside us, offering us love in our lives in the difficulties and challenges as well as the beautiful moments. He is there with James Rebanks as he looks after his sheep, he is with all those we see struggling illness and disability and he is with those who live with dementia as I mentioned before. He is with us now in lockdown and isolation as with live with the threat of Covid -19. The good shepherd is always giving love and receiving it back again showing us his sheep the path we should follow and what we should imitate in our lives. If we place that love at the centre of our lives and respond in the same way, his love will be living, and breathing, in us and through us.
“I am the Good Shepherd” says Jesus. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep”
Are we ready to trust the good shepherd? To allow ourselves to be known, loved and called by name. Called out of the ditches and holes, we can sometimes hopelessly fall into or through fear or in weakness climb into as lost sheep. Can we allow our lives to have that same self-offering love given and received, allowing space for others so we can be more deeply connected to one another and God? If we are, then let us be open to what we simply have to do, and say, and be, as we offer back the costly love we have received.