The Word Engaged
“I lay down my life.” (John 10:10)
“Over my dead body!” Have you ever heard that challenge? It seems to bang around in my brain as something I’ve surely heard a few times and maybe even said. These words push their way back into my consciousness when I see this Sunday’s readings.
It is not so much the content of Peter’s ringing sermon in the Acts of the Apostles that triggers the words. It is rather the First Letter of Peter, with its daunting description of Christ and the manner of his suffering that bring “over my dead body” to mind.
We are told that Christ’s suffering is a path for us to follow. And yet it remains, for the most part, truly a “road not taken” by people and institutions that bear the name of Christ.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted he returned no insult. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (Second Reading)
This is hard bread to chew. We think that if we do no wrong and tell no lies, we have some justice due us. We might have the gumption to take insults without retaliation, but to undergo pain and suffering and offer no resistance—that is too much to expect.
Jesus, for his part, does not rely on his innocence or righteousness or the truth of his ideas. His sole security is the one who sent him.
More troubling still, Jesus takes our sin into his own body on the cross. Only by his wounds and death are we healed and given life. It is over his dead body that we are saved.
That is what this letter seems to be saying. How proper, then, that the next few words allude to the fact that we were like straying sheep who are now returned to our shepherd, the guardian of our souls.
The Good Shepherd, as we all know, is one of the abiding pictures of Christ in Christian imagination. Words like “pastor” and “pastoral care” draw their meaning and power from the image of Jesus as the kind and caring guide of the flock.
The sheep approach the protection of the sheepfold through the gate. Those who climb in by other ways—over the rocks and brambles—are either robbers or predators. The true shepherd enters and leaves first, calling their names; at the sound of his voice they follow.
This passage is called a “figure” by the writer of the Fourth Gospel. And when the hearers seem not to grasp the figure fully, Jesus goes further, offering them what many have thought a somewhat disconnected second metaphor. All of a sudden, he is no longer the shepherd. He is the gate itself.
But this shift is not a mixing of metaphors. Like many devoted shepherds, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.
I once heard a description of Middle Eastern sheepherding practices that ties these two images together. The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones, topped by barriers of briar. There is a small opening for the sheep to pass through.
Once they are all in, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing or no one can get through without going over his body first, without confronting or even killing him.
This particular kind of shepherd literally makes himself into a barrier gate, a role that requires not only care but courage. If any marauders or predators are to get to the sheep, they will only do so over the dead body of the shepherd.
When Jesus reveals that he is the gate of the sheepfold, he is not just suggesting that he is the unique way into safety or the only way out to pasture. He is saying that he will prevent our destruction by laying down his life. He has come to us that we may have life and have it abundantly.
The continuation of the passage is important. “I am the good shepherd, the one that lays down his life for the sheep.” It is for this reason, we are assured, that God’s love is so totally poured out into Christ—and so empowering that his life, even though laid down, is given back again.
The Passover, with its commemoration of Christ’s “dead body” and Resurrection, is the full realization of the twenty-third Psalm’s promise. With this shepherd, we shall never want. We will have repose. We will be led and refreshed and guided along right paths.
“Even in the dark valley I will fear no evil. You are at my side. You give me courage. You are my food and drink. You anoint me. There is nothing I shall want. Goodness and kindness will follow me all my days. I will dwell in your fold forever.”
Can we be lost or destroyed? Only over the Lord’s dead body. But he is risen now, to die no more. Through the laying down of his life on the cross and his rising before us, we are led into the sheepfold of eternal life.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University