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Sacrificial Love

Old Mystic, May 3, 2009
John 10:11-18

Summary

The church, Christian community and God’s kingdom on earth are built on sacrificial love. In his love, Jesus Christ shepherds us to shepherd one another into his flock.

Sermon


On Good Shepherd Sunday we tend to romanticize the image of the shepherd—that brave, caring, unassuming, sacrificial individual who would not hesitate to run any risk to protect the sheep. It is a great Biblical image; after all, some of the most distinguished leaders of the Israel of the Bible were shepherds: Moses taking care of the flock of his father-in-law Jethro or David, the romantic boy-poet-warrior-king, who played the lyre and composed some of the most beautiful Psalms when doing a shepherd’s job. But for many of us, 21st century people, a shepherd is not a common sight.

I was raised in the suburbs of a big city like Buenos Aires so it would take us a long drive out of town in order to see some “green pastures” and what we were more familiar with: gauchos chasing cows and horses, quite a different image than that of the gentle shepherd. Very often symbols have different meanings. In the Old Testament we find the image of the Shepherd used to refer to the Messiah or the coming king; or to God as the One who cares for his people. But is also is used to portrait leaders, both good and bad.

No matter how detached we may be from a real shepherd—we can still find them in many places throughout the world, it provides us with a very powerful image. A good shepherd will care for, protect, guide, and risk his or her life for the sheep. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And this sentence is placed in a context where it strongly contrasts the commitment of one who owns the sheep with that of someone who is just hired to do the job. Love is at the core of this image: it is Jesus’ sacrificial love that brings life to humanity.

When love is sacrificial it acquires its most powerful meaning. It implies that the person who loves is willing to give up anything because the object of his or her love is the most important thing in the world. And Jesus sets the example: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And through his life Jesus took all kinds of risks all the way to the cross because of his love for us.

It is that love the kind of love that builds. It builds the church, it builds Christian community, and it builds God’s kingdom. Sometimes we feel that we don’t measure up to that great expectation. We find ourselves perhaps playing the role of the hired shepherds who would run when the wolf threatened the flock and failed to care for the sheep. Love builds! Love builds relationships, families, congregations, communities, and love can transform the world. A commitment of love to Jesus Christ in response to his love will bring forth the promise of healing, of hope, and of salvation.

Sacrificial love is the means and the end of our commitment to Jesus Christ. We love God because He loved us first and we turn our lives to him to be transformed to love. Love is the process and love is the outcome.

Jesus is the good shepherd and he says he “knows his own and his own know him.” Furthermore, he makes room in the fold for “other sheep” who will listen to his voice. He is not out there to “steal” sheep. He knows everyone and he wants everyone to know him since all the sheep in the world belong to him because he laid his life down for them!

A sheep is not a very intelligent creature. It has no sense of direction; it would inevitably get lost if left on its own, and has no adequate resources to protect itself from any attack. A sheep is virtually defenseless. Yet, she survives and even has a quality life because of the care, guidance, and protection of the shepherd whom she knows, and whose voice she recognizes. She doesn’t need much knowledge—just a close relationship with the shepherd.

To say that we know Jesus could be a tricky expression. We can say many things about him; paint many portraits; quote him and talk about the wonders he did. In fact, many of Jesus’ stories are popular and well known and most people have heard them and they even re-tell them. But if we recognize that we are like sheep, what do we know about Jesus the Christ? Isaiah, speaking of Israel, but including us by extension, said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We are like sheep and sheep come humbly into a relationship with the shepherd. Our knowledge of Christ, the necessary knowledge, is relational knowledge.

We are related to the shepherd who in his sacrificial love invites us into a relationship with him. At the same time, however, we are called to love sacrificially and shepherd others into the flock. That is God’s way; we can only love others into the church and into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a relational process of love to build a community of love. It sounds repetitious! But doesn’t it strike so clearly to us that the most vulnerable in the world, that is children, are telling us with their eyes and their smiles that they need love and the kind of love that cares and provides and can make the difference? Jesus knows his sheep and calls us to know them too.

Love is not easy. In fact, I’ve been repeating that it is sacrificial. It took Jesus all the way to the cross. But we learned from Jesus that it cannot be defeated; it is the power that overcame death. God is love and love is the essence of all life; life as we know it and life eternal. We are here in this place because of God’s sacrificial love and with the purpose of loving sacrificially. It is very challenging because it is so difficult to love our enemies, especially when they want to destroy us. But we cannot afford to give up. Wrong does not defeat wrong! Paul admonishes us strongly, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

Pastors are known to be shepherds. We are supposed to take care of and lead the congregation to “green pastures.” That is a challenge that can be daunting especially when we learn the pressing needs that people have. But the task of shepherding is a call for everyone. We often talk about the priesthood of all believers. What about the “shepherding of all believers?” We can confidently come to the arms of the shepherd who in his sacrificial love embraces us to make us shepherds who love their neighbors sacrificially.

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