(Begin by reading the Gospel. Alternatively, you could have someone read it to you. The Good News is meant to be heard 😊)
For three weeks we have heard the Risen Jesus appearing to his disciples. Over and over he hails them with that Parousia greeting, "Peace be with you." When we arrive at the fourth Sunday of Easter, we turn our attention to the parable of the Good Shepherd. This year, in the portion of the parable we hear, Jesus repeats a certain phrase over and over, in different ways:
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down
Laying down his life seems to be the point, doesn't it? We know that this phrase refers to his death. We notice, however, that Jesus does not say, "The Good Shepherd dies for his sheep." He does not say, "I die of my own accord." Instead, he speaks of laying down his life. Why does he say it in this way?
There are certain images associated with "laying down." This phrase is used most commonly to refer to soldiers who "lay down" their weapons. This means that the decision has been made to wage war no longer. Laying down weapons is an image of peace.
"Laying down" is also an image of spreading out gifts at the feet of the king. Laying down a gift before someone is an offering. The gift is laid down in the hope that the person will accept the gift, that they will pick it up.
Do these usages help us understand what Jesus means by laying down his life?
When Jesus says, "I have power to lay it down," and "I lay it down of my own accord," it is clear that no one is taking his life away from him. It is his choice, his desire that his death occurs. He makes this choice clear at the Last Supper. He gives the disciples the bread and the wine saying, "This is my body; this is my blood." He lays it all down on the table before them, his body, his blood--his whole life--before the soldiers ever come to take it away. It is an action filled with peace.
In making his life an offering, Jesus chooses the way of peace, the way of the Kingdom of God. He fully obeys the will of God. And God fills him with new life. Eternal life.
And now it becomes clear how laying down his life is a gift for the sheep. The Good Shepherd always goes ahead of his sheep. He opens a new pathway, through death to life. The eternal life he receives, he offers to the sheep. He lays it down before the feet of the sheep in the hope that they will take it up.
Who will take up this gift? What is the hope?
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.
One Flock. One Shepherd. This is the goal. This is the promise. This is the Kingdom of God complete.
When will this be? Can we help hurry time along to the fullness of the Kingdom?
They will listen to my voice.
It seems to all rest in the listening, doesn't it? Jesus is confident that this is the way. We can do this. We can listen to the One who calls us by name. Others will listen, too. Listening is our offering, it is the gift of our lives spread before the feet of the King.