Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd to lays down his life for the sheep.
What does Jesus mean when he says that he lays down my life in order to take it up again? “I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.”
Some new testament scholars have suggested that “laying aside” his life is a construction like paying down—like paying ransom or paying interest on a debt. But others have found an interesting parallel phrase from John 13:4. You might remember that on Maundy Thursday, we read this passage:
“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, laid aside his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” And then he washed his disciples feet. That phrase that he “laid aside his outer robe” uses the same Greek word as the phrase in today’s scripture—laid aside his life.
If we consider that parallel, it suggests a couple of things—laying aside one’s life is humbling, like laying aside your clothes. But it is also an act of great love, it is putting the needs of the other before your own needs. When the person takes off his outer clothes, he is making himself vulnerable. But he is also freeing himself of his constraining cloak so that he can do his work, the work that he wants to do.
We can see that when the shepherd lays down his life, he is putting his sheep ahead of himself, certainly he is making himself vulnerable, but he is also freeing himself of his worldly concerns, he is freed to do the work that he wants to do.
As I think about other ways that phrase is used—laying down your swords, your weapons. Laying down our burdens (on the banks of the river Jordan). All of these phrases have this dual meaning—humbling oneself, putting the other’s needs ahead of our own, making ourselves vulnerable AND freeing ourselves, getting beyond our fears.
If we think about this image of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. I imagine a shepherd who sees a danger that the sheep face—a wolf, a cliff, another wild beast. The good shepherd, steps into the situation to protect his sheep. What happens to the shepherd, he’s probably afraid, but he’s more worried about the sheep than he is about his own life. And so in that moment, when he runs in, when he steps between the sheep and the wolf, he’s taking a great risk, but he’s also completely free, he is doing just what he knows he wants to do even though there is the danger that he might die. What happens to the sheep? They come to trust the shepherd completely. They know that he will put them first, and that they can rely on him. It gives them a sense of security and creates incredible loyalty.
I know what those sheep must feel like, because I have a cat that treats me this way. Some of you know that I have a kitty that we brought back from Bosnia. Her name is Mali Most, but we call her “bad kitty”. We call her bad kitty because she bites. Completely unprovoked, she jumps up and bites our toes when we’re in bed. She’ll launch herself off the back of the couch onto my thigh and dig in with her claws. But there’s one time when she becomes a totally different cat—and that’s when I take her to the vet. I think there is something about the smell of the vet’s office, because it happened both in Bosnia and here. But when she gets into the vet’s office, she presses herself against me. She snuggles her face under my arm and doesn’t look out. She gets completely still and won’t make a sound unless the vet reaches out and touches her. She is terribly afraid, actually quivering with fear, but she knows that I am the one who takes care of her. I will make sure that nothing bad happens to her.
I think about how my boys when they were little would rarely, but occasionally climb into my lap, or hold onto my legs. When they were feeling vulnerable, they counted on me. And I know that I would truly “lay down my life” for them if there was a danger that I could address. I would give up my house, my only asset, if my children really needed the money. I would step out on a ledge, if there was a chance that I could pull them back to safety. I would take off my coat and give it to them if they were cold. I would donate a kidney if I they needed one.
It’s easy to see this kind of unconditional love in the case of a child, but what about people I don’t know. Would I be willing to do these things for someone else, someone who is not a relative or someone who has had a lot of support already and has squandered it.
This is where the hard work comes. If we are to be like Jesus, would we be willing to take off our coat for a stranger? Would we make ourselves vulnerable, even to the point of death for someone we don’t know personally. Would we open our doors to someone who needs a place to rest, even though that person might come in and hurt us?
I think about the images of the marchers on the bridge in Selma, Alabama—the ones who knelt on the bridge in the face of the riot police. They laid down their arms, they made themselves vulnerable to the police for the sake of integrating their community.
We can think about Doctors without Borders—people who go into areas where many people are dying, they put their own lives at risk for the sake of helping people who need medical care.
But I can think about other less famous people who do this. What about teachers who decide to teach in public schools because they want to make sure that every child has an education. They decide to become teachers even though this means that they will never earn enough money to have a fancy life. What about doctors and nurses who treat patients who can’t pay for their services, people who don’t have insurance, but still need care. What about people who live on fixed incomes, but still manage to give time and money to causes that need their support?
As we look around us, we see shepherds, people who have laid aside their lives for their sheep—even the sheep who do not know them. Jesus is giving us this example of discipleship. Being the shepherd who lays aside his life, means that you make yourself vulnerable, you humble yourself for the sake of another person.
But Jesus assures us, that when you lay aside your life, you have the opportunity to take it up again. There is something more alive, more free, more powerful in living like the shepherd than if you had protected yourself and never cared that much about the other person. The life of a shepherd as Jesus describes it, is maybe the most fulfilled life. It is a life lived according to God’s command. It is a life that is not constrained like the life of the hired hand—this is the life of the one who is free to live fully, the life that they are called to by God.