Weekly Seeds: Power to Lay it Down

Sunday, April 21, 2024
Fourth Sunday of Easter | Year B

Focus Theme:
Power to Lay It Down

Focus Prayer:
Good Shepherd, lead and guide us. Find us when we stray, and let us rest in your care, power, and love. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 10:11-18
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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 4:5-12 • Psalm 23 • 1 John 3:16-24 • John 10:11-18

Focus Questions:
What is power?
How do we find God’s power at work in the world?
What are other sources of power?
How do you relate to power?
How can we understand and emulate the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laying down power?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

A butterfly is a creation of often stunning beauty, yet the process of becoming a butterfly may be horrifying. It begins with an egg.

The caterpillar, or what is more scientifically termed a larva, stuffs itself with leaves, growing plumper and longer through a series of molts in which it sheds its skin. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth.
Ferris Jabr

The caterpillar has to destroy itself with enzymes released to disintegrate most of its body to move toward its next state in the cocoon or chrysalis before the transformation to moth or butterfly is complete. The caterpillar lays down its life in what seems to be an action of self-destruction. For the caterpillar, laying down that life releases the possibility of being a butterfly. It is a delicate balance for a delicate creation, and there is certainly risk involved. Too much enzyme and the caterpillar turns to mush. Too little and it will never reach its potential. At the start, the process appears to be completely destructive and agonizing. The most transformative portion of the metamorphosis occurs hidden from view as the new creature appears to be entombed. What emerges is truly miraculous, rooted in what came before, containing all the same elements, yet made glorious.

The butterfly cannot come to life unless the caterpillar faces its own end. It lays it down in order to pick it up.

The gospel writers do not record Jesus using the metaphor of the butterfly to explain his death and resurrection, but he does employ metaphor, allegory, parable, and common expressions to help the disciples understand the nature of his life, death, and new life. Perhaps no other imagery is used as pervasively and broadly as that of the shepherd. When Jesus evokes it, he relates his story to the references found in the Law, Wisdom, and Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

It is a particularly powerful comparative device in an agrarian society. In much of the gospel narrative, a shepherd would have been a fairly common occupation. For many contemporary readers, what we know about shepherding is extracted from the accounts found in the Psalms, Ezekiel, and Isaiah to name a few reference points. As a result, we may accept statements on face value without questioning their meaning or veracity. To understand the meaning, we must enter the culture that surrounds the narrative.

John’s shepherding metaphor also relies on conventions of culture to create meaning. In biblical and non-canonical literature, shepherding appears both as a literal occupation and also as a conventional metaphor for a king or leader. John’s words, “I am the good shepherd,” draw on this common knowledge to communicate something about Jesus’ identity. Understanding John’s language, then, is both a literary and a historical task. John’s wording suggests certain attributes of shepherding that are relevant for understanding Jesus leading the sheep (10:34), for example, or protecting them from predators (10:1,12). The interpreter tries to understand the ways John’s language might have been heard by those who shared his cultural associations regarding shepherding.
Susan Hylen

Current representations of sheep depict them as docile and simple creatures, when in reality they are complex, intelligent, and emotional beings. They recognize each other and humans. They display anger, fear, loneliness, and grief as well as happiness and attachment. “They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter.” Sheep are gentle, relational, and easily domesticated, but that does not mean they do not stray from the flock. They aren’t built as hunters, which makes them tempting prey to more aggressive animals, which means they may need to be retrieved from harm and protected from predators. It should not surprise us that being a shepherd prepared David not only to defeat Goliath but also for a new vocation as a warrior leading armies in battle.

Those waiting in expectation for the Messiah to come may have hoped for the warrior lineage to dominate David’s successor as the new sovereign ruler after God’s own heart. Jesus comes bearing and claiming the role of the shepherd. Both require power and might. Both require leadership, organizing, and strategy. Both present risks where death is possible but not the desired outcome. In fact, for the warrior and the shepherd, death represents failure and jeopardizes the safety of those in the leader’s charge as well as the mission.

Because John has cultivated the reader’s sense of foreboding about Jesus’ death, when Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who “risks his life for the sheep” or…uses the same phrase in the first person, the language evokes Jesus’ death. However, shepherds were not commonly expected to die in the line of duty. Protecting the sheep involved some risk, as it exposed the shepherd to the elements and to predators. But like David, shepherds had means of defending the sheep (and themselves) from the threat posed by lions or wolves. Indeed, the success of the shepherd was important, for the shepherd who was killed by the wolf ceased to be of much use to his flock. Because the shepherd who risks his life is not expected to die, the shepherd metaphor is in some ways ill suited as a means of understanding Jesus.
Susan Hylen

For Jesus, death is not the intended outcome. Whether you believe that it was a necessary tool or an unavoidable obstacle, it is not the end of the story.

If you observed a caterpillar in metamorphosis without knowing the steps in its lifecycle, you might justifiably think that the insect was dying. The gooey mess is the evidence of the end of life. Knowledge of its processes informs us that the cocoon or chrysalis is in fact the end of its existence as a caterpillar, but what lies ahead for it is spectacular and presumably worth the pain of transformation. The power to lay it down sets up the power to take it back up.

The introduction of the new idea of Jesus “taking up” his life in vv. 17 and 18 also heightens the sense that Jesus is speaking of his death by evoking the related topic of the resurrection. The reader knows not only that Jesus will die but also that he will rise again. Thus the pairing of “putting down” and “taking up” one’s life naturally evokes Jesus’ death and resurrection for the reader.
Susan Hylen

Moreover, John’s audience would have known the continued testament of the disciples and early church in the world. They would have heard the stories of followers of The Way who abandoned their old lives in favor of life in Christ, a type of metamorphosis not requiring physical death but a transformation in life commitments, actions, and attitudes. That is the new life presented to those who proclaim Jesus as Sovereign, Holy One, and Shepherd.

The shepherd metaphor also creates a unique relationship between the death of Jesus and the “life” offered to his followers. The wolf threatens to kill the sheep, and the shepherd’s risk affords the possibility of continued life for the flock. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus offers “life” to those who follow him. The shepherd image highlights Jesus as one who risks himself on behalf of the flock so that they may continue to access the “abundant life” he provides.
Susan Hylen

At the end of the day, Jesus did not come to die but to live. In that, he models for us how to live. Like all living beings, death comes inevitably for all of us. Jesus, who lays down his divinity in order to be born into humanity, would have eventually died without divine intervention. Human intervention led to an early and horrific death. He chooses to not intervene in his own story by sparing himself from the fullness of the human experience. Jesus submits willingly to the process. His broken body removed from the cross will be cocooned in a tomb…the transformation hidden from our view.

Glory is revealed as new life is taken up, but first Jesus used his power to lay it down.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

won’t you celebrate with me
By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

For Further Reflection
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” ― Emily Dickinson
“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
“I wonder if fears ever really go away, or if they just lose their power over us.” ― Veronica Roth

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, 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 below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.