Homily for the
4th Sunday of Easter
May 11, 2003
John 10: 11-18
Nativity, Brandon, Fla.
Most Holy Redeemer, Tampa
This weekend (April 27-29, 2012) I was away with Boy Scouts. So no written homily. Here’s one that I gave 9 years ago—the only one I have at the moment on the computer for this particular Sunday.
“I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10: 11-18).
The 4th Sunday of Easter is commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday, because the gospel portrays Jesus as the one who takes care of the sheep of God’s flock. Today’s gospel also gives us a quick summary of the paschal mystery we’ve been celebrating since Holy Thursday: “I will lay down my life for the sheep,” and “I have power…to take it up again” (10:18), and this death and resurrection fulfills the Father’s plan: “This command I have received from my Father” (v. 18).
Jesus lays down his life for his sheep. To protect us from harm, he’s willing to stand between us and danger, even to undergo death that we might live. And so he did when he died on the cross to atone for our sins, to suffer in our place. Every sinner is a rebel against God’s authority, a beneficiary who spurns the love and blessings of his Maker. We deserve God’s wrath (cf. Eph 2:1-3).
But wrath isn’t what God wants to give us. Rather, his plan is for us to live. So he sent his Son to us and allowed him to suffer the full effects of our sins: our hatred, our fears, our prejudices, our spite, our slander, our cruelty—sent him to be thoroughly immersed in the ordinary human condition that we know so well—to some extent from direct experience, as both victims and offenders, and to some extent from reading the newspaper.
Just dying, of course, wasn’t much for our protection from the wicked designs of “the devil, who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” in St. Peter’s apt description (II, 5:8). By the power of God, Jesus took up his own life again; he rose triumphant from the grave on the 3d day. His triumph is ours too, because he has become one of us. The shepherd who died for the sheep shares his life with them.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Lech Walesa and the Polish labor union gave us a wonderful word, solidarity; altho it’s been an English word since the middle of the 19th century, hardly anyone used it till the Poles showed up on the evening news. Someone defined solidarity as the notion that “we’re all in this together.” “Solidarity” describes our relationship with Jesus, who laid down his life for us and took it up again—dying as one of us, bringing us to immortal life with him after we, too, have walked with the Lord our shepherd thru “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:1,4).
By our Baptism we’ve been immersed in the death of Jesus—Jesus the Good Shepherd, who leads us beyond death, who protects us from everlasting death because he laid down his own life and took us along with him when he took up his own life again.
Jesus has the power to take up his life again, as he had the power to lay it down; he chose to lay it down. He had the power because he’s God; he made the choice because he loves us and wants to share himself completely with us. Death is something terrible but is no longer the final answer to our sinfulness. Jesus the Good Shepherd has conquered both sin and death—and that’s our final answer.
This command—to come to our rescue—Jesus received from his Father. To some extent we enter here the mystery of the Trinity, how the Son is God yet is distinct from the Father; and the mystery of the incarnation, how the Son is both God and man at the same time. As God his will is perfectly one with the Father’s; as a human being he has to struggle to do what God’s wants, afraid of pain and death as much as the rest of us. But he fully embraces his Father’s plan that we should have life. Like a Special Forces soldier who will do whatever it takes to carry out his mission behind enemy lines, or an excellent athlete who will do whatever it takes within the rules to outplay his opponent, Jesus does whatever it takes to restore God’s plan that the human race should live forever as God’s children—even laying down his life for us in order to be faithful to truth, mercy, and God’s irrevocable, universal love.