April 29, 2012
1 John 3:16-24
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Reading from the letter of John and the Gospel of John, it is good to know which is which. The story goes that a wedding cake decorator was given a scripture verse to put on a cake. They diligently wrote down John 4:18. Unfortunately, it was supposed to be 1 John 4:18, from the letter not the Gospel.
In a lovely icing script it should have read, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Beautiful! Instead, it said, “for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.” It is important to know what we are reading…
I must start the sermon off with a confession. I know very little about being a shepherd. I am much more comfortable with a book and a comfy chair than with a crook and a flock of animals. I am better with a Bible than with shears. But I do know the roles of shepherds in the Bible. Somebody once said that everybody knows the 23rd Psalm, 1 Corinthians 13, and John 3:16, because everyone has been to a funeral, a wedding, and a football game.
We hear in the 23rd Psalm that God, as shepherd, provides. We are given sustenance for body and for soul. We are made whole again. We are given protection. We are freed from fear. We are not left in peril. We are given a place to dwell for all our days.
So when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” we hear echoes of two great images. The first echo is “I am.” Several times in John, Jesus uses these words which echo back to the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. John says that what God did way back in creation, in saving his people, in leading them and providing them with a covenant, we now see in Jesus.
The second echo is the shepherd, who provides, who sustains, who protects, who frees from fear, who does not abandon, who makes a place for us to dwell.
A shepherd risks his life for the sheep. A hired hand won’t do this, Jesus says, because they aren’t his sheep. The shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. They know the sound of his voice.
Jesus will lay down his life for the people. And as the Letter we read this morning reminds us, not only does this mean that he loves us, but that we should also love one another.
Meeting with a couple who are getting married, I discovered a condensed way of stating what the marriage vows say. All the “for richer, for poorer” are the range of conditions under which the vows still apply, meaning “no matter what life brings.” But the vows basically come down to, “We are in this together, and I’ve got your back.”
I have recently discovered the importance of this. With Mira’s birth, with Mary and me coming to grips with being first time parents, with her hospitalizations and surgery, and her meds six times a day, we have discovered that the only way for us to survive individually and as a couple is to treat lack of sleep, crazy schedules, lots of doctor visits and other problems as a common enemy. The only way to make it is to commit, every day, to the fact that “we are in this together, and I’ve got your back.”
This is what the First Letter of John means by, “Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” This is not sentimentality. This is not a feeling that costs us nothing and risks nothing. This is the love of fidelity, of covenant, of obedience. (I’ve noticed “obey” is another of those words nobody uses in their vows anymore. Although many would like for their spouse to say it!)
“We are in this together, and I’ve got your back.”
We hear this in God’s speaking to Moses at the burning bush.
We hear this in Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
We hear it in the letter this morning, when John writes, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” The brethren are the other members of the Body of Christ, and by extension, our world of neighbors.
We hear this in the promises we make every time someone is baptized: “We promise our love, our care, our support and our prayers.”
It all comes down to the same thing. What we are saying is, “We are in this together, and I’ve got your back.” And we can say it to each other and mean it, because God has said it to us, and God means it.
Thanks be to God.