Faith and Love

Text: John 10:11-18
Date: Easter IV + 4/26/15

The Word of God before us on this Good Shepherd Sunday teaches us of two things, faith and love. It teaches that it is and can be only by faith in the One who lays down His life for us that we can have the forgiveness of our sins and a new, eternal life. At the same time it teaches us love as St. John so clearly summarizes it today, saying, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers…. This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (1 John 3:16, 23). Believe and love.

The saving faith is only the one that believes and trusts in the great good Shepherd who lays down His life for us, his flock. From what does our Lord save us? Jesus speaks of the wolf that is the devil, sin and death. In the face of this wolf all people are as helpless as bleating sheep. For a while we safely graze when we’re not aware of any threat. But when the wolf, that is, the devil or our alarm at our own sin that condemns us to death approaches, what can we do? We may try to run away, following the sheep in front of us, none of us knowing exactly where we are going. Or we scatter as the Scripture says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Is 53:6a). But no matter which way or how far or fast we flee the threat is still there. This is the clear doctrine that condemns all our own works or self-reliance as being totally helpless to save ourselves. There is only one way of salvation and that is by the elimination of the threat, the wolf, the devil, sin and death.

Therefore the prophet Isaiah finishes his analogy, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned—every one—to his own way,” but now “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6b). Of whom is the prophet speaking? The Suffering Servant, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. In the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary the devil may have thought for a moment that he had won the day, killing the Lord of Life. But no. The surprise for us is, though the wolf was involved, according to the prophet, it was our own iniquity, our own sin that actually killed Him! As we heard St. Peter preaching today to the rulers and elders and scribes and priests, preaching “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified.” When Jesus says He lays down His life for the sheep, He means that His suffering and death, his battle with the old evil foe was not for Himself, but for those who cannot save themselves, for us. We are the cause of His death. He is the cause of our life. Then, the devil discovered that he had been totally disarmed in the process as Jesus rises from death, the victor over our wolf, that is, sin, death and the devil!

Some say, and have made quite a nice living and gathered quite a following, preaching faith as being nothing more than positive thinking. And isn’t that how most people use the word or talk about faith? “Have faith. Everything will work out,” never asking, “faith in what?”

I remember loving Walt Disney’s film Pinocchio (which, by the way, was produced nine years before I was born!). There this secular definition of faith as being some sort of nebulous positive thinking was sung into our heads and memories in the song sung by Jiminy Cricket:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

Do you know the rest of the poem?

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do.

Notice that faith is like a dream and that the request is being made not of God but of a star! And here the choral interlude makes the claim that faith is really nothing more than fate after all:

Fate is kind [they say]
She brings to those she loves
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing.

Beautiful words but totally misleading.

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.[1]

Of course there were a few stars of wonder in the Bible, the only ones made meaningful because they had God’s Word and promise behind them. The first was the promise to Abraham that as is the number of the stars “so shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5) of whom the Messiah would be born into the world. The second star that comes to mind is the Star of Bethlehem that led the Magi to the infant Savior. These are the only stars of faith because they have God’s Word behind them and they point you to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Then these words today teach us also of love. For what was it that moved God to take on Himself our flesh and come to be our Shepherd? Certainly this love has a softer side: the manger of Bethlehem, the choir of angels, then the familiar, calming voice of the Shepherd to His sheep. But the measure of the powerful love of God is, rather, in the blood of the Lamb sacrificed for us. It is this blood that not only was shed as the price of our redemption, that is, for the salvation of the whole world, but that is always and forever also to touch our lips and fill us with life.

So St. John says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers,” for one another. Surely our laying down our lives is not a sacrifice of saving merit for anyone, but is a witness of service to others drawing them to the love of God. That laying down of our lives can be as simple as, “truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:41); or, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

But this day, these days, this year, let us also give praise to God for all the holy martyrs, beginning with the infant boys of Bethlehem, then John the Baptist, then St. Stephen, then the apostles and all those who have died for the faith since then throughout the history of the world. But let us also include in the pages of the book of life also those today whom, though we do not know them, they are to us as the closest family members, the martyrs: the Coptic Christians in Libya, those beheaded, burned alive or executed by gun fire, whose blood has called out to the world over as their undying confession of Christ, the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us, for the life of the world.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd is the King of Love. I belong to Him because I am Jesus’ little lamb.

[1] Written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio.