St Bride's: Sermons

Laying down one's life

John 10:11-18

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11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.

13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.

14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.

16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.

18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.'

Those are the closing words of which famous nineteenth century novel?  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I first read that novel at a highly impressionable age, when I was still at school, and I was absolutely blown away by it.

If there is anyone here today who hasn't yet read it, I would urge you to do so - if only because it is such a rattling good read, set in the context of the French revolution; and it is a novel where you experience to the full the extraordinary skill of Dickens the writer to manipulate the emotions and allegiances of his readers, as you find your sympathy for certain key figures reverses completely during the course of the story.

And - 'spoiler alert' here, by the way, if you haven't read yet read it - the novel ends with a character called Sydney Carton, who, despite being an indolent cad for much of the novel, rescues another man from the guillotine by voluntarily taking his place at his execution.  Hence those extraordinarily powerful and memorable last lines: 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.'

That readiness to 'lay down one's life' for another human being is a remarkable and exceptional thing.  And I don't think it is actually the same as risking one's life for another person - despite the fact that that, too, requires astonishing selflessness and courage.  Let me explain what I mean: we will all have seen, or heard, amazing stories in which an individual, without thinking twice about it, rushes into a burning building, or jumps into a raging torrent, in order to try and save the life of someone whose life is in danger.  Such people are rightly honoured for their heroism and courage in putting their own lives at risk - and indeed, sometimes they lose their lives as a result of their actions.

But deciding not merely to risk losing one's life but actively to surrender it, in order that another may live - in the way that Sydney Carton does in that novel - strikes me as being rather different - neither more nor less courageous - but just different.

One of the differences being that, in the Sydney Carton kind of situation, there is absolutely no question about the outcome.  There is something calm and almost measured about deciding on a course of action that you know will not merely put your life at risk, but actually end it - which is very different from a courageous act of heroism undertaken in the heat of the moment.  During my years of ministry, I have encountered several individuals who have risked their lives in order to rescue others, but offhand I can think of only one who took a calculated decision to undertake a course of action that she knew would lead to her certain death, in order that another might live.

She was the wife of a former parishioner of mine, and she was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition at about the same time that she discovered she was pregnant.  The treatment that she needed to have to save her life, would result in the death of her baby.  And she was not prepared to do that.  So she declined treatment; the baby was born safe and well, and the woman died very shortly afterwards.  That baby, by the way, is now a young adult herself, and one of the last things that I did before leaving that parish to come here, was to read her banns of marriage.  She is only alive because her mother is dead.

And today's Gospel reading uses that same language, of laying down one's life, when describing the Good Shepherd and the nature of his relationship with, and his love for, his flock. A hired hand has no personal investment whatsoever in the welfare of the flock - which is why the moment a wolf appears on the horizon he is off.  His sole concern is his own safety and well-being.  He looks inwards rather than outwards.  The Good Shepherd is the precise opposite: he is so committed to the welfare of his sheep that he will surrender his life in order to save theirs.  He looks outwards rather than inwards.

Now I have yet to meet a farmer who was actually prepared to die in order to save the life of one of his animals.  But Jesus is of course using the metaphor of animal husbandry to talk about God's relationship with us, manifested in his own self-sacrificial love.  The fundamental contrast is between the one for whom self-interest is all, and the one for whom love is all.  And our second reading this morning charges us to use this as a model that we ourselves should emulate, when it states:

We know love by this, that Christ Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another'

But what on earth does that mean in practice?  After all, as I have already observed, the occasions on which such a situation even presents itself are (mercifully) rare.  But our reading goes on to address precisely this point by asking the question, very starkly: '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?'

In other words, we are charged to stop looking inwards: 'How does this affect me?'  'What is in my own best interests?' 'What will people think about me?' How can I come out of this situation on top?'  And instead, to look outwards: 'What is in the best interests of my brothers and sisters in this community, and what can I do to help build this into a community of love and service, even at the risk of my own self-interest?'

In one of my previous parishes I had a Churchwarden for whom I had the utmost respect, even though he was not the easiest of people to get on with.  He was a retired schoolmaster, who had been Cambridge educated - he was an extremely intelligent and articulate man.  He had never married, having lived with his elderly widowed mother, and been her primary carer, until her death, and he had worshipped at that particular church all his life.  He was extremely buttoned up, very private, very shy, and could be quite prickly in his manner.

And yet the thing that I always found absolutely astonishing about him was that, despite being very conservative in his taste in worship, and indeed, all aspects of church practice (in truth he was not very comfortable with anything that was not Sung Mattins from the Book of Common Prayer), nevertheless, whenever there was a vote in the PCC, he would invariably support the option that he believed was in the best interests of that church, regardless of whether he personally happened to like it or approve of it.  He loathed certain kinds of music and certain styles of worship - and yet, if he was of the view that this was what the church needed to adopt in order to extend and to deepen its ministry to that community, then he would vote in favour of it.

It was that extraordinary generosity of spirit - which, incidentally, was matched by his financial generosity: the level of his personal giving to that church was both sacrificial and an example to others - which made him such an outstanding churchwarden.  Because he really did set before himself the model of the Good Shepherd: one who was willing to lay down his own hopes, and fears, and likes, and preferences - to look beyond them to the service of others.  And seeing his readiness to surrender, so generously, the things that one knew mattered to deeply at a personal level, was quite humbling to see.

Aristotle famously and rightly observed that, if you really want to know what is going on inside a human being, don't look at what they say - look at what they do.  Look at their conduct; look at how they behave to others; see if the things that they say to others and about themselves, actually match the reality.  Because that is where the truth lies.  As Jesus said: 'By their fruits you shall know them.'  You can always tell those who look outwards, on the model of the Good Shepherd.  And they do so because their focus is above all on the things of God.  In the words of today's Collect:

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life; raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things that are above, where he liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the holy spirit, one God now and for ever.


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