Jesus’ sheep are drawn into the unity of love between the Father and Son. As Jesus keeps choosing to lay down his life out of love, we are called to lay down our lives out of love for him and one for another. A later passage from John reinforces the centrality of this choice to act and serve in love that characterizes our faith.
Sometime after the resurrection Jesus finds Peter with other disciples who have gone fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He calls them from the shore to come have breakfast with him. After broiling some fish over a charcoal fire and sharing breakfast Jesus says to Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He says to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus says to Peter the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
This threefold exchange around the charcoal fire reminds us of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus around another charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest just three chapters earlier.
In the earlier passage Peter behaves like the hired hand who abandons the sheep when the wolf attacks. But strengthened by the knowledge of the risen Jesus, Peter will become the hired hand who does not run away. As we see in today's reading from Acts, where he makes a good confession before Annas and Caiaphas, Peter will choose over and over to tend and feed Jesus’ sheep and face the worst the wolf can do in the assurance that he has been drawn into a love that abides from before time and for ever.
Many of us come to awareness of God’s love through the love of those faithful disciples who bring us to church when we are young. Namely our parents.
One of my great-uncles wrote how when his mother was buried her 13 children gathered around her grave and sang the song she had sung over all their cradles and around all their beds when they were young.
Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me; Bless thy little lamb tonight: Through the darkness be thou near me, Keep me safe till morning light.
Her children learned the love of the Good Shepherd through her constant tender care, her life laid down and taken up again for them day by day.
But her choice could never suffice for their choices. For the love of God to work its power in our lives and in our world we must keep choosing to lay down our lives and pick them up again in the love of the Good Shepherd.
The challenge to lay down our lives for each other is a costly and sometimes a fearful one. We fear the loss of our lives, our identity.
This past week some members of the parish joined a hundred other members of the Diocese of VA in a dialogue about race and reconciliation.
Bishop Johnston told a story from when he was a young curate at the Episcopal Church in Selma Alabama. In his hospital visitations he tended to the wife of Judge James Hare who issued the July 1964 injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders. Judge Hare died bitter and angry that he had failed to stop the marches that helped to change everything about the world he lived in. But his wife allowed herself to turn toward and accept the truth and love of the Good Shepherd ministered to her by the Church. As she lay dying she told the young curate who would become our bishop words he repeated to us on Thursday night, “We were so certain we were right, but we were so wrong.”
Like Peter, Mrs Hare failed to bear witness to the truth that we are called to love all our neighbors as Christ loves us. But others stood firm in the love of God and acted in costly love for the sheep.
The Church is in the world to continually present the choice of the risen Christ. The offer of grace, forgiveness is as fundamental to love as the courage to stand for justice. The justice of God is powerful because the Good Shepherd bears the burden and the cost out of love. The forgiveness of Christ is powerful because he laid down his life for them, and he continues to choose us whether we have accepted his love or not. The Church is God’s love in action, ever suffering for justice and ever ready to forgive.
How do we equip young people to make the choices of faith? Costly choices about who we are and how to live, choices not only about time and money and values and vocation, but so many choices about identity we never had to make when we were growing up, choices about racial, ethnic, gender, and even cyber identity?
What do you want to be when you grow up is far more complicated than it was when I was a child.
I recall a conversation reported from a youth group meeting at another church. The youth were asked to say something about what God is calling you to do or be. One young woman, let's call her Sarah, a high school freshman, almost never said anything. She rarely made eye contact in discussions, rarely participated, and seemed to prefer to have little social contact. So it was surprising when she offered very boldly, I want to be a School teacher.
Even more surprising, she lifted up her head, parted her hair from in front of her eyes, looked steadily around at the others in the group, and spoke in a strong self confident voice, without any hint of anger or reproach:
I want to be a school teacher because I hate school. I’m fat, short, terrible hair, contacts, annoyingly smart. I have been picked on every day of this school year. I cry at least once every single day.
Every teacher has said, you are too sensitive. Or don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.
I am going to be a school teacher so that when I see that happen to one of my students I will be right there to keep what has been happening to me from happening to them.
Fortunately, before anyone else could respond, one of the other members of the group said, Oh, Sarah, that sounds terrible. I would hate school too. But, I’m glad you’re here.
Flipping that bad hair out of her eyes one more time, Sarah said, I know. That’s why I come to church. It’s different here.
Whether we receive the Shepherd’s love from our mother’s arms, or are spurred into it by the courageous witness of those who will not sit patiently while injustice continues, or are gently brought to repentance and change of heart by the patient pastoral witness of the church, or discover its blessing in faithfulness of friends who keep choosing to accept us as we are and support us in becoming better people, the Love of the Good Shepherd works and works and works on us from the inside out, until we know we are different.
We are different because we know the love of the Good Shepherd. He gives us strength to make our choices and face our futures out of nothing better than his love. And we do.