Sermon Seeds: Love is a Verb
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B
(Liturgical Color: White
1 John 3:16–24
Love is a Verb
By Cheryl Lindsay
Being a shepherd is demanding work. It requires vigilance, the ability to keep track of numerous sheep at the same time, constant replenishing and distribution of resources among the flock, managing the labor of undershepherds (or going it alone without reliable support), and wrestling with lions, tigers, and bears. Those tranquil pictures that often depict the work of shepherding and the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep present an idealized version of an often ugly, painful, and taxing reality.
Sheep may fail to follow directions, stray from the gathered community, and, occasionally, bite. They need constant attention and care; they never graduate to self-sufficiency even if their behaviors align with the shepherd’s direction and guidance. Shepherds face exhausting physical, mental, and emotional demands with little opportunity for rest. Even those with the best intentions fail to meet the exacting requirements of the role. And others lose their own way or never truly commit to fulfill the duties of the position. The good shepherd does their best and brings their all to the role.
Jesus’ best is exemplary, and the proper translation reflects that as a shepherd, Jesus is more than adequate. His leadership establishes an ideal and an aspirational model. Not everyone in a position of authority over a community, however, follows the model set forth by the good shepherd:
Flashback to an anxious era, two-and-one-half millennia ago, when Israelites were wrenched from their land and deported into Babylonian captivity. In a stem yet moving oracle, Ezekiel compared Israel’s leaders to self-serving shepherds, responsible for the scattering of people who, like sheep, became easy prey for wild beasts and were without anyone to seek them out (Ezek. 34:1-10). Then came the promise: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God” (Ezek. 34:15). “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (34:31) (C. Clifton Black)
Jesus contrasts his way of relating with his flock with other models, the predator and the hired hand. One attempts to usurp ownership and authority; the other is motivated by self-serving considerations. Then, “What does it mean to refer to Jesus as the shepherd that is “good” (kalos, which might be better translated as “noble,” “model,” or “ideal”)? John specifies two qualifications.” (C. Clifton Black) The first is a sacrificial mode of relating to the sheep in which the good shepherd priorities the safety and well-being of the flock over self-interest. The second is intimate and reciprocal knowledge. Both prerequisites hinge on motivation and intent of the shepherd in respect to the sheep under their care.
The only mention of the word love comes as Jesus refers to the relationship of the Triune God, who loves Jesus as a proud parent for embodying this role of Good Shepherd. Yet, love as motivator and action permeates this entire passage. What Jesus does is born from the love he has for the sheep, and what he does exemplifies love for the sheep. The Good Shepherd embodies love as a verb, an action done by someone unto someone.
John’s gospel places greater emphasis on the shepherd’s heart motivation than it does on the practical tactics of his leadership. In the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus demonstrates that genuine shepherd leadership is indicated primarily by a singular concern for the sheep entrusted to the leader’s care. (Nathan H. Gunter)
Most of us in the western world will never be faced with the choice to give our actual lives for another or for the gospel. A member of my doctoral cohort, however, was part of the persecuted church, which does still exist as a marginalized and oppressed community in some areas in the world. Early on in our program, his church was bombed. Later, the pastor was murdered. Emmanuel would succeed him as pastor, and last year, Emmanuel and his wife were also murdered because of their faith and the witness of their faith community to the liberating God. For most of us, loving our neighbor asks much less of us than that. It involves donning a mask and adhering to public health guidelines during a pandemic. It compels us to take an honest accounting of policing in America and make substantive changes in recruitment, training, and retention of individual officers and funding of resources to address public safety without holding on to policies and procedures birthed out of racial terrorism.
For countless essential workers, it has meant risking personal safety and security in caring for COVID patients, providing services to grieving families, and ensuring that the rest of us with the privilege to shelter at home have the goods and services we need to survive these times. Still, we see the wolves and the hired hands among us who either flaunt the necessary precautions in favor of a vaulted notion of individual liberty or who try to take advantage of the trials imposed by the pandemic upon our lives. There is a difference between those who follow the lead of the good shepherd and those who don’t.
At the same time, Jesus does not idealize laying down his life. Neither did the early church. I have been thinking about the elevation of the cross over the empty tomb as the symbol of faith in Christ. How many of our sanctuaries have a depiction of the resurrection equivalent to the representation of Jesus’ death…if at all? Why is the violence of his death easier to embrace than the glory of his life?
In the midst of the trial of the murder of George Floyd, yet another police officer killed an unarmed black man, Daunte Wright, in a nearby community. The devastation expressed by his mother and his aunt remind us how much pain and turmoil ripples from the actions of a few. But, there is a larger problem, and I wonder if the theological elevation of the cross over the tomb contributes to it.
Suffering was never meant to be glorified, even as it was often acknowledged as part of the human condition that needs to be overcome. Yet, we glorify suffering rather than condemn the injustices that lead to it. I remember watching a video of theologian James Cone, in which he stated that Jesus failed. The audience, which was primarily comprised of African American pastors, scholars, and denominational leaders, audibly gasped. I confessed to being shocked by the statement myself. Cone, in discussing the cross, said that Jesus failed…but that God took that failure and transformed that failure…through the resurrection.
But, suffering was not meant to be glorified. Jesus came that we might live…abundantly.
So much of our hymnody and liturgical offerings reinforce the death of Christ as the defining action, but in fact, it was the precursor. It’s the resurrection, the “taking back up” of that sacrificed life in a transformed way that makes the difference. The death of Christ means nothing without the resurrection of Christ.
And it seems to me that the laying down that Jesus refers to in this passage is not so much the cross as the incarnation. Did Jesus want the human life so badly that giving that life up meant such a sacrifice? Or, did laying down his divinity and all the privileges of that life represent the laying down that he mentions in this passage? When Jesus invites us to lay down our lives, could he be asking us to examine our places of privilege and lay them down as well? Could the sacrifice asked of us be to give up or transform a way of life that depends upon the oppression and marginalization of others? Remember, the distinction between the model shepherd and others who try to exert authority over the flock is based on intention and acts of love.
The inclusion of other sheep projects the ideal of a single, universal community united by faith in Christ. Yet a similarly universal and totalizing image in the Hebrew Bible, the Tower of Babel, is broken up by God, who is critical of the endeavor. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many Western countries have become ever more diverse, ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically. Some see this development as disturbing. Others, however, view the diversity as enriching and exciting. The principles of acceptance and mutual respect are often lacking in universalizing ideologies or homogeneous communities, but are necessary for living in communities characterized by diversity. (Adele Reinhartz)
I would contend that the ideal of a united community projected by Jesus in this text is not connected through faith in Christ as much as by Christ’s love, care, and concern for all humanity and creation. The implication for Christian communities is to spread the good news by being the good news, loving our neighbors, honoring the full diversity of humanity, including theological perspectives, and all God’s creation. This is laying down one’s life in the model of the good shepherd.
Christopher Skinner ponders an important aspect of the impact of the death of the shepherd:
Jesus is the good shepherd because of his relationship with the Father (v. 15a), and this relationship involves a specific mission of laying down his life on behalf of the sheep (v. 15b). Again, on the surface this sacrifice would appear to leave the flock more vulnerable than ever, but this is not the case; the good shepherd will continue guiding the flock and bringing others into the fold. This is because, as we will see, he has the power both to lay his life down and to take it up again—both of which are not-so-subtle references to the forthcoming crucifixion and resurrection.
The resurrection is a repudiating response to the crucifixion that horrible, violent death did not have the final word. Life prevails, and that too is an act of love from Jesus. The Good Shepherd lives. Laying down his life was a choice Jesus submitted himself to, but taking it back up was also a choice. The Good Shepherd got back up. The cross was part of the journey. The resurrected life was the destination–for Jesus and for creation–of safety, peace, and love.
The Good Shepherd lives when love becomes more than what we feel but is manifested in what we do and how we live.
The Good Shepherd lives when we eschew calling for calm during civil unrest in favor or reaching for justice.
The Good Shepherd lives when Black Lives Matter.
The Good Shepherd lives when our Transgender siblings enjoy full rights of citizenship and valued personhood.
The Good Shepherd lives when we welcome the immigrant and the stranger among us.
The Good Shepherd lives when we practice what we preach, profess, and proclaim.
The Good Shepherd lives when love is a verb.
For further reflection:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ― Lao Tzu
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis
“Where there is love there is life.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to consider ways in which it can lay down aspects of pre-COVID life and take up a transformed identity in light of lessons learned through the pandemic.
Black, C Clifton, C Clifton (Carl Clifton) Black, Carl Clifton Black, and Carl Clifton Black II. “Our Shepherd’s Voice: Biblical Resources for the Easter Season.” Quarterly Review 14, no. 1 (Spr 1994): 89–110.
Gunter, Nathan H. “For the Flock: Impetus for Shepherd Leadership in John 10.” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 10, no. 1 (Spr 2016): 8–18.
Reinhartz, Adele. “John.” Gale A. Yee, Ed.. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Skinner, Christopher W. “‘The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life for the Sheep’ (John 10:11,15,17): Questioning the Limits of a Johannine Metaphor.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80, no. 1 (January 2018): 97–113.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (email@example.com), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
1 John 3:16–24
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
1 John 3:16–24
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 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.”