Fourth Sunday of Easter (“Good Shepherd”)

Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign-John 10:1-10

When I was growing up, I used to enjoy occasionally watching a TV show called Wild Kingdom. Many of you probably remember it. Wild Kingdom was a nature show, letting us take a peek at animals as they actually behave in the wild. Of course, nowadays, you can get that sort of thing 24 hours a day, on demand. The style is different now—more fast-paced, and, it seems, more “produced,” almost scripted. But one thing remains the same, and that is the life-or-death contest between predators and their prey. If lions don’t catch wildebeests on the Serengeti, the lions will starve to death. So, virtually their entire attention during their waking hours is devoted to catching and killing and eating wildebeests. It’s their most basic instinct; their survival depends on it, so it’s job number one. If they weren’t consistently successful at that job, there would be no lions for us to watch on television.

However, the wildebeests have a different point of view. They don’t just go quietly into that good night for the sake of the lions. Their senses are fine-tuned to the presence of lions, and they have sophisticated means of detecting and communicating and evading an attack. They run as fast as they can, and when caught, they struggle as long as they can. Their survival depends on it; it’s a matter of life or death. And if most wildebeests were not successful most of the time in evading predatory lions, there would be no wildebeests for us to watch on television. Neither lions nor wildebeests have what you or I would recognize as much of a sense of unique personal identity. They don’t even remember yesterday, let alone the history of their species. They can’t even conceive of tomorrow, let alone the larger questions of the meaning of life. Life is nothing to them except the moment, right now. Yet, every individual lion and every individual wildebeest will scratch and claw and fight to their last breath if that life is threatened. They probably don’t even know what they’re doing; they just do it.

And if this is all true for lions and wildebeests, it is all the more true for human beings. We can remember the past—both our individual past, and the history of humankind before we were born. We can contemplate the future—both the next few minutes and hours and days and years, and the eternal future that lies beyond this mortal life. But what distinguishes us from the animals even more profoundly is that, not only do we want life—our own life, particularly—we want a certain quality of life. When our essential needs are met—breath, safety, water, food, warmth, and shelter—our attention moves right on up the hierarchy of needs without missing a beat. We become concerned about relationships with family and friends, we become interested in recreation and culture—gardening, decorating, art, music, literature. As these needs are met, many people turn their attention beyond themselves, and become involved in service to the community and the world. We wonder what kind of legacy we will leave to those who come after us. How will we be remembered?

Sooner or later, however, we learn that life is fragile and life is elusive—both literal life itself, and quality of life. The search for deep meaning and deep purpose in life leaves most people disappointed, because there is no quick and easy answer. A purpose-filled life, an abundant life, is the fruit of discipline and effort, not to mention struggle and suffering. Several years ago, I developed a pinched nerve in my neck. It not only caused pain in my upper spine, but caused me to lose sensation in the tips of three of my fingers on my right hand. I went to a doctor, who talked ominously about potential surgery, which may or may not be successful, but who then gave me a referral to physical therapy. The physical therapist manipulated the area, and it certainly felt good while she was working on me, but I was disappointed that there was nothing she could do to me to fix my spinal problem. All she could do was show me what I could do for myself, by way of stretching and exercising. It worked—my symptoms eventually went away. But it took discipline and effort on my part. There was no quick fix, no easy answer. Well, if this is true for a pinched nerve, how much more must it be true for living the abundant life?

Living an abundant life—a life filled with peace and purpose—is elusive and fragile also because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s systemic—part of a complex web of related factors, some of which are beyond our control. As long as we are ego-driven—it’s “all about me,” my search for my meaning in my life—we will try to buck the system. But the system is infinitely larger than we are, and we will fail. I am always amazed to hear about labor negotiations or political negotiations in which the various parties make their demands without any attempt to understand the system, to see reality through the eyes of the person sitting across the table from them. Such negotiations are doomed from the outset, as is any attempt to find a meaningful and abundant life independent of the web of life in which we all live.

So when we look for abundant life in a convenient and inexpensive one-shot package, we fail to find it. And when we look for abundant life as a thing in itself, apart from the larger system of which it is a part, we fail to find it. Where we do find abundant life … is in Jesus. That’s why he came to us—in his own words: “I came that [my sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus uses the agrarian imagery of the relationship between sheep and their shepherd to illustrate to us how we find the life that we’re looking for. In those days, raising sheep was generally a small-time operation. The sheepfold was attached to the shepherd’s house—one exterior wall of the house formed one of the four sides of the sheepfold. On one of the other three sides, there was a gate. This gate was the only authorized way in or out of the fold. Anyone or anything that tried to get in some other way was an intruder, with no authorized access.

In developing this metaphor, Jesus first likens himself to that single gate in the sheepfold. The fold itself represents the abundant and eternal life that we seek: “I am the door; those who enter by me will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” It is through Jesus that we have authorized access to the fold. To try and get in some other way would be like me trying to fix my pinched nerve without doing the exercises prescribed by my physical therapist. It would be like trying to crash a party. It would be like going to a marriage counseling session with no intention of listening to what either the counselor or your spouse has to say. Jesus is the gateway to abundant and eternal life. He has the access code—or, to put it more accurately, he is the access code. And that code is available to anyone who asks for it. There’s always room for more sheep in the fold.

Jesus further develops this pastoral metaphor by changing it, and putting himself in the place of the shepherd, the one who watches over the sheep and leads them out to pasture. After providing us with access to the abundant and eternal life that he offers, Jesus nourishes and sustains that life. Once again—to put it more accurately—he is that life. This is a theme that we will find in the liturgy over the next two Sundays as well. The abundant and eternal life that Jesus gives us is none other than his own life. But that life is available for him to give us only because it was first sacrificed, offered, laid down. The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep. The supreme sign of Jesus “sacrificing” his life, of course, is the cross. But it’s broader than that. It embraces the way he lived his life as well—as a model, and as an example, for us. And it also includes, of course, the reality of his resurrection. In his resurrection, Jesus defeats the enemy of all life, abundant or otherwise. He defeats the power that makes it necessary for lions to hunt wildebeests. He defeats the power that frustrates us in our desire to have life, and have it abundantly.

We celebrate this gift of life in many ways. We certainly celebrate it in this Eucharist, and every other time we come together to take and bless and break and give the gifts of God for the people of God. Celebration and thanksgiving for the gift of abundant and eternal life is at the heart of the eucharistic mystery. So when we leave the altar, we will have been given the grace we need to sustain that life—Christ’s own life—within us, until we return on the next Sunday or holy day. One of the ways that grace will operate in our hearts will be to lead us into a lifestyle, an ingrained habit, of offering our own life as a gift for the extension of the life of Christ into the world that he is redeeming. In John, chapter six, Jesus says that he is the true bread come down from heaven, for the life of the world. We who have been given that gift of life, we in whom that gift is renewed today through the sacrament of Holy Communion, are able to most completely enjoy abundant life precisely by letting ourselves become channels of it. We respond to the gift of life most appropriately by making ourselves available, by sacrificing ourselves “for the life of the world.” We respond to the gift of life by appropriating the gifts of the Spirit and cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, making of ourselves a gift, an oblation, an offering on the altar of the ministry to which God has called each of us. Alleluia and Amen.

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