“I Lay Down My Life” – Sermon on 4/29/12

April 29, 2012

Scripture: John 10: 11-18
And Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. 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 the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Sermon: I Lay Down My Life

By: Rev. Doreen Oughton
There’s an awful lot in this passage from the Gospel of John, isn’t there? Lots about Jesus – his relationship to his sheep, his knowledge of them and their knowledge of him; his relationship to God, how God knows him and he knows God. Here Jesus talks about his mission to call to other sheep to join in one fold, and of his authority, granted by God, to lay down his life and pick it up again. Here he talks about the shallow commitment of hired hands, about the vulnerability of the flock, about the unity of all – one flock, one shepherd. I could develop a whole series of sermons based just on these seven verses. Hmm, or maybe an idea for our next bible study focus.
But today I want to talk about the “knowing” that occurs between Jesus and God, Jesus and his followers – including us, and between God and us; and how all that connect to laying down one’s life. When they speak of knowledge in the bible, they are not talking about intellect or book smarts. They are talking about intimacy. To “know” someone in the biblical sense is often understood as sexual, but it is more an all-encompassing, lose yourself, melding type of relationship that would ideally be part of any sexual connection. So to know God or Jesus is to be in deep relationship with them, to give yourself over to them. Likewise, when it is said that God knows us, it is about God being in deep relationship, giving part of Godself over to us.
How do we come to know God or Jesus in this way? We might read scripture, we might practice gratitude, seeing all the blessings God grants us. We might meditate, which is a way of listening for God. We might pray, sharing with God whatever is on our mind or in our hearts. But there is also a way of knowing God that involves trusting and risking. Some might use the word obedience, but for me that word carries associations with threat and punishment and fears. But it is not a bad word in that it conveys something important, doing what God and Jesus want you to do even if you don’t understand it, even if it isn’t something you really want to do, even if it leaves you feeling vulnerable.
Jesus did what God wanted him to do. He came and taught and ministered and challenged the status quo; he healed and reached out to the outcasts; he opened up the scriptures in ways that were threatening to the people in power. He let himself be arrested, mocked, beaten and crucified. He didn’t want to do that last part at least. He hoped he wouldn’t have to, he prayed for this cup to be taken from him. But he did it. He didn’t do it because he was afraid of God. He hadn’t been threatened by God. He did it because he trusted God, because he knew God. God’s purpose for him became clearer as he focused on doing God’s will.
Jesus refers to himself in this passage as the good shepherd. Sometimes we use the word good to mean “well-behaved,” but we also understand to mean a fulfillment of purpose. To be a good teacher means you fulfill the purpose of a teacher – your students learn. When you are a good healer, your patients get better. The good shepherd fulfills the purpose of the shepherd, keeping the flock safe and together, no matter the danger and cost to himself. And that is what he did. He laid down his life to gather God’s flock, to call all people to know God, to trust God, to do what God would have them do.
Now Jesus laid down his life in this very literal way. He actually died in fulfilling his Godly purpose. But I think we can also understand “laying down a life” as devoting a life, giving a life over to God rather than giving our lives over to our own whims, or to worldly pursuits. What would it look like if we, like Jesus, laid down our lives to fulfill God’s purpose for us? I believe that God wants to be in intimate relationship with us. God blesses us with both external and internal gifts. This is how Godself is given over to us in this relationship. We are given a divine spark of some sort. God tends to us and calls to us and wants to guide us. And if we are willing to enter into that relationship fully, we come to know God more and more. We come to understand our own God-given purpose more and more.
I had dinner with a friend a few nights ago who is concerned that her son is not focused enough in college. He has a double major, gets excellent grades, works part time, and now wants to train to qualify for a sports team. She worries that if he doesn’t decide on a career path and stay focused on it, she won’t get the best return for her investment in his college education. I know that she loves her son very much and wants him to be happy and productive, but her very strong ideas about what that would look like may not be his.
I don’t think God is like that. I don’t think God wants to micromanage our lives and dictate exactly what we are supposed to do. To lay down our life to fulfill God’s purpose for us doesn’t mean we no longer have to think or decide. I do think there are some non-negotiables that God clearly wants from us – primarily to love one another as Jesus loves us, and to spread the good news of mercy and forgiveness. And from there we are free to learn about our gifts, discover our passions, and devote our lives to serving God through them. We clearly are not all be called to be the same thing, to serve God the same way. What unites us as one flock is the way we love one another, love God, and spread the good news.
Being true to God means being true to yourself, to your gifts and your hearts call. It doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to others or to fill your head with “shoulds.” You just need to pay attention to what goes on inside of you. I feel passionate about healing racial rifts, and about spiritual journeys and about family dynamics. Someone else might feel passionate about bringing more beauty into the world through visual arts or music. And someone else might feel passionate about reforming the government. In every vocation, in every menial job, in every hobby, there is a way to serve God’s purpose. At dinner last night another friend said that she didn’t think the work of the company she and her husband own was terribly meaningful for the world, but felt that she lived out her purpose in being a good employer, in demonstrating honesty and integrity with customers and staff. She is not a religious person, but I think she also somehow shares God’s good news of love and forgiveness in the way she treats people in this world.
A super athlete may serve God’s purpose by showing the incredible things a human body is capable of, but in fulfilling God’s purpose, must also show good sportsmanship, encourage others, recognize the network of support that enables her or his gifts. Your interests matter, your gifts matter. This is why I am so delighted with the Moment for Mission column in our newsletter in which people share about a cause that is close to their heart. I love the chance to see the variety of ways people seek to serve God by paying attention to what tugs at their hearts and souls.
The radical thing is to understand that we can lay down our whole life for God, not just this part or that. We can study scripture and we can meditate and we can pray and get closer to God and Jesus and even ourselves. And then we can trust, we can step out in faith, setting aside our fears and questions and respond as fully and completely as is possible to God’s invitation. Then whatever we do, we do with complete, self-giving love, and our whole lives become the good news of God’s love and mercy. And that’s when we are living in the Beloved Community. May we journey together to that beautiful place, and find joy and sustenance in one another on the way.