‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3.16).
That is a very strong and direct statement. It leaves no room for interpretation but simply tells us how we, as the followers of Jesus, as the sheep of his fold, should act. Be like Christ, the Good Shepherd – love to the end, and don’t search for excuses.
‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’.
The author of these words, John the Apostle, knew what he was saying from experience. You’d recall that on Good Friday he stood alongside Mary at the foot of the Cross, looking at his beloved Jesus dying in agony – his eyes raised towards the love crucified.
From the Cross, Jesus ‘saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her’, and said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son’. Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home’ (John 19.25b-27).
I am recalling that scene because it helps me to understand from where John might have gained his insight of what love is. Christ crucified gave John the lesson he would never forget.
Isn’t it extraordinary that even while he was dying on the cross, Jesus’ eyes were searching for those he loved, and that he wanted to ensure that his mother and the beloved disciple were going to remain a family?
Having had that experience, what else could John write in his Gospel than these most beautiful words summing up the mystery of the Cross: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3.16).
John, when he looked up to the Cross, saw the love crucified but not defeated. Jesus saw him and his mother devastated with grief and did not look away from them but gave them a future together, the future of a beloved family of Jesus, the future in which we as baptized Christians now participate.
The love of God was not crushed by the suffering of the Cross. Rather, it was present in tandem with God’s compassion - for God in Christ suffers with those who are being rejected, imprisoned, driven away from their homes and communities, killed. God in Christ suffers with all who are victims of racism, antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny. Yes, Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows his sheep and he ‘lays down his life’ for them (J 10.11).
St John says to us today on this Good Shepherd Sunday, ‘Be like Christ who is the Good Shepherd – love to the end, and don’t look for excuses.
In v. 17 of the 3rd chapter of his 1st letter, St John asks: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (v.17).
Now, you might like to object. After all, churches are often quite good at charitable giving, at running and supporting various community events and projects, like foodbanks, cafes, drop-in centres. We know that God calls us to love our neighbours and to express it by our actions. Yes, we do know that, and there is a lot of amazing and transforming work happening in the name of Christ. But we would be real hypocrites if we ever thought that we do well enough, and that nothing in our life together needs improvement.
‘Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (v. 18), writes St John in our second reading. ‘Truth and action’ are the necessary components of love, and they need to go hand in hand. For when we don’t act in truth, our actions may turn out to be performed not out of love but out of our own selfish ambition. We like to be seen as welcoming and loving – what church wouldn’t like to be described like that, but at times we end up being so concerned with the image we want to present to the world that we might gradually loose sight of the truth: the truth of what we are really like and of how others perceive us.
Last week’s BBC Panorama Programme asked the question, ‘Is the Church racist?’ It revealed that the Church of England has some serious work to do in order to live out to the ideal of love as laid out in today’s readings by St John. I wasn’t surprised by what was shown in the programme, but it made me feel angry, saddened and ashamed.
The sin of racism, so deeply engrained in the structures and culture of our Church, prevents us from loving our neighbour, our fellow brothers and sisters, in truth.
The truth is often swept under the carpet, seemingly too embarrassing, too painful to be talked about. The Archbishop of Canterbury was right to say 4 days ago that non-disclosure agreements should not be used in the Church to silence those who complained of racism.
It is shocking that the Church, while holding the vision of ‘a new humanity in which the old barriers of separation and exclusion no longer count’, remains deaf to the truth of the barriers of separation and exclusion that exist within its own body.
Last Thursday, the Archbishop’s Anti-Racism Taskforce published the report ‘From Lament to Action’. The report puts forward a long list of actions points that should be acted upon now to ensure that a change of culture in the life of the Church of England becomes the reality and not just another point of debate that produces endless reports but does nothing to address the sin of racism. If we are serious about following Christ, the Good Shepherd, then we need to be intentionally engaged in the work of making the Church a place that is safe and hospitable for every child of God, no matter what skin colour they have, whom they happen to fall in love with, what they background is, or whatever. Every person is a child of God – no exceptions.
People like to form small groups of like-minded individuals, clubs, cliques, VIP areas for the ‘elites’ of this world. That is how the human nature works. There is nothing good or wrong about that per se. We have a natural need to belong, to spend time with people who share our interests, with whom we can go walking, skiing, golfing, drinking coffee or prosecco, etc.
But the Church is not a VIP club. The Church is a family of God’s children, wonderfully diverse, with people of all cultures, colours, backgrounds united in the love of God revealed to us in the life, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Church does not reflect the society we live in then we should really worry about our future.
Jesus, when he was teaching his own people, his fellow-Jews, also pointed that out to them. He said, ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd’ (J 10.16).
Jesus doesn’t say to them, ‘You who are here don’t matter.’ For Jesus, the Good Shepherd, every sheep matters, every person is important. If you and I get in trouble – as we sometimes do when we make a more or less fatal mistake in life – Jesus does not run away from us but goes out and searches for us until we are found and restored to his fold.
However, Jesus also reminds us that it is not for us to say who belongs to his fold and who doesn’t. God calls those God wishes to call, and the Church should be a place where our horizons our widened not narrowed, where every person has a chance to grow in faith, hope and love.
Will we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd in creating a community in which love is expressed in action and in truth? After all, ‘we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3.16).
Prayer for the Church of God, by William Laud
Most gracious Father,
we most humbly beseech thee for thy holy catholic Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it; where it is in error, direct it;
where anything is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen and confirm it;
where it is want, furnish it; where it is divided, heal it,and unite it in thy love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.