I was watching a programme the other night on TV on the life of Martin Luther King on the anniversary of his death which included a couple of important comments I have since reflected upon.
The first was about Martin Luther King’s resistance to becoming involved in the struggle against apartheid in the US in the first place. His desire was to stay being an ordinary Baptist pastor in his local church and not be involved in the growing resistance against apartheid and racial discrimination.
The other, was his understanding as he came closer to his assassination, that he would not live to see the results of the work of the campaign that he and his co-workers had laboured, struggled, suffered and died to achieve. His realisation of the likelihood of his death was clearly prophetic.
I invite you to hold these reflections as we think about John’s Gospel 10:11-18 . It is very clear Jesus’ words are as difficult and challenging today, for Martin Luther King and ourselves, as they were when Jesus spoke them.
Jesus talked about himself as ‘the good shepherd’; a description we understand from several perspectives. Firstly, when we use the word ‘good’ we can mean, for example for a teacher, a firefighter, an accountant, a ballet dancer, that they are ‘good at what they do’. They have technical knowledge and expertise, they are experienced, efficient, effective and do their work well. However, using the word ‘good’ in this manner, does not describe the whole person, what they might be like as a parent, or child, lover or friend.
So ‘good’ also refers to the character of the person, and the way their character emerges from their relationships. Here ‘good’ means a good person who lives a good life and has a consistent pattern of acting which is seen in the quality of her relationships. A good person not only does good deeds, she does them habitually. We see the person’s actions are done because the actions themselves are good.
And when we think about courage, we recognise a courageous person who is so because of the habitual practice of the good, not for fame, glory or monetary reward, but because the action in and of itself, is good.
When we think about human virtues we recognise the four cardinal or governing human virtues as prudence or wisdom directing one toward the good; temperance or self-control; justice or right relationships; and courage or appropriate risk-taking.
There are a whole range of other virtues which we value, such as honesty, kindness, mercy and so one. The three theological virtues which we recognise overwhelmingly as Christians, are faith, hope and love which arise not from human nature but from God as a gift, a true grace for us all.
So what do we think when we hear John tell us about Jesus who is ‘a good shepherd who knows his sheep, and sheep who know his voice’. (10:3-4,14, 16). In contrast to the hired hand, the shepherd is the one who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ and we understand this in the context of the story of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion.
But John does something really interesting, he portrays Jesus as being fully in control of the events of his death. Although Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus clearly understands and loves the world and God’s people. He understands it is human behaviour which will lead to his death, given the radical nature and content of his message and the fear which is the response which is evoked. Jesus recognises his message is too much for most people to accept; the fresh expression of what true justice looks like when it is enacted, what love looks like when it is true, what caring for others who are less able and less fortunate looks like and its impact on the world, what love of creation means and all that is in it.
In and of itself the message is a direct challenge to those who do well out of the world and who choose to behave selfishly and greedily without counting the cost to others. No wonder Jesus knew the likely outcome would be his death. He was far too dangerous to be allowed to live. And no wonder that it is those with such ideas who are always the first to be killed by those whose only love is for themselves.
John reminds us it is Jesus who identifies himself to his accusers at his arrest; and it is Jesus who hands over his spirit on the cross (19:30).
All these features of John’s passion story resonate with Jesus’ words: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord”. Jesus retains the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.
The words ‘laying down his life’ is not limited to his death. It describes much of Jesus’ life in the Gospel and the way Jesus consistently behaves.
The Greek translation ‘to lay down one’s life’ can also be read as ‘to risk one’s life’. The good shepherd is defined by his willingness to risk, not only by his death. In the OT we hear this translated as ‘to take one’s life in one’s hand’s’ (Judg. 12:3; 1 Sam.19:5: 28:21).
The notion that shepherding requires and expects the shepherd to risk his life to care for the sheep. Shepherding puts him in a position of danger, but a good shepherd defends the sheep successfully.
As we track Jesus’ behaviour, Jesus consistently risked his life throughout his ministry. We are told Jesus recognised the dangers, he managed the risks but did not walk away from them. Jesus enemies seek to kill him in 5:18. Later he declines to go to Jerusalem because his ‘time has not yet come’. He continues however, to teach openly and attend synagogues, heal and pray.
The authorities try to stone him, arrest him, and silence him. Jesus risks his life because of his sheep, because of you and me. As a good shepherd, Jesus’ role is not solely to die, but to risk his life consistently for his followers. He continues to teach and heal. John shows us Jesus’ death is consistent with his life and the way he lived. It results from the risks Jesus took because of his love for humanity.
And in that love, we see and understand a little more clearly Jesus as the ‘good shepherd’ goes beyond technical excellence and competence, showing and living out the character traits of love, courage, prudence and self-determination.
Love as a sacrifice is not something that can be commanded by someone else; in fact, to demand someone give herself in self-sacrifice would be to remove its virtue and turn love into fear. By definition, self-sacrifice must never be coerced, but freely given out of a sense of self choice, autonomy. Jesus showed his love for all of us outweighed the risks of being arrested, tortured and crucified.
This story is predominantly about salvation. It is worth remembering how often we look to worldly constructs to save us, governments, banks, celebrities, corporations all of which prioritise their own future over those for whom they have a mandate to care.
So what does it mean to be loved by a God whose ultimate priority is all of us, individually, personally? How hard do we find it to trust that gift? And, do we recognise God loves us all, including people we dislike, the neighbours we hate, the foreigners we despise, reject and kill?
Such understanding of love should breed humility, gratitude, trust, openheartedness and ‘other’-mindedness. Such an understanding also directly challenges us ethically and in our faith and behaviour as Christians.
I remember reading a book by Vicktor Frankl, a man whose young wife and child were killed in the concentration camps by the Nazis in the second world war. He talked about the capacity still to be in control of your dying and death, even when all other choices were taken, and you are left naked, broken and powerless standing at the door of the gas chamber. Martin Luther King’s story is also about this understanding.
Jesus own behaviour demonstrated this and more. His choices were made because of God’s love for humanity regardless of our desperate attempts to deny God.
Martin Luther King found himself on the front line, because he could not walk away from the lack of justice and love displayed towards other human beings based on the colour of their skin.
And given it is ANZAC day on Wednesday, those who gave their lives because they were ordered to fight and die if necessary, had their own choice made for them in the heat of battle. We remember their sacrifice, their lack of choice and the choice they made positively for the future good, for our good. Let us not forget them, and their example.
Let us not forget Jesus’ invitation to practice our faith consistently, with hope and love; love for our neighbours, ourselves and God such that when we are asked to take risks we do not pull back and when we are asked to give up our lives for Christ’s sake in love, we do not hesitate.
Let us always remember what Christ and all the saints who have gone before us, have done for us and give thanks.