Ash Wednesday 2018
John 10: 1-18
It’s a funny confluence of dates this year, with Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day and Easter on April Fool’s. And while we might not like the idea of celebrating our love for each other and remembering our mortality all on the same day, as Christians we have to admit it’s fitting. In the story of our faith, Love and Death are intimately connected.
Lent is the season where we come to understand that connection, and since we are in John’s gospel this year, the tie between Love and Death should be especially clear. This is the gospel after all where we hear that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, and where on the night of his arrest Jesus doesn’t command his disciples to practice communion, but to love one another as he has loved them.
And it’s here, in this 10th chapter where Jesus first talks about laying down his life. The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is familiar and comforting as he talks about caring for the sheep in a way that a hired hand never could. But is it so comforting still when we think about our place in this metaphor? We are the sheep, animals that are neither smart nor beautiful, creatures that are prey, vulnerable to the dangers of the wilderness and its stalking predators.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a sheep. To not be able to protect myself, to be completely dependent upon the shepherd’s leading, to know that my life is literally in his hands: these are not the ways I like to think about myself. Yet that is part of the truth we proclaim on Ash Wednesday: that we are mortal, perishable, vulnerable and fragile. We spend much of the rest of our lives turning away from this truth, or trying to deny it by protecting ourselves physically, financially, emotionally. But on this day, and hopefully every time we come to church, we are invited to put aside all of that pretending and admit that we are human, breakable and headed for death.
And in any other place, that would be depressing news. Outside of church, or outside of our faith lives, to be told that you are dying is bad news. But here, inside this sanctuary, the proclamation of death is the beginning of good news.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus says. The hired hand might run away, caring more for his own survival, than for the lives of the sheep, but not the good shepherd. He willingly places himself between the sheep and whatever threatens them, even if it costs him everything. Greater love has no one than this, Jesus says later in chapter 15, to lay down one’s life for their friends. For Jesus, love and death are intertwined. He dies willingly as he came to live willingly among us, because he knows that our lives depend on him.
“I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly” he says in verse 10. And you can’t see it here in English, but the word for life is different in Greek in this verse than it is in the later verses where he talks about laying down his life.
When Jesus says he lays down his life for us sheep, he says he lays down his psuche (this is where we get our word psyche from, like psychology). He lays down his soul, all the attributes that make him a human being: his thoughts, his emotions, his needs and desires.
But when he says that he has come that we might have abundant life, he says, I have come that they may have zoe. NOT psuche. Jesus doesn’t lay down his human life, his soul, his being, so that we can continue to going on living as regular old sheep, vulnerable and mortal. Jesus lays down his psuche, so that we might have zoe, the abundant and eternal, uncreated life of God which brought all things into being, which will exist when everything else has perished.
As in every other time we’ve met Jesus in John’s gospel, people come to him in search of something temporary and immediate, something to solve the problems inherent to their humanity. What he offers, often in addition to giving what they ask, is so much more. To Nicodemus, a new birth. The the Samaritan woman, the water of life. To the hungry crowd, the bread of heaven. To the blind man, the vision of God. Here, to the flighty and vulnerable sheep who just want a safe pen to spend the night in, he offers the overflowing life of God’s own self.
The love that Jesus has for us is too great to leave us temporarily content with quenched thirst, full bellies and safe shelter. Jesus came to move us beyond comfort, through vulnerability, even beyond death itself into the world-changing, life-giving love that exists between him and the Father.
That’s a lot to process for us little sheep, though. Most of us are not interested in going through death, even with such a grand promise on the other side. And that’s okay, it’s part of being human. And Jesus knows that we’re afraid and mostly can’t understand what he’s offering. So he offers to walk us through it.
I want to close with my own translation of verse 4 of this reading. “Whenever the shepherd puts his own out of the pen, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow because they recognize his voice.”
Whenever we come to church, we hear this profound mystery of a divine human who offers us life through his death, and even if we dare to believe it here, when we are out in the world’s wilderness, we are much more sheepish. When we feel surrounded by wolves, or in the custody of hired hands who seem more interested in their own well-being, it seems impossible to remember that the threat of death is actually the beginning of God’s promise.
But our good shepherd goes ahead of us, drawing us ever forward by the sound of his voice, showing us by his example that death is the gate into eternal life. Yes, we are human and mortal and fragile and breakable, made from the dust of the earth and destined to return to it. But God reminds us through Jesus that even dust can come alive by the breath of God, that even sheep are beloved enough to lay down God’s life for, that even in our death God is bringing abundant life.